Scenes From A Communist King’s Funeral

29 Dec

Kim Jong-il was no ideologue; he was a very selfish ruler. It’s only fitting his funeral would force North Koreans to brave the Korea’s bone-chilling cold and a snowstorm. And, it’s fitting to pause, to ask how foreign governments and North Korea have behaved at this very early stage in Kim Jong-un’s reign.

The National Post offers some very evocative photographs of Kim Jong-il’s funeral and reactions in China and South Korea. (via NP Tumblr)

The cortege started and ended its 40 kilometre (25 mile) journey at the Kumsusan Memorial Palace, where the late strongman’s body had lain in state in a glass coffin.

Preceded by a car bearing a huge portrait of a smiling Kim and other vehicles, a limousine carried Kim’s coffin — draped with a red ruling party flag and surrounded by white flowers — on its roof.

Jong-Un, dressed in black and gloveless despite the cold, held the side of his father’s hearse, accompanied by his influential uncle Jang Song-Thaek and other officials.

Michael Madden at NKLW also has a rundown of the event, including this.

In the meantime, Kim Jong Un has begun to receive public support from two of the DPRK’s elder statesmen. Kim Yong Nam, who is head of the standing committee [presidium] of the country’s unicameral parliamentary body Supreme People’s Assembly [SPA], told a delegation of visiting ROK elected officials that, “”Kim Jong-il had accomplished these feats, and North Koreans are reassured to have Gen. Kim Jong-un. The great successor has an extraordinary appearance that resembles Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il. He is determined to complete Gen. Kim Jong-il’s accomplishments.” The Wednesday edition of Rodong Sinmun carried notices of support from former DPRK Cabinet Premier and South Hamgyo’ng Chief KWP Secretary Kwak Pom Gi and Mar Ri Ul Sol. Mar Ri’s endorsement is particularly interesting because he has a very close relationship with KJI’s eldest son, Kim Jong Nam.

Stephen Haggard discusses the “condolence issue”, how foreign governments have reacted to Kim Jong-il’s demise. I think this is a far more interesting topic than hysterically sobbing North Koreans or even predictions about the odious regime’s future. When speculating about the future, at some point the various array of ideologues and generalists should pause for a fact now and then. These condolences will most likely set the tone for future relations between any North Korean regime and the outside world.

Haggard gives the US and South Korea good marks. I still find South Korea’s decision to allow private messages and delegations outrageous. It just underscores how weak nationalist confidence is in South Korea, beyond rhetoric. Still, even these “middle-of-the-road” measures angered North Korea.

The decision to limit private condolence visits was treated as an insufferable snub by the North (“a barbaric act against humanity”) and played into South Korean politics in predictable ways. One incident captures the full spectrum of views. A South Korean progressive organization, Korea Solidarity (former Korean College Student’s Association, currently identified as an illegal group under the National Security Act) made a public announcement that one of its representatives, Hwang Hye Ro, had entered North Korea by flying from Paris to Beijing and then to Pyongyang in order to express her condolences. At the organization’s press briefing outside the central government complex at Seoul, the group was confronted by the right-wing Korea Parent Federation and police had to keep them apart. The Prosecutor’s Office subsequently announced that Ms. Hwang will be prosecuted under the anachronistic National Security Act.

Another expert gives South Korea failing marks.

hen the South Korean Minister of Unification expressed condolences to North Korea, it distinguished between the people and the leader. The new leader in the North must have understood it as an insult for him, as the North Korean media criticized such behavior. North Korea also made clear that the Lee government’s sincerity for the improvement of inter-Korean relations will be judged by whether it allows South Korean delegations from all circles to go to Pyongyang to express their condolences. All these are elements of potential conflict from both sides, which should be dealt with extremely cautiously lest they spiral up to a real fight between the two Koreas. North Korea could be oversensitive amid power transition, while South Korea too could be so with both a general election and a Presidential election ahead.

Hardliners can take comfort from the Canadians and Japanese.

Japan’s Foreign Minister Koichiro Gemba happened to be in Washington on December 19, and—surprise, surprise—did not miss the opportunity to once again raise the abduction issue. (“Due to the most recent developments, we are seeing an increasing level of interest in and attention to how the process of dealing with the abduction issue develops in Japan…” Sigh) Japanese response stressed coordination on the issue, including a proposal for a trilateral dialogue with China and the US.

Finally, the “come out swinging” model was represented by none other than our Canadian friends. Check out the edgy news coverage of the UN General Assembly moment of silence by the Toronto Sun; Canada among other delegations boycotted the moment (which according to my colleague Marc Noland lasted all of 27 seconds).

PM Stephen Harper:

“Kim Jong-il will be remembered as the leader of a totalitarian regime who violated the basic rights of the North Korean people for nearly two decades. We hope his passing brings positive change allowing the people of North Korea to emerge from six decades of isolation, oppression and misery.”

Do we need to waste emotion lamenting China’s and Russia’s support for the regime? There is this analysis arguing that China really is in a bind about North Korea. But, again, this is my only cause for any hope for North Korea’s future.

What is interesting about the current situation is that, for the first time in more than 50 years, there is in Pyongyang no single, dominant individual at the top to make the final decisions, to resolve different approaches among advisors, to play individuals against each other to keep the system in rough balance. As Rudiger Frank points out, Kim Jong Un apparently did not get to the point in his own political standing to be able to step into such large shoes convincingly, at least not yet. The regency group, presumably, will have to take on those responsibilities Yet in many respects, no one in North Korea born in the past 60 years has much if any experience operating in such a decision making environment. Under Kim Il Sung, there was at least a functioning party Politburo that was consulted on important matters. Such was not Kim Jong Il’s style, however. He did not want to hear consensus decisions—he wanted to hear what a particular leading official thought, and he called people into his office one at a time to grill them. Maybe party elders like SPA President Kim Yong Nam or Premier Choe Yong Rim, both of whom had extensive experience working at top levels during Kim Il Sung’s reign, will be able to go back to functioning in a somewhat more collegial style, but will they have a dominant role in the inner circle around Kim Jong Un?

But, there is Kim Jong-nam (as well as an interesting backgrounder on Ko Yong-hui, the mother of the Great Successor, who was possibly born in Osaka, Japan).

There’s a report now in Japan from two sources, one of whom is a Chongryun official, that a crisis could erupt in North Korea as soon as February. The party and the military are trying to establish Jong-eun’s position, but any unhappiness over the division of spoils could touch off an old-fashioned Joseon dynastic struggle, they say. Battles of this sort between two sons of the king with different mothers are an old story in other parts of the world as well.

These sources suggest that Number One Son Jong-nam (who has gotten fatter since the above picture was taken) is still a factor to be accounted for. The Chongryun source says he is very personable and has maintained ties with people in the party and the military his own age. He goes so far as to say he is even quite popular among this group. The source also notes that he was the heir apparent before he got caught with his proverbial pants down in Japan.

Finally, Jong-nam himself says he urged his father to open the country and adopt reforms, and got exiled for his opinion. There is, say the sources, a reform wing of sorts in North Korea, and it is not out of the question the reformers would unite behind him.

So, cheer up, instability and regime upheaval could yet be ours in 2012!

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