Imagine that God is dead. Not in an allegorical, Nietzschian sense, but literally. The physical being you believe represents everything good in the world, whom you have worshipped since you were a child, is gone. The being whose birth, you believe, “…was foretold by a swallow, and heralded by the appearance of a double rainbow over the mountain and a new star in the heavens,” dead.
The people of North Korea are experiencing this now; or, at least, this is what the government of the last truly totalitarian state in the world would like us to believe. The “Dear Leader”, absolute ruler of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea since 1994, has died at the age of 69 of a heart attack. The North Korean people’s reaction to his death demonstrates the bizarre irony of this “Communist” state – that they revere their leaders like the most fundamentalist of believers. Anyone wanting to understand this country, dubbed “the Hermit kingdom”, has to understand that the people of North Korea truly believe that their leaders are god-like. In many respects, the ideological structure of the country is more like Ancient Egypt, with an enslaved population living to revere their “god king”, than anything Marx and Engels envisioned.
After the death of his revered father, Kim Il-sung, whose death was greeted with now infamous hysteria, Kim Jong-il came to power as International Communism drew its last breath. The Eastern bloc, once a bastion of orthodox communist statism and an important ally of isolated states like North Korea, was embracing capitalism and democracy. The Soviet Union had destroyed itself, and the People’s Republic of China was beginning to reap the benefits of its market revolution. The South was undergoing unprecedented prosperity, having shrugged off the military dictatorships which had hampered its democratic development, and was witnessing massive growth. The People’s Democratic Republic of Korea was isolated, with only China as a reluctant ally.
However, the Dear Leader did not falter. Having consolidated his absolute power by becoming General Secretary of the Party and Chairman of the National Defence Commission by 1997, Kim Jong-il faced a country whose centrally planned economy was decomposing – totally inefficient and facing a food shortage. His people starving, the Dear Leader implemented the now notorious “Military First” policy to strengthen the state and the grip of the dictatorship. While this policy has led to positive growth for the North Korean “economy” (if it can be called that), millions had died due to the famine.
The Dear Leader also presided over possibly the most totalitarian state in world. Desperate to force its citizens into “the socialist way of life”, North Korean citizens are, its government has surmised, undeserving of basic rights. It controls nearly all aspects of life, no freedom of speech, press, assembly, or religion, and the Government operates large scale concentration camps where thousands have been killed. Human Rights Watch claims that: “Virtually every aspect of political, social, and economic life is controlled by the government.”
The cult of personality is unlike anything else, a twisted religion where North Koreans are forced to worship Kim Jong-il and his father “the Eternal President”. All culture is based on the reverence of the father and son, and North Korean citizens are compelled to thank them for everything they have, for all “blessings”. Some North Koreans have gone so far as to believe that the Dear Leader can control the weather with his moods. This is the insanity of North Korea, and the fanatic religion into which the country’s murderous autocracy has forced its people.
The North Korea he leaves behind is a nightmarish place, where conformity is forced upon a brainwashed and miserable population. For most citizens, their entire lives are based around a rigid obedience, struggling to feed their families whilst being forced to constantly praise the dictator for all he has provided for them. The sycophants, those who work hard and make their way up the social ranks, get to live in Pyongyang – the silent city where ghostly women and children walk the streets and visiting foreigners are perplexed by the deserted roads with their lonely traffic conductors.
The mistake that many make when discussing Kim Jong-il is that assumptions are made too quickly. They hear the stories about the Hennessy cognac (one of the company’s biggest customers), the giant rabbit plan, the harem of women and the cinephilia and make a very reasonable deduction – that the man was a spoilt eccentric who only got the top job because daddy was in charge.
Not the case at all. A quick look at his biography reveals that Kim Jong-il was a shrewd and cunning politician. His rise to power within the Workers’ Party of Korea did not go unchallenged, and, upon his succession, he was quick to purge those disloyal to him. There is also significant evidence to suggest that the political structure of North Korea became even more autocratic and absolutist under Kim Jong-il. Whilst his father was keen to take advice from ministers, the Dear Leader demanded absolute loyalty from them and regarded any dissidence as treacherous.
But as he reached his mid-sixties, Kim Jong il’s health began to wane, and rumours that he had suffered a stroke began to circulate. A chain smoker and heavy drinker, the Dear Leader was beginning to fall apart, and many saw his decision to quickly begin promoting his son to top positions as a preparation for what he knew was coming. He died of “a suspected heart attack” on 17 December.
So what will happen now the Dear Leader lies in state? His son, Kim Jong-un, who was presented last year as the obvious successor, seems ill-prepared for the leadership, and appears weak in a country whose culture venerates seniority. His father and grandfather were steeped in the intrigue of the country’s politics, aware of the difficulties of maintaining absolute power. The press is revealing that the man who will advise the “Great Successor” is Kim Jong-il’s brother-in-law, Jang Song-taek, a machiavellian character who was reprimanded numerous times by Kim Jong-il for “attempting to accumulate power”. With his father dead, Kim Jong-un will likely have to share power with this man.
Now that Kim Jong-il is dead, predictions abound as to what will happen. The hope is reunification. Korea has been divided for more than 50 years, families apart and a nation in a constant state of war with itself. While the South has grown rich and powerful, with some of the highest standards of living in Asia, the North is stunted, oppressed by a vestigial ideology and a ruthless ruling class. This ghoulish junta will not go easily, nor without a fight. Is a North Korean revolution imminent? History has taught us that no matter how brutalised or oppressed a people are, they have infinite energy when it comes to defeating those who have perpetrated tyranny upon them.