When I look at pictures of Saddam Hussein, I get the sense he's a ruthless strongman who wouldn't think twice about obliterating Israel, the Saudis, or an American city or two if he thought he could get away with it. By contrast North Korea's Kim Jong Il looks like a paunchy auto mechanic with a really bad haircut. Saddam's designs on his people and his neighbors have a certain kind of rationality. It boils down to self-preservation and raw power. The international community has every reason to worry about this guy.
When you look at Kim, you're far less sure. Since coming out of the shadows of Pyongyang two years ago during the now famous inter-Korean summit -- during which South Korean President Kim Dae Jung made a historic visit to the North -- Kim has feinted left and right, sending out mixed messages. He veers from being somewhat conciliatory to outright hostile.
A TOUGH READ. The euphoria following the meeting of the two Koreas' leaders has given way to broken promises on North-South family reunions, restoring rail links, and so on -- even a bloody military skirmish with South Korean naval forces this summer.
So, Kim's North Korea is a much tougher read. Some leaders in Tokyo and Seoul insist that it can be dealt with via steady diplomatic contacts, economic aid, and the promise of better living standards as the North starts to open up itself gradually to international investment and development aid. And to this crowd, Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi seems to have scored a triumph during his one-day summit in Pyongyang with Kim.
It's undeniable that the meeting yielded some head-turners. Kim publicly apologized for the kidnappings and promised to repatriate the four souls still believed to be living. (The worst was finally confirmed for the families of the other victims.) He also promised to extend the deadline on a self-imposed missile-testing moratorium and to cooperate with international inspectors who want to be reassured North Korea doesn't have any nuclear weapons program under way.
RAISING THE STAKES. The Japanese in return apologized for occupying Korea from 1910 to 1945. And the two leaders talked of a multiyear aid program, in the range of $10 billion, after diplomatic relations are normalized. That process is now getting started. Maybe the so-called Sunshine Policy advocated by South Korean President Kim is a far more productive approach than the confrontational ways of the Americans.
The truth will be known in the fullness of time, but I have my doubts. It well may be that U.S. ranting and raving about global terrorism and weapons proliferation is actually at work here. Since the terrorist attacks in the U.S., the price of being a rogue state in the eyes of the international community has gone up astronomically. That's something that Iraq may learn the hard way in the coming months.
It's also true that regimes, even ones with strained U.S. relations in the past, now can receive some big benefits, economic and diplomatic, from playing ball with the coalition against terror. Just ask Pakistan, China, and Russia. It may be that Kim and his advisers cynically are exploiting the Japanese by making nice in the hope the U.S. keeps its guns trained on Iraq instead of them. If so, advocates of a tough-headed approach to North Korea will be vindicated.
WILL TO SURVIVE. It also may work out that North Korea is serious about reengaging the rest of the world and bettering the lives of its people. I sure hope so. But if that day ever comes, I wonder if it will teach anyone that sometimes the soft touch really does work when trying to convince hostile regimes to shape up.
My guess is that Kim and his advisers -- probably better than Saddam and his crew -- have grasped that the international environment has changed radically. Regimes that have access to powerful weapons technology and are openly hostile to the rest of the world face economic isolation and possibly military intervention.
Kim may not look like the sharpest pol around, but it seems to me that his survival instincts are starting to kick in. Bremner, Tokyo bureau chief for BusinessWeek, offers his views every week in Eye on Japan, only for BusinessWeek Online