…As the newly late Christopher Hitchens said of the ascension of the also newly late Kim Jong-Il to his father’s premiership in 1994.*
It seems oddly fitting that they died within days of each other.
The death of the most famous modern example of ‘short man complex’, Kim Jong Il, this Saturday instigates another merry-go round of mourning as North Korea prepares for the arrival of more of the same in the shape of his son, Kim Jong Un in much the same way as his father took over power from his grandfather.
The dramatic scenes of public mourning may seem odd to the cynical Western observer who is unlikely to notice one of their leaders passing or only wish to dance on their grave but they are not immune to a cult of personality.
What is it about one person that can inspire such rapturous devotion? Especially in a country like North Korea: regarded as the world’s most dangerous ‘rogue state’ where the capital city, Pyongyang, only has light at night if there are foreign journalists in town and the people regularly starved as the elites indulge their taste for cigars and cognac.
Whether it is carefully orchestrated by one woman turning the media against her husband or a state tricking an entire nation into believing that everything is OK, it is always impossible to tell whether or not people actually believe it. In a country like North Korea it is fairly stupid to be openly dissenting but no-one in this country, not even the Daily Express, can make you truly love Princess Diana without your active collusion.
What made thousands of North Koreans walk miles to the capital’s landmarks to lay flowers and openly weep for their dead leader when he and his cronies are the reason they are cut off from the world? What makes people so angry about the accidental death of woman they’ve probably never met fourteen years ago?
How much is fear and how much is hope? North Korea is described as the only ‘communist monarchy’ in the world and its methods of rule definitely seem more feudal than socialist. In a land where communism has not brought prosperity to the masses the way Marx had hoped, the small few are ride on the coattails of Chinese support will the rest are left to kowtow in the mud.
The world is on tenterhooks waiting to see if Kim Jong Un’s succession will be a smooth one. The Asian stock market dropped on news of his death and the South Korean military has been put on high alert. North and South Korea are technically at war despite officially ending military combat in 1953.
Grandiose plans to honour the 100th birthday of ‘eternal President’ and father of Kim Jong Il, Kim Il Sung, on 12th April 2012 include a 1000 foot Ryugyang Hotel in Pyongyang that will likely remain empty most of the year as few North Koreans will be able to afford to stay there yet undoubtedly it will be met with displays of great excitement and emotion regardless.
So why do these people put up with such badly disguised inequalities? They may be able to disguise Kim Jong Il’s frality; despite reports that he had been suffering ‘rich man’s diseases’ like diabetes and heart disease, the state media claimed his death was due to ‘the physical and mental strain caused by his uninterrupted field guidance tour for the building of a nation’. They may be able to believe that the rest of the world is out to get them; the spectre of American backed South Korean troops on the border would be a constant threat. But they cannot really claim that things are not better on the other side no matter how hard they try.
Therefore the people should see that, as Karl Marx would say, ‘(they) have nothing to lose but their chains’ and regardless of the ramfications, revolt the way the Arab world has been for the past year. The Economist noted what it seemed a less than ethusiastic crowd response to the announcement of Kim Jong Un as the official successor. It suggests that perhaps change and dissent is in the works but this seems overstated. North Korea will accept and come to love and adore their new leader much as they did the old one even if with his Western education he is even more removed from the founding principles of the party.
Because what little alternatives do they have? There are small signs that things are getting better. Now, 200,000 people are signed up to the mobile network since 2009 and even though they are not allowed to call anyone outside North Korea to them it may be seen as a sign of progress.
People only want democracy when they feel it can benefit them. Their track record with the West has never been good; before the Second World War they had Japanese imperialism to deal with, after the war they had the USA attempting to impose democracy with an iron fist.
Maybe when they bend the needs at Kim Il Sung’s altar they are worshipping the God of Stability instead. If the Kims were to fall what could come in their place? Could they turn out the victims of a foreign invasion like Iraq or Afghanistan? Or maybe there could be fighting on the streets like in Libya or Syria?
After all, better the devil you know.
*I thought of this title initially then rejected it because it was too cheesy. However if Hitchens said it first it makes it ok.