Monday, December 19, 2011

Kim Jong Il Dead at 69

The death of North Korean Dear Leader Kim Jong Il was announced by the hermit nation. As is common with Korean people, there were powerful displays of grief by the citizens of the North. Many will dismiss the last statement due to the fact that the north's propaganda machine and security apparatus both created their emotional state and made them fearful of refraining from showing grief and that is certainly true. These can, however, not be taken by themselves. The Korean culture is prone to tremendous displays of very loud, wailing-type expressions of grief that have a rapid onset and are of significant duration. To a Westerner it can be surprising and uncomfortable as a Korean, seemingly out-of the blue, bursts out wailing, moaning, and loudly crying out without attempting to apply any restraint to which a Westerner is accustomed. For those who have not witnessed video footage of long-separated Korean families from opposite sides of the border when they are allowed to visit each other, I offer my own observations. I am related by marriage to a Korean family and have witnessed this not only among my in-laws but also with other acquaintances.

The citizens of the north have spent their entire lives, indeed the older parents/grandparents have spent most of theirs, under the regime established by Jong Il's father, Kim Il Sung. The society is a propaganda machine the likes of which was never seen in Stalin's Russia. Patriotic and anti-US/South Korea messages bombard the people on a constant basis. Prison camps of horrific brutality and deprivation are maintained as a source of slave labor and an example to anyone who steps out of line or tries to leave. People are actually born into the camps as the state punishes the generation before (parents) and the next generation (children) for offenses considered to be major threats to the state, such as defecting.

Kim Jong-Il was the product of his father, Kim Il-Sung's totalitarian state and its personality cult.  Aside from being groomed for the top spot and taking over after his father's death in 1994, Jong-Il has done little to change the system that is the baby and brainchild of his father.

Kim Il-Sung spent almost his entire adult life, from age 17 to his ascension to North Korean leadership, in the career of a revolutionary. A number of cross China-Korea border attacks were conducted as he led a guerrilla band against the occupying Japanese. Of note is the fact that the vast majority of his pre-presidential adult life was spent in China with that nation's communists and later in the Soviet Union. Kim gained experience from both quarters; scheming and intrigue mostly from the Chinese, brutal purges and personality cult-use from Stalin. He also courted both the USSR and China at different periods. Later on he was largely but briefly pushed aside when the Chinese entered the Korean War to stop his state from experiencing complete defeat at the hands of the US-led UN force early in the conflict. He took the name Kim-Il-Sung from a deceased Korean revolutionary who was his uncle. This too may very well have been out of Stalin's book as the name means "Become the Sun". After being driven off by Japanese counterattacks, he left for the USSR in 1941 or 1942. Here he trained and became familiar with the Soviet model, including the purges, labor camps, and nonstop propaganda for the communist party and the 'man of steel", Uncle Joe himself. He may have served with the Korean-staffed Red Army units that participated in the battle of Stalingrad.

Prior to the practically unopposed arrival of the Soviet army into Korea, Kim was handpicked by Soviet authorities as the new leader. This was not without opposition by Korean leaders, who refused to believe the long and inflated list of his exploits that was being submitted by the occupying Soviets. The opposition was soon brushed aside, and Kim proceeded to create his Marxist-nationalist-personal state mix.

Again, little has changed since that time. Jong-Il experienced some resistance to his power, including a reported attempt at the creation of an autonomous zone by an army general that may have been a marital relation of Kim. It is believed that his son and successor Kim Jong Un will be supported by a sort of regency of his Uncle Jang Song Thaek until he is ready to assume his role in a grandfather-to son to-grandson succession of power.

This of course has many wondering if the South will be able to proceed with a possible merger with the north if the complete economic collapse of that country happens earlier than expected. It is believed that the South Korean government would have preferred that it could complete the merger in small, digestible doses as opposed to all at the same time, as occurred with East Germany.

During much of the period from the Korean War to roughly the 1980’s, the fear as that the north would takes steps to forcefully unify with the south as they had a strong military advantage. This especially would have been the case if the regime could have made the operation proceed as quickly as possible and therefore avoid a protracted conflict against the superior logistical resources of the south and its American allies. By the 80s the turning point had arrived where the south, buoyed by a strong economy, had developed a quite strong military force of its own and consequently was no longer under the same fear of attack. Today the threat of a significant attack from the north is very low.

One also wonders if there will be any appreciable opposition to Jong Un's power. It would not be surprising if certain army leaders, eager to either ensure their own positions and/or to set themselves up to avoid criminal charges for human rights violations in the event of a nationwide collapse, will seek to assert more independence of the Kim family.
It would not be a complete surprise if some of them will try to reach out to the south in order to present themselves as dissenting and desirous of reform.

China, which of course became the north’s only appreciable supporter after the collapse of the USSR, probably will not be terribly happy with the timing of Jong-Il's passing. They have no desire for a potentially (eventually) greatly-strengthened unified Korean State on their Northeastern border where they once had an independent yet very needful neighbor.* Very few doubt that China looks to create a new Sino-led "Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere" in the future and a unified Korea would be a major impediment to their designs.

I find it highly unlikely that the north will continue indefinitely with the status quo as even they must know that they can not go on much longer without appreciable help and restructuring

One move that the regime may consider is to move closer into the orbit of China and place itself under her wing. That may enable the elite to maintain their positions and prevent a round of Nuremberg-type trials that would probably occur if the state fell to pieces.

It is also possible that either Jong-Un decides to or is pressured by other influential members of the ruling elite to reach out to the south and the US.

The coming year will be interesting.

12/28/11 - *Recent news reports have described Chinese leaders as having previously expressed their acceptance of  a possible ROK (South) Korean - led merger. They did, or course, draw the line at US troops being moved north of the 38th parallel. I can't blame them for that.

No comments:

Post a Comment