Kim is Dead (Again), Long Live Kim

After the recent death of the surly, secretive Kim Jong-il, the ascendance of his Switzerland-educated, multilingual son, Kim Jong-un, the world’s youngest head of state, might just be a good thing.

The unveiling of a diptych of bronze statues where earlier there had been only Kim Il-sung’s. The unveiling by Kim III of the likeness of Kim II alongside Kim I was attended by every petrified luminary in North Korea. “All the participants bowed to the statues,” reported North Korean Economy Watch. {{name}}
01 November, 2012

NORTH KOREA HAS BEEN, even at its best, a perplexing and often intimidating place. Ruled since its establishment in September 1948 with an iron fist by the Kim family, the communist world’s only family dynasty (or hereditary monarchy), the absurdly-titled Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (it’s never been a republic, and in 2011, it had the lowest Democratic Index in the world) has beguiled, appalled and alarmed observers.

The country is guided by the Juche Idea (juche is Korean for the Marxist term ‘subject’), a political thesis conceived by its first leader and founding father, Kim Il-sung—it means an untranslatable mix of ‘spirit of self-reliance’ and ‘mainstream’ and ‘independent outlook’.

But North Korean life has since the early 1990s been plagued by food and goods shortages. Its economy has been tanking since the 1960s, aided and abetted by inefficient central planning and an allergy to modernisation. After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, deprived of traditional trade outlets and export markets and unable to purchase cheap goods from neighbouring communist countries, the Kim family’s ruling style became hyperparanoid and truculent, and the government xenophobically autarkic.

The Juche Idea includes the military, which was given a carte blanche to embark on a reactive nuclear weapons programme in the 1960s after the US planted China- and Russia-range nuclear missiles in South Korea in January 1958. Russia balked at helping North Korea, and the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962 ramped up pre-existing paranoia. After years of confrontative bombast, North Korea withdrew from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty in 2003 in response to the US welshing on its 1994 bargain to help it develop a peaceful nuclear programme—and thus kickstarting a nuclear weapons overdrive that led to North Korea’s first and only successful blast testing in May 2009.

Adherents of George W Bush’s 2002 description of North Korea as an “outpost of tyranny” fear that its missiles can reach US borders, but two researchers from Germany’s Schmucker Technologie wrote in the influential (‘A Dog and Pony Show’, 18 April 2012) that the warheads at a parade in Pyongyang on 15 April this year—during celebrations of Kim Il-sung’s birth centenary—were “only mock-ups of low quality”.

This was the elaborate, choreographed but dummy-missile parade that Eric Rechsteiner attended. He had minders, of course, but Rechsteiner did manage to photograph normal people doing normal things.

Kim Jong-un, who has has inherited a paranoid governance system, has so far refused a god-like honorific. Nonetheless, he is considered an unknown quantity, to be automatically feared rather than befriended. So, the best of intentions notwithstanding, it might be a while yet before the world is ready for North Korea, or North Korea is ready for the world.