Jamil Maidan Flores
When a friend of mine heard of the death of Kim Jong-il, North Korea’s “Dear Leader,” he surfed the Internet for the reaction of nations and leaders all over the world.
He gathered that there was a great deal of analysis and speculation about North Korea imploding, a bloody struggle for succession and destabilization in the Asia-Pacific. There was fear of the worst and hope for the best. And, yes, even triumphalism among some individuals.
At the time, only one country had sent a message of condolence to the North Korean people: Indonesia. That, of course, tells us something about relations between North Korea and this country. Although there isn’t much mutuality of national interests involved in the relationship, there is a great deal of personal friendship at the highest level.
North Korea’s first post-World War II strongman, Kim Il Sung, and President Sukarno were as close to each other as two pillars of the Non-Aligned Movement could be. So close that Sukarno named after his North Korean pal the lovely purple orchid Kimilsungia, once the reigning beauty of the Bogor Botanical Gardens.
During the elder Kim’s visit to Indonesia in the 1960s, Kim Jong-il and former President Megawati Sukarnoputri got to know each other as children. They renewed their friendship during Megawati’s visit to North Korea in 2003.
The following year, Indonesia hosted the reunion between Charles Harold Jenkins, an American soldier who had defected to North Korea, and his two children by a Japanese woman who long ago had been abducted in a North Korean intelligence operation. There’s no way to tell that story in detail here. Let’s just say that the family, separated by the vagaries of international politics, was reunited by an Indonesian diplomatic coup.
In 2000, with the help of Indonesia, North Korea began participating in the Asean Regional Forum. North Korea’s mere presence in the ARF is regarded a contribution to regional stability. Think of this: the Six-Party Talks on the nuclear issue on the Korean peninsula had been in suspended animation for years. In recent months, North Korea had torpedoed a South Korean marine vessel. Then the two sides exchanged artillery fire. Neither side would so much as greet the other good morning. But at the Bali meeting of the ARF last July, Indonesia got the two Koreas into a bilateral dialogue at the technical level and an “informal informal” meeting at the ministerial level. This was, of course, mainly due to Indonesia’s neat stage management. But undying memories of the friendship between Kim Il Sung and Sukarno helped.
The two had a common friend, the eccentric ruler of Cambodia in the 1960s, Norodom Sihanouk. Sukarno introduced Kim to Sihanouk during the first Non-Aligned Summit in Belgrade in 1961.
When the Cambodian military led by Lon Nol deposed him in 1970, Sihanouk spent much of his time in exile in North Korea where he was treated like the king he once was, complete with a palatial home and elite bodyguards. Nothing was too good for Kim Il Sung’s friend. When Sihanouk returned to Cambodia and reigned as constitutional king in 1993, the only people he trusted to protect his person were 24 North Korean bodyguards.
Since then, President Kim Il Sung has died and King Norodom Sihanouk has abdicated in favor of his son, Sihamouni. Relations between Cambodia and North Korea are now in need of supplements. Cambodia will need to boost these relations when it presides over the ARF next year.
The point is that in the relations between and among nations, genuine human friendships count. Look at Cambodia today and Thailand: the chances that the border dispute between the two will be settled without another artillery round being fired has multiplied 10 times. Why? Simply because the government in Bangkok is now run by a lady in white whose brother happens to be the best friend of Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen.
The formula works conversely too. Israel and France work more effectively together if President Nicolas Sarkozy does not call his Israeli counterpart a liar. And who knows — Saddam Hussein might still be alive if George W. of the United States did not hate his guts for trying to kill George H.
Now Kim Jong-il is dead. Nations all over see a geopolitical event. Thankfully, at least there is one that sees it as the demise of someone’s friend. Sure, the tears shed for him will never wash away the taint of his evils. But let them who loved him mourn his passing. It’s all right.
Jamil Maidan Flores is a poet, fiction writer, playwright and essayist who has worked as a speechwriter for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs since 1992.