June 20, 2021

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Reflections on missed opportunities of Kim Il Sung’s death

Dr. Mark Barry, who met Kim Il Sung weeks before his death, reflects on missed opportunities following his death

Twenty years ago, on July 8, 1994, Kim Il Sung suddenly died – 17 days before what would have been the first inter-Korean summit. The weeks leading up to Kim’s death – even his funeral itself – were rare moments of opportunity missed by South Korea and the United States. Over two decades, he was first succeeded by his son, Kim Jong Il, until his death in December 2011, and then by his grandson, Kim Jong Un. However one assesses Kim Jong Un, present DPRK regime dynamics and the North’s intentions toward the South, the lost opportunities of a generation ago could once again present themselves. The junior Kim could find himself in a position to effect dramatic shifts in the trajectory of the North’s strategic policies, much as was the opportunity of his grandfather upon whose legacy he stands.

As I wrote for NK News in 2012, I met Kim Il Sung in his final weeks as part of a delegation of former heads of state and government led by a Washington-based NGO, the Summit Council for World Peace.* In April 1994, he appeared in reasonably good health for a man of 82. However, I later learned the North Korean leader suffered from heart disease** and that he knew he may not have much longer to live. By this point, most of Kim’s power had been assumed by his son, who evidently had complete control over domestic policy, but the father made the key decisions on the DPRK’s relations with South Korea, China, Russia, Japan, and the U.S., which were critical for its foreign policy.