Is he alive? Is he dead? Has he had a stroke? North Korea watchers are aflutter right now over a report that after a prolonged vanishing act, tyrant Kim Jong Il has popped up in public to watch a university soccer game.
“Report: North Korean leader watches soccer game,” says the Associated Press.
Ahh, but watchers beware. The only apparent source for this tale, the sole source doing the original reporting, is the Korean Central News Agency — which is an entirely state-run mouthpiece of the totally totalitarian North Korean government. As such, the KCNA does not necessarily interest itself in such basic news details as where and when. So, as the story now stands, Kim Jong Il made his soccer-watching public appearance under a fascinating set of conditions — namely, at an undisclosed location, on an undisclosed date. We still don’t know which rumors have been greatly exaggerated — those that he is dead, or alive, or in some awkward condition in between.
That doesn’t seem to deter State Department envoy Chris Hill, who just spent three days in Pyongyang trying to save the rotten and endlessly unraveling nuclear disarmament deal he triumphantly announced almost 20 months ago. Enroute back to Washington to report to Condi Rice, Hill stopped off in Seoul (where according to the New York Times, the intelligence service has so far been unable to verify the North Korean soccer report). In Seoul, while making no mention of Kim Jong Il, Hill told reporters that in Pyongyang he had engaged in “very substantive and very lengthy” talks about “the issue of the verification protocol… ” (that would be the protocol to verify the real extent of North Korea’s nuclear arms programs).
But is Kim alive? Is he dead? Who or what does Hill think he’s actually negotiating with?
Meanwhile, the New York Times has an editorial lamenting that “hardliners” in the Bush administration (who knew there were any left?) are wrecking Hill’s deal by refusing to take North Korea off the terrorism list until Pyongyang accepts a verification plan that would let nuclear inspectors see what they want and go where they choose. The Times opines that this is too much to expect of North Korea, and what’s wanted here is a “reasonable compromise.” So, for a country so shady that outsiders seem unable even to verify a state news agency report that the tyrant attended a public soccer match, the Times is recommending an inspection protocol under which inspectors looking for nuclear projects can’t really inspect?
Here’s a suggestion, simple, clear, and potentially verifiable in one easy step. Call it a one-stop-shop compromise: America could offer to take North Korea off the terrorism list as soon as there is clear confirmation that Kim Jong Il — alive or dead — has left North Korea and will never return.