As millions watch Kim Jong-un in fearful anticipation, Sally Hayden examines the future for North Korea.
Along with both his father and Bertie Ahern, Kim Jong-il had that lucky knack of knowing when the right time to exit is. On the 17th of December, exactly two weeks before his declared deadline of making the DPRK a “strong and prosperous nation”, the Dear Leader finally succumbed to his suffix and died. Whilst blue flashes blinded, ice exploded, storks sympathised and a holy mountain glowed, the world woke up to the fact that the hermit state was in unknown hands, and they didn’t like it.
Kim Jong-il was a known enemy. He was wildly eccentric in the way only a totalitarian dictating megalomaniac can be. A film fanatic, he ordered the kidnapping of South Korean film director Shin Sang-ok in 1978, who, during his eight years in captivity, was charged with the creation of a North Korean Godzilla. Despite propagandist assertions of a diet of potatoes and rice-balls, his former chef claims Kim had a penchant for roasted donkey, caviar and fresh Thai papayas. The world’s greatest golfer, he shot thirty-eight under par in his maiden round including five holes-in-one, or so attested seventeen of his bodyguards.
His hubristic behaviour could be confined to the realms of real-life comedy if one was to ignore the ground level suffering that it resulted in.
Google satellite pictures of the DPRK at night would produce a bewildering darkness. That’s not censorship, it’s the result of no electricity. North Korea faded to black during the early 1990s. Power stations rusted. People stole electrical wire to exchange for food and Kim Jong-il became the leader of the first industrialised country to lose the capacity to not only light itself, but feed itself too.
An estimated 500,000 to two million people died during this famine, a direct result of Kim’s obstinate promotion of the Juche Idea, which advocated complete self-sufficiency. His noted fearlessness in the face of international sanctions was an indication of either complete delusion or an utter absence of human compassion, as his subjects perished.
The Communist state failed with the food crisis. Many DPRK defectors noted that it was the good and loyal citizens that were the first to succumb to starvation, whilst illegal markets and small businesses sprung up out of necessity for everyone else. Even in 2011, long after the famine’s formal end, the average official monthly income was less than €2. A further €10 came in on the side, as capitalist practices are employed to keep families alive.
The increasing inequality is dashing Southern hopes of successful future reunification. The South’s economic power is at least thirty times stronger than the North’s. This is equivalent to four times the disparity that existed between East and West Berlin when the wall fell. The average North Korean is three inches smaller than their Southern counterparts due to malnourishment.
Apart from the welfare of its citizens internally, the huge international concern is in regard to the nuclear weapons held by the state. In his eulogy the songun, or “military first” policy adopted by North Korea was the most praised achievement of the elder Kim, whilst the issue of the economy was avoided in almost a “don’t mention the war” manner. Parliament chief Kim Yong-nam instead gushed that his legacy was the foundation of a “proud nuclear state”.
Pride is certainly a distinguishing factor in a personality-cult fuelled nationalistic regime. The North has conducted two nuclear tests, and could have a working nuclear missile in as little as one or two years. This poses both a threat to regional security, and supplies the DPKR with a powerful bargaining tool to use when seeking aid for its economy.
As the action rises, a pudgy Swiss-educated twenty-eight-year-old with very little political experience enters central stage, and instead of a double rainbow, a huge question-mark hangs over his head. Kim’s older sons were rejected for the leadership role, one after embarrassing his father by being arrested in a Japanese airport using fake passports to gain access to Disneyland, the other for being “too feminine”. Kim Jong-un brings new hope.
One move that should be wished for is the decriminalisation of the currently underground private economy. Another is that the younger Kim will be more willing to make concessions in international negotiations.
Both his international education and his experience as a basketball team player may make him more open to change than his father, according to the former deputy governor of the North’s Korea Reunification Development Bank. But with his uncle Jang Song Thaek supervising the transition period and the new Supreme Leader being encouraged by the rest of the military elite, this is far from a certainty.
Meanwhile, millions pray to the new leader for another kind of mercy. It is likely that he will be the last man with the power to reunite estranged families that still hold memories of each other. Countless relatives were torn apart during the Korean War in the early 1950s, and with no postal, email or telephone service between the two factions, many do not know if their long-lost are still even alive.
Family reunions were agreed to at the landmark summit in 2000 and so far 20,000 Koreans have been allowed once-off face-to-face or video contact with their parents, children and siblings on the other side. Fathers have faced elderly offspring that have a lifetime of their own completed. Brothers and sisters have strained to recognise each other after sixty years apart.
Of the 130,000 South Koreans that signed up for reunions, a third have since died without even this satisfaction. With the war fading from memory, connections are extinguishing and the severance of Korea has reached the final stage of completion. Whether his compassion will extend beyond propagandist reportings is questionable. And so Koreans wait, as they have done for sixty years.