As if the world did not face enough uncertainty at the end of 2011, we received the news on Sunday night that North Korea’s Kim Jong Il died. As is common for the sadly surreal nation, the information came wrapped up in confusing and absurd nondetails, with reports indicating the 69-year-old died of exhaustion on a train.
North Korea, and the newly defunct Kim of the sinister Kim dynasty, have given comedians much to joke about.
And they have sparked a great deal of creativity among intelligence officers with seemingly little hard information to go on. Without substantive knowledge, the West has focused on the trivial and the farcical. We knew about Kim’s elevator shoes, his puffy hairdo, his love of movies and top-shelf liquor.
Underneath the laughable façade stood a cruel, horrible man.
That he died just days after we lost two of the greatest enemies of tyranny, the heroic Czech leader and playwright Vaclav Havel and the brilliant British writer Christopher Hitchens, adds a touch of irony or perhaps poetic justice to his demise. One can only imagine, if Hitchens was wrong and there is an afterlife, what an encounter of these three souls would look like.
For those of us left here, and particularly for the North Korean people, the victims of Kim’s cruelty, the aftermath of his death will first bring a period of compulsory grieving in which will we undoubtedly see them perform histrionic acts of sorrow, pretending they will miss the man they must surely have despised.
Kim succeeded cleverly in his efforts to make his miserable little country stand up to the world’s great powers by building nuclear weapons. But his success served only his own purpose of maintaining a tight grip on a desperate people, while making their living conditions and disconnection from the world one of the greatest travesties of our time.
As he built up his army into one of the world’s largest, and he spent the state’s resources on building atomic weapons (and later sharing the knowledge with other dangerous despots) he allowed millions of North Koreans, about one in every 10 , to die of starvation. The rest were reduced to boiling tree bark to stay alive, while enduring the humiliation of constantly praising the perpetrator of their torment.
But the question now is what comes next.A power struggle in a nuclear-armed country, no matter how buffoonish its leaders, is no laughing matters. On Monday morning, just hours after we heard of Kim’s death, there were reports of missiles fired from North Korea. Despite reports that the firings had nothing to do with the momentous events, it’s perfectly clear the missiles’ message from Pyongyang was: Leave us alone; we’re still dangerous.
In the fall of 2010, Kim anointed another Kim, his third son, then-26-year-old Kim Jong-Un, to succeed him in power. The younger Kim’s greatest attribute is that he looks remarkably like his grandfather, the founder of North Korea, Kim Il-Sung, a man who is even more absurdly venerated in the Hermit Kingdom. He also looks much like a young Mao, which might endear him to the Chinese, his probable protectors.
Kim Jong-Un was educated in the West. That makes some people think there’s a chance he will prove to be a reformer. He is also said to be not particularly bright. A Western education, of course, ensures nothing at all. Our knowledge of him is scant and quite possibly wrong.
And, at any rate, before anyone can reform anything they must first take power. That’s the part that that creates the greatest peril. For South Korea, Japan and China, these will be delicate months ahead.
The people who truly hold power in North Korea right now are the generals. And it’s a good bet there are competing power centers within the military and within the Kim family. We know there are. We don’t know how many or exactly how strong they are.
There is little doubt that a power struggle will ensue, although the intensity of the competition will not be known until we see it unfold, to the extent that we see anything at all. It’s already promising to be an interesting 2012.