Review by William Maurer
The Last Day’s of Kim Jong-il: The North Korean Threat in a Changing Era by Bruce Bechtol, Jr., Potomac Books, Inc., 2013, ISBN-13: 978-1612346113, 224 pp., $20.34 (Amazon), $16.17 (Kindle).
For all the attention it gets in the news media, North Korea remains one of the most opaque of countries. The closed nature of the society and the highly controlled itineraries of those outsiders who do manage to visit result in a lot of “impressions” of the country, but few definitive accounts of what is really going on and what the country’s leadership really thinks. There are many verifiable, disparate “facts” or “events” that we can document, but even now it proves difficult to weave these individual “facts” into a convincing narrative that is devoid of speculation and educated guesses. In some ways it reminds one of the blind wise men trying to identify an elephant by touch: Depending on the part of the anatomy at hand, the analysis can be quite different. In the face of the puzzle that is North Korea, all one can do is read whatever is available, sort through the contradictions, the differing opinions and analyses, and come up with one’s own informed guess as to what it all means and what North Korea’s real intentions are.
Fortunately, there are those in the media and academic worlds who have risen to the challenge of trying to understand what North Korea is about, and, through their efforts, our understanding of the country is incrementally improving. In that regard Bruce Bechtol, Jr.’s The Last Days of Kim Jong-il is a welcome addition. He is to be commended for a very detailed review of North Korean provocations over the past few years and for offering his views on what should be done.
Despite this book’s title, however, there is one thing that it is not: It is not a biography of Kim Jong-il which may disappoint those seeking insight into the late leader’s reclusive life. For those looking to learn something about Kim Jong-il, the book provides rather thin gruel. Whole chapters go by with virtually no mentions of the “Dear Leader” and, when he does come up, it is often just to use his name as a substitute for the North Korean regime in describing a policy or event. In that sense, it is really about the Kim Jong-il “era”, rather than the man himself. Those wanting to learn what may have made Kim Jong-il tick would be better served by getting a hold of Michael Breen’s Kim Jong-il: North Korea’s Dear Leader or Bradley Martin’s Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader: Korea and the Kim Dynasty. Although those two volumes were written well before Kim Jong-il’s demise, they both offer a plethora of detail of the Dear Leader’s ascent to power and his character.
That observation aside, Bechtol’s book is a useful addition to our understanding of North Korea today. He makes the point that, for however much North Korean actions may seem irrational to those on the outside, from a North Korean perspective, where the two driving principles are regime survival and the domination and unification of Korea on Pyongyang’s terms, the country’s belligerent posture makes perfect sense.
Given the author’s strong military background, it is not surprising that one of the book’s major strengths is its analysis of two of the most recent egregious examples of North Korea’s belligerent behavior: He devotes a full chapter to the sinking of the Republic of Korea corvette Cheonan and the shelling of Yeonpyon Island, two unprovoked attacks that resulted in deaths and casualties of many South Koreans. By meticulously laying out timelines and sifting through the evidence uncovered in the post attack investigations, Bechtol eliminates any doubt that these attacks were anything but North Korean planned attacks, despite some attempts by North Korean apologists in South Korea to question that conclusion.
Another particularly strong chapter is devoted to North Korea’s support for terrorism internationally. Bechtol makes a compelling case that while the nuclear tests and threats get the headlines, we should pay closer attention to the fact that North Korea has been consistently supporting terrorism is all forms for the past 50 years. During the Cold War Pyongyang often acted as a surrogate for the Soviet Union in supporting insurgencies in Africa, the Middle East and elsewhere. North Korea, of course, was well rewarded for this activity and received massive amounts of aid from Moscow. When that aid dried up in the 1990s, Pyongyang continued to supply weapons and other equipment to any and all comers who could provide cash on the barrelhead. A list of customers reads like a rogues’ gallery of the past twenty years: The Tamil Tigers of Sri Lanka, Hamas, Qaddafi’s Libya, etc. It is this willingness to provide lethal assistance to virtually anyone with money that makes the prospect of a nuclear-armed and potentially proliferating North Korea so frightening.
Other chapters in the book are devoted to the capabilities of the North Korean military and the South’s capability to stand against it, how a possible North Korean nuclear attack might be countered, a discussion of post-attack scenarios, and the impact of the last years of the Kim Jong-il regime on the future of North Korea.
For all of its strengths, this is probably not the best book for someone looking for an overview of North Korea. At 146 pages of text, with an additional 68 pages of notes and a bibliography, it is short. The focus is on the North Korean military, its capabilities to fight (and win) in asymmetrical warfare, and its use of its military resources to maintain power and stave off enemies. There is little discussion of famine, human rights, the impact of the breakdown of the state-run economy on daily life, and the influence that increased contact with the outside world is having on the population. For those with an interest in military affairs on the Korean peninsula, however, this book is a useful and timely addition to the literature.