As a classical liberal, I’ve long had a morbid fascination with the world’s least liberal country.
It is hard to think of any good historical parallel for North Korea. Not even under Stalin was the cult of the personality taken to the extremes it has been under the Kims.
Despite being officially atheist, North Korea has elevated its leaders, Kim Il Sung and his son Kim Jong Il, to the status of demi-gods. Kim Jong Il’s official biography records that his birth was marked by the spontaneous appearance of a double rainbow, and the sudden end of winter and outbreak of spring across the country. Kim Jong Il also, we are told, scored a 38 under par on his first ever game of golf, and penned six operas in two years, each of which was better than any other opera written in the world. Ever. It’s a backstory to put David Shearer’s to shame.
The problem with demi-gods is that they die. Even when they’re immortal, like Kim Il Sung. Although, to be fair I think he only became immortal post mortem, oddly enough.
And so it comes to pass that the Dear Leader, who is a perfect incarnation of the appearance that a leader should have, the Party Centre, the Wise Leader, the Commander-in-Chief, the Unique Leader, the Father of the People, the Sun of the Communist Future, the Shining Star of Paektu Mountain, the Guiding Sun Ray, the Leader of the Revolutionary Armed Forces, the Symbol of the Fatherland’s Unification, the Fate of the Nation, the Beloved Father the Leader of the Party the Country and the Army, the Great General, the Beloved and Respected General, the Ever-Victorious and Iron-Willed Commander, the Sun of Socialism, the Sun of the Nation, the Great Sun of Life, the Great Sun of the Nation, the Father of the Nation, the World Leader of The 21st Century, the Brilliant Leader, the Peerless Leader, the Great Sun of the 21st Century, the Amazing Politician, the Great Man Who Descended From Heaven, the Supreme Leader of the Nation, the Bright Sun of Juche, the Leader of the Party and the People, the Great Marshal, the Glorious General Who Descended From Heaven, the Invincible and Ever-Triumphant General, the Beloved and Respected Father, the Guiding Star of the 21st Century, the Great Man Who Is a Man of Deeds, the Great Defender, the Saviour, the Mastermind of the Revolution, the Highest Incarnation of the Revolutionary Comradely Love, the Central Brain, His Excellency Kim Jong Il has popped his clogs.
With his passing begins only the second hereditary transfer of power in communist history. The first was in 1994 when Kim Il Sung died and handed power to Kim Jong Il. This time, however, power is being passed to the twenty-something year old Kim Jong Un, whose grooming for the position began only two years ago. This has left him with much less time to consolidate his power base than he or his father would have wished – by contrast Kim Jong Il had around 20 years of preparation for the top job.
The key questions posed by Kim Jong Il’s death are whether his son will be able to secure the loyalty of the hierarchy, and how will he go about doing it. The ‘how’ perhaps has the most immediate relevance to the rest of the world, because, should he feel threatened, there’s a real risk that Kim Jong Un will decide he needs to prove his mettle with some form of military action, presumably directed against South Korea. Already South Korean officials are backing away from plans to provocatively place Christmas trees near the border with the North. But the ‘whether’ is more important in the long-run. If Kim Jong Un cannot secure his position, the jockeying for position will likely undermine the stability of the regime rather more gravely.
If the new Kim can, with the support of his aunt and uncle, maintain his grip on power, many have begun speculating whether there is any chance of reform now that the elder Kim has left the scene. I doubt it, personally. I suspect that the machinery of power in North Korea relies too heavily on state patronage to allow the decentralisation of wealth creation without risking a fundamental shift in power structures. I believe this is why Kim Jong Il pulled back from the economic reforms with which he did experiment. It’s far more convenient to rely on foreign aid which can be distributed as a form of patronage.
If the Young General can’t stay the course, then things could become very hairy indeed. And he will definitely have some significant challenges to overcome. The Economist reported last year that many members of crowds in Pyongyang had conspicuously failed to join in the cheering of the Dear Leader and his recently-annointed heir. And among the wailing crowds in Pyongyang who have made it onto youtube, I’m sure I see a number of people who don’t really seem to be getting into the spirit of things. This isn’t entirely surprising given the proliferation of DVDs from South Korea demonstrating graphically the vast gulf between living standards in the two countries. If the relatively pampered denizens of the capital now have their doubts, the rural poor who have borne the brunt of the regime’s economic mis-management must too occasionally question whether the military regime really have the ability or inclination to run the country for the benefit of the people. Kim Jong Un will have his work cut out to win the confidence of the military and the party, let alone the people.
It is confidence, in fact, that goes to the heart of the matter. Even without being disloyal, if individual members of the various hierarchies that keep the regime afloat lack confidence that Kim Jong Un will be able to retain his grip on power, then they may start taking actions to hedge their futures against some form of change. Those actions collectively could begin to undermine the regime. Some sign that the state apparatus may not yet be fully united behind the Great Successor is seen in the head of the Korean Friendship Association, Alejandro Cao de Benos, apparently denying that Kim Jong Un was about to take over from his father. Although not a North Korean, de Benos has better links to elements of the regime than any other foreigner, save for senior Chinese officials. It may be that those parts of the North Korean establishment with whom the KFA interact belong within the sphere of influence of someone other than the Great Successor. Or it could be that Alejandro doesn’t know what he’s talking about, which is a possibility that cannot lightly be ignored.
I think the most likely outcome is a relatively orderly transition and that Kim Jong Un will be secure at least in his titular position for at least the next few years. But it will be hard to know who is really making the decisions, and the long-term prospects for stability in North Korea have, in my view, declined significantly given the lack of time allotted to the grooming of Kim Jong Un. Unfortunately, I do not see any corresponding increase in prospects for significant improvement in the lot of the average North Korean without a very painful transition process.
One of the worst things about tyrants is that as much as one might hate them, sometimes one is forced to acknowledge that the world is not automatically better for their passing. Change must eventually come to North Korea, but I do not imagine it will be as orderly as was the re-unification of Germany.