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Leader's Passing Adds to Puzzle Of North Korea

US, Japan, and the South, wary of nuclear impasse, watch for signs of new leadership

By Cameron W. BarrStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / July 11, 1994


THE death of Kim Il Sung, for 46 years the Communist dictator of North Korea, came just as he seemed poised to bring his country in from the cold.

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In the past few weeks the aging autocrat, the object of one of the most pervasive personality cults in modern times, appeared ready to end his country's long isolation.

After Kim's meeting with former President Carter last month, there was reason to believe that the international standoff over his country's alleged nuclear-weapons program might be resolved through negotiation instead of confrontation. Kim had agreed to meet his South Korean counterpart President Kim Young Sam on July 25, an event that promised significant progress toward the unification of two countries bitterly divided by the cold war.

But skeptics have always insisted that the North Korean dictator was not to be trusted. They warned that he was just playing for time, and that what seemed like concessions were really gambits designed to fool the West.

Suddenly Kim is gone and the optimism that had begun to take root in Seoul, Tokyo, and Washington has once again turned to uncertainty.

The disappointment is particularly acute in the South Korean capital. President Kim walked out of a luncheon meeting when he was informed of his northern counterpart's death. Analysts here say he had good reason to be upset, since the planned summit seemed to be an opportunity for a diplomatic breakthrough.

Now the question is: what next? The official announcement of Kim's death, released by North Korean authorities on Saturday, indicated that his son and heir-designate, Kim Jong Il, would indeed take over. Yesterday the official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) broadcast words of praise for the younger Kim from senior government and military figures, quelling suspicions that a power struggle might be taking place in the North. Those doubts arose immediately, since the moderate steps the elder Kim took during Mr. Carter's visit were thought to be controversial among hard-line communists.

One observer in Seoul, a former South Korean government official who would not speak for attribution wondered yesterday why Kim Jong Il had not yet been seen in public. ``In our society, in any other society,'' the former official says, ``he would be seen paying tribute to his father. But nothing of this is coming through.'' Adding to the mystery was the northern announcement that the planned funeral service, set for July 17, would be closed to foreign visitors.

Also puzzling, the former official says, was the KCNA's release of a detailed explanation of the cause of Kim's death. Koreans rarely conduct post-mortem examinations, because of a belief in the uncleanliness of the dead. ``That communique, depending on how you look at it, suggests they must have felt a need to explain why they did the autopsy,'' he adds. ``It's a little self-conscious,'' he concludes, as if the North Koreans were trying too hard to convince the world that Kim Il Sung had died a natural death.