The incredible shrinking Kim Jong-il
North Korean leader Kim Jong-il emerged from his reclusive life last week for a rare visit to China looking every bit the part of a man nearing 70 recovering from serious illness. Kim, who was widely suspected of suffering a stroke about two years ago, walked with a slight limp, had a thinning head of hair and shed the trademark paunch that once pressed snugly against his jumpsuits. The most telling pictures of his change can be seen in the posed shots he took with Chinese President Hu Jintao, born just 10 months after Kim in 1942, and looking much younger today. Pictures taken in October 2005 when Hu visited Pyongyang and from earlier this month when Kim was in Beijing show how much the North Korean leader has changed.
The world has few chances to see Kim free from the filter of his state’s official media and the trip to China reminded people just how frail the man known at home as the “Dear Leader” is. He is a man of diminished physical stature whose policy blunders have caused the state’s economy to grow smaller since he took over in 1994 when his father died. His pursuit of nuclear arms and a missile arsenal have driven his state further into isolation. While Soviet satellites crashed down to earth with the end of the Cold War, Kim’s North Korea just plodded along as a historical anomaly, planting even more propaganda banners proclaiming the brilliance of its socialist system.
Kim’s trip raised the typical questions about his state’s dependency on China to supply the goods and aid he needs to keep the North’s economy alive. There was speculation over succession and whether Kim brought along his youngest son Jong-un to introduce to Beijing’s leaders as the heir to the throne his family has held for more than 60 years. Analysts wondered if economic pressures ratcheted up by U.N. sanctions imposed after the North’s nuclear test last year would cause Kim to return to international nuclear disarmament talks where he could win much-needed aid for reducing the security threat his state poses to the region.
But the trip also served as reminder that despite his physical problems, his economic woes and his ever increasing global isolation, Kim is still able to vex the world’s most powerful nations.
His weakness can also be his strength.
China has been willing to bankroll its destitute neighbour in large part because it is deeply concerned by the instability a collapsed North Korea would cause. Kim can justify all economic hardship endured by his people as the price they have to pay to build a military strong enough to hold off an invasion by U.S. forces.
And in the North, experts said Kim’s frumpy clothes and his infirmity are used in the state’s propaganda apparatus to build Kim’s cult of personality by showing as so busy and so tireless that he is willing to sacrifice his own well being for the betterment of his people.