In South Korea, that's a somewhat odd question, because most South Koreans think they know the North Korea leader well enough. South Korean media outlets constantly have reports on the size of the Dear Leader's libido or his appetite for luxury goods.
For Sohn, all of this touches only the surface, providing a superficial grasp of Kim that also fails to give hints on some of the most important questions surrounding his country. Is there a possibility of a "Jasmine" revolution in North Korea under Kim? Will Kim ever give up his nuclear weapons, and will he ever consider carrying out Chinese-style "reform and opening-up"?
For starters, Sohn rejects the idea of regarding North Korea as a "state", despite the fact that it is a member of the United Nations. "Today's North Korea is not a 'state', but is more similar to a 'mafia group' run by the boss, Kim Jong-il," writes Sohn, who heads Daily NK, a Seoul-based Internet newspaper specializing in reporting on North Korea. "The Kim Jong-il regime basically sustains its survival by exploiting the labor of the 23 million North Koreans.
Sohn also rejects looking at North Korea's "Songun" or "military-first" drive as a "state policy" but as an "act of military violence" that creates tension on the Korean Peninsula and surrounding East Asia to extort economic aid, all of which is aimed at prolonging the lifespan of the Kim regime.
Basically, Sohn sees the entire population as being held hostage by Kim's regime. "[They] are born as human beings but don't live as human beings but only to live their entire lives for the single person, Kim Jong-il".
Sohn claims: "Only when we correctly know Kim Jong-il, are we able to see through North Korea and have an accurate understanding of the lives of North Koreans ... [O]nly when we know Kim Jong-il, we will know what kind of policy we should take toward North Korea and save North Korean people".
Sohn, a harsh critic of the "Sunshine" policy of South Korea's previous administrations under Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun, describes the engagement policy in a single world - "failure". But he attributes this to "their failure to understand Kim Jong-il".
Sohn's thesis will be seen, at the most, as an "insult" by South Korea's two previous liberal administrations. Each of them held a summit with Kim, in 2000 and 2007, respectively, not to mention frequent meetings with ranking North Korean officials.
Former officials who worked for these administrations often accuse the current Lee Myung-bak administration of failing to understand North Korea. That Unification Minister Hyun In-taek, who is President Lee Myung-bak's frontman for inter-Korean affairs, has never been to North Korea, is regularly raised by his critics.
Putting aside the partisan debate, Sohn's argument comes as a refreshing challenge to the world, to go beyond the easy and common demonization of Kim and re-examine our understanding of the dictator, under whose whim the lives of the 23 million human beings depend. It also resurrects the dead yet fundamental question, "Who is Kim Jong-il?"
For Peter Beck, Council on Foreign Relations-Hitachi research fellow at Keio University in Tokyo, the fact that debate on Kim still often resurfaces among North Korean experts is only natural. "I think Kim Jong-il tries to be many things to many people," he said in an interview. "Kim Jong-il himself makes contradictory statements. For example, he told a visiting South Korean media delegation in 2000 that it would be OK for the US troops to continue to stay in a unified Korea," going against North Korea's long-standing demands for the withdrawal of the US military.
According to Beck, Kim makes surprising statements for the very purpose of surprising people, so that he stays difficult to "pin down".
"Kim Jong-il is a leader who has a very good grip on running matters," said Kim Keun-sik, a professor of North Korean Studies at Kyungnam University in Seoul, who had a personal encounter with Kim Jong-il in 2007 as part of a delegation for an inter-Korean summit. Kim Keun-sik sees the media's wholesale negative portrayal of the Dear Leader as a delusional maniac as too simplistic. "Kim displayed a character which was sharp and rational."
Today, how to persuade North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons remains a key international dilemma. Kim sees North Korea as a country run by one single person, Kim Jong-il, who possess nuclear weapons primarily as a deterrent. "The best way to solve this problem is to put on the table and trade the demands of North Korea and the United States."
Unlike Sohn who argues for dismissing the Kim system as something less than a state, Kim says the US should formally recognize the Kim Jong-il regime, saying that's the best conduit to integrate the country into the international community. "Establishing diplomatic relations will do," said Kim.
Zhao Huji, a political scientist at the Central Party School in Beijing, an elite institution that grooms promising mid-career Communist Party cadres, argues that the world should apply a multi-dimensional approach to Kim Jong-il, looking at him from different analytical frames, for example, on an individual level and also as a political leader. "As a political leader, Kim Jong-il sees everything as a conflict and struggle," he said.
Chang Yong-seok, director of North Korea research at the Institute for Peace Affairs, in Seoul, argues the prevalent idea that sees North Korea as a country run by a single leader Kim Jong-il and the efforts that try to find a solution to the North Korean problem by primarily analyzing Kim Jong-il is flawed.
"All these approaches focusing on Kim Jong-il and seeing him as a 'god' who rules over North Korea, cage us in a box that prevents us from recognizing that there are alternatives," said Chang. "Simply put, North Korea is not a system run by Kim Jong-il. For example, on the nuclear weapons front, even if Kim Jong-il wanted to give up nukes, he may not make such a decision because there are power factions who benefit from the nukes in internal North Korean politics and oppose the idea. Kim has to factor in different constituencies in his decision-making."
For Beck, in Japan, the very presence of debate on Kim Jong-il, which is unresolved, just like different claims on how to best approach the North's nuke problem, is only natural because that's what he wants. Lately, Kim has not shown up in public for over two weeks. "People are again speculating on him, saying 'oh Kim Jong-il must have worried about a Jasmine revolution in his own country'," said Beck. "I think Kim Jong-il likes to have the world make different assumptions about himself, whether it's correct or not. He likes to be a man of mystery."
Beck then offers his ultimate diagnosis Kim Jong-il. "He is crazy like a fox, but is a shrewd leader. He knows how to maintain power."
Source: Asia Times