As you can see from the widespread attention that his death is getting from the media, Kim Jong Il was no tin pot dictator. His life and his death affected millions outside the country that he ruled, at least officially, for the past twenty years.
The big question that’s on everyone’s minds today is the big “what next?” To be frank, there’s really no way to tell. Kim Jong Un is an unknown quantity (supposedly the most we know about him is that he was partly educated in Switzerland, speaks passable German, and enjoys basketball) and there’s no way of telling who will come out of the emerging power struggle that will inevitably happen. Everyone’s favourite bet seems to be the Bowibu-related Jang Sung Taek; but in North Korea, all bets are really off.
As Victor Cha mentioned on CNN, no one really knows what’s going to happen in the DPRK. Your guess is as good as mine. But here are some tidbits that may give us some clues:
First, and most telling to me, Kim Jong Un was named a “great successor” almost immediately upon the announcement of Kim Jong Il’s death. You may remember in 1994 when Kim Il Sung died that Kim Jong Il was not named the immediate successor until well into his rule. Some say that this was because Kim Jong Il needed to consolidate his backers before going public with an announcement. After all, it took Kim Il Sung quite a bit of time to get people to buy into a dynastic succession.
But if Kim Jong Il needed all that time to make sure that he was on firm ground before he officially took over the reins, does this mean that this twenty-something son of his has done something which his grandfather and father could not have? No, of course not. Like many others have noted, I’d agree that this demonstrates that Kim Jong Un is really not in charge. There are people behind the scenes pulling the strings. And the people pulling the strings may need to use Kim Jong Un as their kkok-du-gakshi (“puppet”) for some time to lend at least a bit of legitimacy to this proverbial pulling of the strings, but sooner or later they may want to jettison him.
The fact that Pyongyang wanted to reassure the world that a head honcho is there to take the reins may be a sign that things are also much different than they were in 1994. Why are the North Koreans so adamant that things are under control – especially in contrast to the events that unfolded after 1994? With this, I can’t but help be reminded of the “Keep Calm and Carry On” memorabilia that is popular with hipsters these days.
In the interim, one can’t help but think that North Korea is going to be run by committee. There are far too many interests within the country to be represented, and Kim Jong Un is far too weak (and probably inexperienced) to juggle this effectively. The military will certainly be represented, as well as the intelligence organs. With the Six Party talks and humanitarian aid two pressing items on the DPRK foreign policy agenda, the “Foreign Ministry” will continue to be represented as well. Whether the Workers’ Party, which lost much of its status in the past, will regain a seat at the table is of note – one would think that throwing party apparatchiks into the mix could have the effect of moderating any future decisions that will be made.
The question then is whether Pyongyang can get out of this period with the same success as post-Mao China, and move away from the Kim personality cult, or whether a Cultural Revolution-type retrenchment will occur that throws the country further away from liberalization. Unfortunately, it seems that either possibility is quite distinct.
As for remembering the dead? As much as the death of any human life should be a sad event, I cannot say that I will shed a tear at his passing. Some may say that he really wanted to open up the DPRK, but that due to the fact that much of his power came from a bargain with the more conservative minded military, that his true wish of a China-style reform was ultimately unsuccessful. Others may say that Kim Jong Il, or even the idea of a Kim Jong Il, served as a linchpin of stability within the DPRK. Removing that linchpin, some may argue, may be akin to removing a foundational point of the Pyongyang edifice, bringing it all down into chaos and he served his purpose in keeping peace and stability in the region.
Yet the Kim Jong Il I will forever remember will be a man who was responsible for continuing a system of penal colonies that punished hundreds of thousands of innocents in what can only be charitably called concentration camps. I will remember a man who was responsible for allowing a famine to kill hundreds of thousands, perhaps even millions of his fellow countrymen. (And yes, I use the word “allow” purposefully.) And I will remember that we, and I mean humanity as a collective, failed to bring him accountable for the crimes that he committed.
That will be the memory. The hope is that this memory will simply be that, a memory. That this memory will be eventually replaced by a happier reality of a North Korea where people do not fear extrajudicial punishment, where they do not fear punishment if they leave the country, where they do not fear hunger or any deprivation of basic human needs.
Yes, hope. That all these terrible things of the past will simply be memories of an era long forgotten.