Life after Kim Jong-Il

The sudden demise of North Korea’s Supreme Leader Kim Jong-Il at the weekend removed one of the world’s most bizarre and reclusive rulers. Though there were televised scenes of schoolchildren, soldiers and workers crying in the streets of the capital, Pyongyang, when the news was announced on Monday, the mourning was considerably less hysterical than when his father Kim Il-Sung expired in 1994. Kim Il-Sung remains the sun in the sky as far as North Korean ideologues are concerned. Kim Jong-Il was merely the son here on earth. He had moreover taken the precaution two years ago of naming one of his own sons, Kim Jung-un, his Great Successor. On the face of it, in the short term at least, the world’s only hereditary Communist dynasty remains in charge.

Yet things are not quite that simple, as was shown by the nervous dip on Asian stock markets after the announcement of Kim Jong-Il’s death and the sabre-rattling gesture of North Korea’s firing test missiles only hours afterwards. That was to remind everyone – not least the South Koreans, the Japanese and the Americans – that however impoverished and backward North Korea may be, it still boasts a dangerous regime which cannot be treated lightly. However, it might take weeks or even months before young Kim Jung-un asserts his authority, or rather before the shadowy military establishment behind the government shows how much authority it is ready to grant him.

China, despite having become increasingly impatient recently with its erratic neighbour, its isolationism and ‘rogue state’ activities, nonetheless sent heartfelt condolences to Pyongyang, describing Kim Jong-Il as one of the world’s great leaders. William Hague, speaking for Britain, more deviously expressed sympathy for the North Korean people in their distress and said that the world will be watching how the country develops.

In the meantime, there is bound to be a glut of books about Kim Jong-Il, who was global politics’ nearest equivalent to Michael Jackson. The stories about his weirdness and sybaritic excesses are legion, and at least some of them are true. He had one of the greatest private DVD collections of Hollywood movies in the world and imported huge quantities of the most expensive French cognac for his personal use. He wore platform heels, sported a bouffant hairstyle and never conquered his morbid fear of flying. In a word, Kim Jong-Il was grotesque. And yes, probably a monster. He and his lieutenants clearly learned a lot from George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, in the way that they kept ordinary people subjugated through ignorance and fear. But that is not necessarily a situation that can endure much longer.

Jonathan Fryer is Chairman of London Liberal Democrats and lectures at London University’s School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS)

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3 Comments

  • Richard Swales 20th Dec '11 - 10:54am

    If Kim Jon-un is going to have real power then I would be cautiously optimistic – although it is very difficult to predict of course. Things started to change in Eastern Europe when leaders who grew up before the establishment of the system, for whom the relevant comparison was with the country as it had been before (under feudalism or depression era capitalism), were replaced with leaders who had grown up under the system, such as Gorbachov, for whom the relevant comparison was with other modern countries using freer systems.

  • There is some incisive comment on this topic here @Chatham House http://www.bit.ly/ukXF9Y

  • Jonathan Fryer 20th Dec '11 - 6:33pm

    Interesting that today China has been having talks with South Korea and the US about the Kim succession. I doubt if the young man himself has much clue about running a country, let alone international diplomacy, though in many respects he does seem to be a chip off the old block.

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