Bruce Cumings has some potent quotes on the occasion of Kim Jong-il’s demise. I’m beginning to get sick of the conservative rhetoric depositing around the issue. I’m glad someone else is trashing the “crying” meme – I’m so sick of reading about it.
And then you had people in the streets, of course, crying, sobbing. You never know how much of that was forced and how much of it is voluntary, but it’s really typical of the way the Koreans do their funerals. Hendrick Hamel was a Dutchman who landed on the shores of Korea, shipwrecked in the 1600s, and he wrote a book after he got out of Korea. And he said, when a father dies, the kin of the father run shrieking through the streets, pulling their hair, crying, weeping. Sometimes they do this for days. And North Korea has essentially taken this to a much higher level with apparently the whole nation doing this when the leader dies. So, it was quite an extravaganza, but I think entirely predictable.
I think I’m constitutionally wary of predictions. This one, though, is revealing.
Well, Koreans have only known monarchy or dictatorship. They’ve never had an experience of democracy. They had literally millennia of kings coming and going, so that the kind of intrigue that would, for example, try to tell us whether Kim Jong-il is going to choose his first son, Kim Jong-nam, or his second or his third son, Kim Jong-un, is the kind of thing that went on in Korea for centuries. And you have, exactly as you said, a monarchy imposed, superimposed, on a communist state. But it’s entirely predictable that Kim Jong-un, because of this monarchical background, would be the successor.
I went to North Korea first in August of 1981. And I spoke with—I was trying to get a visa to get out of North Korea into the Soviet Union to take the Trans-Siberian Railway all the way to Moscow. And when I went to the embassy for a visa, a guy roughly my age sat me down, gave me some cognac, and asked me what I was doing in North Korea. And they had just had their 80th Party Congress, where—I’m sorry, Sixth Party Congress in 1980, where Kim Jong-il had been nominated as the clear successor to his father. And I said something like, “Oh, Kim Jong-il, he doesn’t look like his father. He’s rather diminutive. In fact, he’s the spitting image of his mother, and he doesn’t look charismatic.” And this Soviet fellow said, “You know, you Americans are always focusing on personality. They’ve got a huge bureaucratic bloc behind Kim Jong-il coming to power. And you should come back here in the year 2020 and see his son take power.” That was one of the best predictions I’ve ever heard about North Korea. It just so happened that Kim Jong-il died in his late sixties rather in his eighties, so Kim Jong-un is taking power about eight or 10 years before people expected, who know this regime very well.
But that also, in its own way, is not really anything new. Korea’s greatest king, King Sejong of the 15th century, under whose rule the Korean—unique Korean language was invented, he took power at 30. But the last Korean king, Kojong, who was king before the Japanese seized Korea, he was 11 years old when he came to the throne. And his father, known as the Daewongun, was the regent behind him who guided him until he came into his own and became a long—a king that lasted decades. So, I think Jang Sung-taek, the uncle of Kim Jong-un, who, as I said, has been right at the center of security of the regime and especially of the leadership, he and others will guide Kim Jong-un. And I really think, unless this regime somehow disappears, and it certainly hasn’t in the last two decades since the Berlin Wall fell, you’re going to see a lot of Kim Jong-un, and he’s going to be a much better face for the regime than Kim Jong-il was, in part because they’ve doctored him up to look exactly like Kim Il-sung, his grandfather.
Taking the long view on Kim Jong-il’s legacy:
…essentially Kim Jong-il’s only legacy, if you can call that a positive legacy. He turned North Korea into a nuclear state…it’s just a crime that so many people died under his leadership. He also was not a good face for the regime. He had a very cynical, dyspeptic face, the kind perhaps that a spoiled brat like him gets when he’s 40 years old. And so, I think you’re going to look back maybe 10 years from now on Kim Jong-il’s rule as a kind of unfortunate interim.
Betting on North Korea’s collapse?
Well, North Korea is the only leadership so far to go into 2012 with a fairly stable situation. There’s an election in South Korea in December. And the current president can’t run again, because he’s limited to one term. We’re having a presidential election in the United States. There’s one in Russia. And in China, the top leadership, Hu Jintao, is stepping down, and that will change. So North Korea is a curious kind of island of stability in terms of leadership transition in a year that’s going to be extremely important.
And, finally, what’s all this fixating on the Dear Leader and his brood?
Well, in a monarchy, you don’t assume that the king is running everything. The king is the symbol of the regime, the face of the regime. And that’s even more true of Kim Jong-un than his grandfather or father. You have an enormous collection of power in the military and the party that stands behind him, and in that sense, they’re running things, not Kim Jong-un.