Monday, December 19, 2011

Death of a Despotic Dictator - Kim Jong-il Dead at 69

North Koreans have not experienced anything other than a dynastic dictatorship since before the Korean War. The cult of personality that surrounds the Kim family is all-pervasive and thorough coopts and corrupts the worldview of North Koreans.

So, when Kim Jong Il died yesterday, supposedly of a heart attack while on a train carrying out inspections of the country a couple of days ago (but publicly acknowledged today), the North Korean media goes through the ritualized process of openly weeping for the dead dictator and praying for his successor, his son Kim Jong-un.

The outpouring of grief around North Korea is highly stylized and is an outgrowth of the cult of personality, but it's also a way of showing loyalty to the regime; if someone doesn't show sufficient amount of grief in these public displays, they may wonder whether someone will snitch on them or the North Korean security apparatus will deal with them. These displays are not necessarily genuine.
The North had kept news of the death of its leader secret for roughly two days, perhaps a sign that the leadership was struggling to position itself for what many believe could be a particularly perilous transition.

A few hours after the announcement, the ruling Workers’ Party and other state institutions released a joint statement suggesting Mr. Kim’s chosen successor, his youngest son, Kim Jong-un, was in charge.

The statement called the son "the great successor to the revolution" and "the eminent leader of the military and the people." It was the first time North Korea referred to the son as "leader" since his ailing father pulled him out of obscurity in September last year and made him a four-star general and vice chairman of the Central Military Commission of the Workers’ Party.

The Workers’ Party said that “Under the leadership of our comrade Kim Jong-un, we have to turn sadness into strength and courage, and overcome today’s difficulties.”

K.C.N.A., the official news agency, said North Korean soldiers and citizens were swearing allegiance to Kim Jong-un. People on the streets of Pyongyang broke into tears as they learned of Mr. Kim’s death, The Associated Press reported from Pyongyang.

Kim Jong-un is believed to be in his late 20s and his youth and relative inexperience could make him vulnerable to power struggles; some analysts have questioned the depth of the military’s support for him.

Kim Jong-il’s death came after a long illness, dating to 2008, that American intelligence agencies believed involved some form of a stroke. The North has indicated he was 69 years old, but scholars have said he could have been a year older.
Jong Il's death throws negotiations about North Korea's nuclear program into limbo. North Koreans and the West were negotiating food shipments as well, since North Korea can't produce anywhere near the amount of food necessary to support itself. The regime focuses its efforts on its military infrastructure and uses military weapons and technology sales to maintain its power, at the expense of the people who are in dire straits.

South Korean's military was put on high alert considering the possibility of the North Korean military using this as an opportunity to assert itself as well as the possibility that North Koreans may attempt to flee the country en masse.

Jong-il's greatest achievement was not self-sufficiency of food production, but the ability to detonate two crude nuclear devices in underground tests in 2009. While one is considered a fizzle, the two tests taken together show that the North Koreans have demonstrated nuclear weapons capabilities and that has led to further international sanctions and isolated the regime.

While some analysts are wondering whether Jong-il was a master manipulator or a madmad, the answer is that he was both. One can be a manipulator and a madmad at the same time. The one guiding principle for the regime is that maintaining power was critical and absolute. There was no tolerance of dissent and everyone in the country had to claim fealty to Jong-il. Dissenters were treated harshly - disappearing into the North Korean gulag archipelago of labor camps and prisons. North Koreans also get a wildly distorted worldview as the regime tightly controls all media access, limiting telecommunications and Internet connectivity.

So what do we know about Jong-un? That's the trillion dollar question, and the answer isn't much:
Before his death, Kim Jong Il had been grooming his third and youngest son as his successor. Kim Jong Eun studied for a time in Switzerland at a German-speaking high school in Liebefeld, a suburb of the Swiss capital, Bern. Former classmates remember a shy but determined boy obsessed with American basketball and expensive sports shoes. They say he spoke passable German and made some local friends but was monitored closely by staff members s from the North Korean Embassy in Bern.

He vanished in the middle of the school year in 2000, apparently to return to Pyongyang, and had not been seen in public since until he emerged at his father’s heir apparent last year. A campaign of hagiographic propaganda hailed him as the “Dear Young General,” but it is unclear how much support he has within the armed forces or the ruling party, both of which are dominated by far older men. His mother, a former dancer, died in 2004.

A classic satire of Kim, courtesy of Team America's madcap duo, Matt Stone and Trey Parker:

For anyone wondering just how bad things are in North Korea, look no further than the satellite imagery showing the utter lack of any nighttime activity in North Korea. There's only a modicum of lighting around the North Korean capital of Pyongyang, but not much else.

That's compared to the ribbons of light around Seoul and throughout much of South Korea, Japan, Thailand, and China, where cities are joined together by highways and towns at regular intervals.

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