TCS Daily


The Dear Leader and Fear of Flying

By Gordon Cucullu - April 27, 2004 12:00 AM

It's too bad that North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il keeps such a closed society. If he were aware, say, of NFL football, he might realize that Hall of Fame coach and commentator John Madden and he share a common phobia: fear of flying. Unlike Madden, the Dear Leader has not yet refitted a bus into a 'Kim-mobile'. Instead, Kim tends to journey everywhere, including to international conferences, on a special train car. Since most of his meetings outside of North Korea are in China that makes things easier.

In this railroad-bound mode he continues the tradition of his father, the late 'Great Leader' Kim Il Sung. The elder Kim made several trips to Moscow -- almost twelve time zones distant -- along the Trans-Siberian Railway in order to meet with Josef Stalin. In keeping with this tradition, the 'Dear Leader' Kim Jong Il made what Reuters calls a 'secret' trip to Beijing. (Unannounced would be more realistic. If Reuters has it, it can't be too secret.)

Since this trip followed right on the heels of Vice President Dick Cheney's official visit to the region it may be seen as especially significant. Naturally Kim Jong Il is involved up to his eyeballs in the crises in Northeast Asia. Indeed he is the major perpetrator. But was this sufficient to bring him from his dark hole in Pyongyang into the comparative light of the People's Republic? Is he there to deliver a message, one wonders, or to receive one? Or both? Who initiated the meeting, Chinese leader Hu Jingtao or Kim? Knowing the answer to that might help with the other questions.

It is reasonable to surmise -- particularly given the somewhat muted rhetoric of the China News Agency report on the visit -- that the message was Hu to Kim. And that the core point was: cool it. With the American elections only half a year away this is no time to make waves. China could see pros and cons of a Bush reelection. China can see benefits of a Kerry win.

On the other hand a continued Bush administration will pose problems for Kim Jong Il and his brutal dictatorship. He is already feeling the pinch of international sanctions due to Bush's exposure of his nefarious ways: development of nuclear weapons, massive drug smuggling, illegal missile technology export and kidnapping foreign citizens to name but a few.

As a reaction, the North Koreans have aggressively taken sides: they support a Kerry election. The North Korean news media replays John Kerry ads, praising the candidate as desirable to restore harmony to the bilateral relationship. Along with the cheerleading for Kerry the North Koreans have heated up their anti-Bush rhetoric and stepped up their threats recently.

These moves they think will undermine Bush. It may well be that the Dear Leader was told in Beijing to back off of his involvement for the moment. In return China could send a few trainloads of supplies to North Korea.

Which brings us to the new quandary: exactly what happened in that sleepy town near the Chinese border? It might have been pure coincidence that a special train carrying Kim Jong Il passed through the village hours before a massive explosion that leveled the mud-brick houses and turned the rails into spirals. But such coincidences make me suspicious, especially in highly controlled dictatorships like North Korea.

Certainly the possibility exists that this was some sort of internal action designed to eliminate the Dear Leader. Internal because the US CIA has zero assets inside North Korea and South Korea has no interest in destabilizing the North at present. Any home grown plot would have had to come from people capable of re-routing trains or contriving such a massive conflagration.

That would only be high-level army or internal security people disgruntled with Kim Jong Il. Maybe some old timers who resent the youth and erratic policies of the younger Kim. We can watch the balconies at the next May Day parade and search for the empty spots. That would tell a story.

Or the message could have come from China which is capable of pulling off something like this. It might not have even been a serious assassination attempt, but just a warning shot across Kim's bow: toe the line or be vaporized. If this was the message, it made a statement that could not easily be ignored. If the North Korean threat level drops abruptly it might lend credence to this theory.

But maybe I'm being too suspicious. The whole thing could have been just a terrible accident. Merely a case of a trainload of ammonium nitrate crossing with a trainload of liquid propane and being touched off by an unfortunately downed power line. Sure, that sounds reasonable. Happens all the time. If this keeps up Kim Jong Il may have a legitimate fear of rails that he can add to his fear of flying.

Gordon Cucullu's book "Separated at Birth: How North Korea became the Evil Twin" will be published by Lyons in September.


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