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."

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.    

Presented by

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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