Dispatch September 2008

After Kim Jong Il

"We should be thinking less about the transition of North Korean power, and more about the worldview that Kim and his potential successors have in common."
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Earlier this month it came to light that North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong Il, may have suffered a stroke. The news has encouraged foreign speculation about what will happen in the aftermath of his death. Keeping in mind George Eliot’s dictum that prophecy is the most gratuitous form of error, and refusing to put my money on any specific candidate for the succession, I would like to make at least a few predictions. But first a brief explanation of the secretive country’s political culture is in order.

Plenty of misperceptions are bouncing around America’s newsrooms and think-tanks: that North Korea is a hard-line communist state, a Confucian patriarchy, a “rational actor” frightened by a bullying America, a theocracy devoted to a weird cult of self-reliance, and so on. While each of these fallacies contradicts the rest, all of them keep us from grasping the implacability of North Korea’s hostility to the outside world. In fact, the country’s true ideology is a race-based, paranoid nationalism. To put its myths in a nutshell: The Korean people are too pure-blooded, and therefore too virtuous, to survive in this evil world without a parental leader. Note that oddly androgynous word “parental.” Because the Korean race is born good, it has no need for an educating father figure like Stalin or Mao; instead, Kim Jong Il appears in the personality cult as more of a maternal figure. The function of this “great mother,” as the official news agency acclaimed him in 2003, is not to teach, but simply to nurture and protect. The so-called Mother Party sees its own function in much the same terms. 

Far from being a Confucian or Stalinist patriarchy, in other words, North Korea is that very rare thing, a dictatorship without a father principle. Erich Fromm once wrote that such states can have no conscience—an assertion that Japan’s exploits under another “parent leader” would seem to confirm. Though not nearly as destructive, North Korea has often behaved on the world stage in a comparably irrational and unpredictable manner. Rashness is celebrated on the home front, too. The masses are daily reminded that because they are uniquely good—Kim: “There is no people as good as ours in the world”—they should remain true to their instincts. Not surprisingly, then, social and domestic life is marked by a far higher degree of violence than was the case in the old Soviet bloc. Foreigners tend to miss all this. A recent British documentary about life there, which pitched the popular fallacy of North Korea as an old-school communist state, bore the title A State of Mind. When the film was screened in Pyongyang, officials renamed it A Country of Feelings. It was their way of making clear that, as Nietzsche might have put it, theirs is more a Dionysian than an Apollonian society.

We should thus beware of assuming that the transition of power there will follow staid Soviet precedents. Kim Jong Il’s own takeover after his father’s death in 1994 did not exactly go smoothly, though the official media had been working up to it since the early 1970s. He inexplicably lay low for the first few months while his grieving country slid into chaos and famine. Relations between Washington and Pyongyang were improving at the time; the Agreed Framework had just been signed, and the Clinton Administration was sending energy aid. But Kim Jong Il knew that—as Burke once said of revolutionary France—America’s friendship would be more dangerous than its enmity. With his economy in ruin, he had to continue the official tradition of demonizing the U.S. or else acknowledge his own irrelevance. After all, if Koreans should work with the Yankees, why not do it under Seoul’s rule, and go to bed on a full stomach? So when Kim finally fully emerged into the public eye in 1995, it was as a “military first” leader, a man so busy protecting the country from the American threat that he would have no time for economic matters.    

A proper understanding of this background will aid us in our preparations for Kim’s death. For one thing, we should not assume that another hereditary succession is inevitable. Even now, the official media continuously reminds the masses that Kim Il Sung wanted his son Kim Jong Il to take over—that there could have been no better candidate, and so on. Such strenuous efforts at persuasion would seem to indicate that at least a part of the public has never fully accepted the legitimacy of his rule. The country will have far greater problems supporting one of Kim Jong Il’s callow sons, of whom the average North Korean has hitherto heard virtually nothing.    

This does not mean that the masses would prefer a collective leadership. One of the official culture’s most sacred tenets is that the race needs a strong single leader, a “brain of the national organism,” to use a favored metaphor. (The imagery is straight out of fascist Japan.) Besides, the regime would never have lasted this long if not for the deep emotional bond that North Koreans feel to the Kims. It is hard to imagine a group of wizened generals or party officials enjoying the public support this regime needs to survive. With a rival state thriving next door, North Korea must be led—charismatically, inspiringly led, with all the power of nationalist myth—and not merely managed.

The Dear Leader’s death will elicit much the same sort of hysteria that followed his father’s passing. The wails will derive less from genuine grief than from fear and uncertainty, just as many South Koreans wept after Park Chung Hee’s assassination simply because they could not imagine national life without him. Whoever takes over, whether he is of Kim’s family or not, must at least be seen as bearing Kim’s seal of approval. Should the Dear Leader fail to anoint a successor in his lifetime, the regime will just have to pretend that he did; various statements to that effect will be faked up and put into print. Stalin resorted to similar deceptions to legitimize his own rule.

This will not be all. As happened in 1994, the propaganda apparatus must play on the masses’ xenophobia in order to rally them around the new leader. In all likelihood, the regime will sharply ratchet up the level of tension with Washington, the better to tout the inevitable American plea for negotiations as a waving of the white flag. (Washington’s eschewal of a military solution to the nuclear standoff is always mocked in the North as proof of Yankee cowardice.) But we can expect plenty of provocations even if Kim Jong Il stays alive; a “military first” leader who is no longer fit to visit army bases or review parades has to find other, more dangerous ways of conveying strength and toughness. In short, we should be thinking less about the transition of North Korean power, and more about the worldview that Kim and all his potential successors have in common.

B. R. Myers is an Atlantic contributing editor and the author of A Reader's Manifesto (2002). He teaches North Korean studies at Dongseo University, in South Korea.
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