Azja-Pacyfik

The Death of Kim Chŏng-il (Kim Jong-il) (added on 2012-01-11)

It was Thucidydes in The History of the Peloponnesian War, followed by Aristotle, who wrote that tyranny is unfair, but the passing of the tyrant is dangerous. General history, on the other hand, states that in totalitarian regimes the worst moment come when the Leader dies. This is due to the fact that until his death he had held all the threads of power firmly in his hands, and by his demise all that is broken.

These observations fit the situation of North Korea, officially called the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) perfectly. There can be no doubts as to the fact that this is one of the most isolated countries in the world, one that can be defined in many ways – a totalitarian regime, Stalinist dictatorship, tyranny or despotism. Sad to say, but it is also possible to see Korea as one large military base (this country, inhabited by slightly more than 22 million people has an army of some 1.2 m soldiers) and even as a huge work camp in which, at the beginning of the second decade of the 21st century, some 6 million people are on the verge of malnourishment or plain starvation and in which during the great famine in the late 1990s approximately 1.5 m people died (the once-famous documentary film Children of the Secret State was a record of those gloomy and mournful events). However, the most accurate definition of the current political regime of the DPRK seems to be clan/dynasty communism. Thanks to this the country has already entered the annals of general history, since it is its own invention.

The founder of the Kim Dynasty – the Eternal President Kim Il-sŏng passed away in 1994 after a long-standing rule (in fact from 1948). His heir, the Beloved Leader Kim Chŏng-il was preparing for the succession for almost 20 years. He did not have a chance to taste the flavor of despotism as long as his father did, as he passed away on December 17, 2011, not living up to the age of 70. It was known for a long time that his health was not in a good shape. But it was only in September 2010 that his successor was designated – the only 27 year-old then Kim Chŏng-un. There were plans to prepare this succession to be exactly the same as the previous one. Several occasions would arise in 2012 – the 100th anniversary of Kim Il-sŏng’s birth on April 12th and the 70th anniversary of Kim Chŏng-il’s birthday (on February 16th – both this date and the place of birth are questionable; he was not born on Baekdu Mountain, as is alleged in the legend created around him, but in the Russian village of Vyatskoye in Siberia). Both these round anniversaries were intended to build the image of the new Most Beloved Comrade – Kim Chŏng-un. The sudden death of the second Leader off the dynasty interrupted these preparations – and makes the whole succession questionable.

The images from the funeral ceremonies on the 28th and 29th December 2011 were shown in the media around the world as an oddity and proved beyond doubt that there is a new kind of theocracy in DPRK . The leader is seen as a god. When he leaves, the old liturgy crumbles. It is not certain that the new, young, less-than-30-year-old Leader is ready to provide the state with a new catechism. That is why the current moment is a turning point in the history of DPRK. And the question is not whether necessary reforms and changes will take place. It is rather the question of the new Leader's ability to remain in power.

In a society that is Confucian, hierarchical and patriarchal by nature, where prestige, achievements and age count, and one that easily merged with hierarchical and autocratic Communism, such a question must be asked. Is the old generation, who does not know the realities beyond the boundaries of their tightly sealed country, going to accept this youngster, who, for some time, was educated in Switzerland and is said to speak foreign languages?

Drawing up possible scenarios in a situation where we only see unknowns, because the regime successfully protects its secrets, is nothing else than building castles in the sky. Only time will tell us how the situation will play itself out. It is certain that the future of the country is going to be determined by probably four circles of power and influence. In a descending order of hierarchy of influence those are:

1. The Kim family, which includes almost 1.500 people (at the funeral ceremonies it was Jang Sŏng-t‘aek, the 65-year-old brother-in-law of the late leader, who rose to No. 2 position and may become the Regent).

2. The Army, the highest ranking leaders of which, let there be no doubt, walked next to the most important members of the Kim family in the funeral conduct. The importance of the army is signified by the fact that the official ideology has been changed years ago and the slogan juche (autarchy and self-sufficiency) has been replaced by songun, which literally means "army at the fore". It is significant that when Kim Jong-un appeared in public for the first time he immediately became a four star general.

3. The Worker's Party of Korea - still important in a party state and de-facto Stalinist communism, but as of late of less significance due to the dominance of the Army.

4. Neighbors and superpowers, starting with China, which guarantee more than 50 percent of North Korea’s trade (South Korea provide another 30 percent). They fear for North Korea's the nuclear potential which, as, according to experts, the country has enough plutonium for some 6 to 10 nuclear bombs to be launched on long-range Taep’odong-2 missiles.

From this jigsaw, as we may assume, the future scenarios for the DPRK, and perhaps for the whole Korean Peninsula, will emerge. Will anything change? Will the country finally choose on the path of reforms? Will Pyongyang turn away from the policy of nuclear blackmail vis-à-vis the outside world? Is unification of the two Korean states possible? Many important questions emerge, while we have no answers. However, at least one thing seems to be already certain now: if the Kim family, the first circle of power, got carried away and engaged in coups, it would therefore lead to its own demise. This regime is non-existent without the Kims; another center of power could emerge, but the regime would be a different one. Everybody knows that, including the Kims. That is why the now noteworthy DPRK will be probably absorbing now and need extra attention in the following months.

Redakcja: azjapacyfik@swps.edu.pl. Wykonanie strony: Stanisław Meyer, stan.meyer@uj.edu.pl.