Kim Jong Il was only the second leader that North Korea ever knew. He ruled in the shadow of his father, Kim Il Sung, the founder of North Korea. The son had none of the charisma of the father, and none of the credentials either. Kim Il Sung fought as a guerrilla against the Japanese colonizers. His battles may not have been particularly impressive – and certainly not as impressive as North Korean propaganda has made out – but he at least could point to a revolutionary record. With no battlefield experience, Kim Jong Il even felt the need to fabricate his birthplace in order to suggest an authentic revolutionary past. Official North Korean history put his place of birth as the legendary Mt. Paektu in the northern part of North Korea, when in fact he’d been born in Russia.
The younger Kim established his reputation as a film director, translating his father’s revolutionary operas into cinematic blockbusters. He always seemed more comfortable behind the camera than in front of it. He rarely made public comments. He stayed close to the military, which backed his rise to power. His first major policy as leader after his father’s death was to observe a three-year mourning period, during which his country descended into famine. He was always a half-hearted proponent of reform, backing some economic changes and then reversing himself (accepting private markets then cracking down on them, banning cell phones then encouraging their use within the elite). His chief interest, other than expanding his own huge film collection or enjoying the good life, was to preserve the power of North Korea’s ruling class. He was, at heart, a deeply conservative figure, more comfortable with the tropes of Korean nationalism than with the slogans of revolutionary communism.
Kim defied expectations in many ways. The North Korean government didn’t collapse after the elder Kim’s death in 1994. Nor did it crumble during the subsequent food crisis. Kim Jong Il managed to maintain alliances with China and Russia, coax South Korea into significant economic investments, bring North Korea into the nuclear club, and keep the United States at arm’s length at a time when other leaders (in Serbia, Iraq, and Libya) suffered regime change at the hands of U.S. forces.
But in the end, Kim Jong Il didn’t fundamentally change North Korea or offer an alternative economic or political system that could rival that of China or South Korea. He will ultimately be remembered as a transitional figure between his ruthless but transformative father and a future that has yet to be determined by his son and successor Kim Jeong Eun.
John Feffer is the co-director of Foreign Policy in Focus at the Institute for Policy Studies, writes its regular World Beat column, and will be publishing a book on Islamophobia with City Lights Press in 2012.