Good riddance to him. Any bets on who will actually run the place now?
It’s hard to imagine that anyone can fill the psychological void he leaves. It doesn’t matter that most North Koreans undoubtedly despised him. He was still a tremendous, terrible presence that no one else can be.
[Reuters, Kim Kyung-Hoon]
Update: Here are some posts that seem freshly relevant:
- Boldly, I had predicted that Kim Jong Il would die. But we could see this coming two years ago, and here, I prognosticated at greater length about the post-Kim Jong Il era.
- As if preparing for his own death, Kim Jong Il spent his last years purging old comrades. See also.
- A reminder of how little we really know about Kim Jong Eun, who would be a figurehead at most, and who is probably even more despised than his father.
- South Korea’s military is on high alert.
- As of 11:36 p.m. Washington time, KCNA has nothing on this. [Update: But just look at it now.]
Some other quick thoughts:
Who will take over now? Superficially, we’ve seen some recent signs that the regime was accelerating Kim Jong Eun’s deification, suggesting that it knew Kim Jong Il’s health was declining rapidly. Behind the scenes, it will be a collective leadership. Some people to watch are Kim Jong Il’s sister Kim Kyong-Hui, her (possibly estranged) husband, Jang Song Thaek, and master counterfeiter O Kuk Ryol.
Is diplomacy now a real possibility? No, but with Kim out of the way, an internal power struggle could soon commence, the result of which could create the conditions for that. Watch who comes out on the reviewing stand, and watch how the regime behaves. There won’t be a Pyongyang Spring anytime soon. The next weeks will either feature complete governmental paralysis or an unscheduled broadcast, followed by a series of unscheduled military deployments. One piece of good news is that the latest reports of a diplomatic “breakthrough” will come to nothing now, which is a much faster and cheaper way of achieving exactly the same thing.
It is a depressing thing to see a man who caused so much death and misery die untried and unpunished. It makes me want to believe that there is a hell, other than the one thatNorth Korea itself became because of Kim Jong Il’s necrocratic misrule. Here is a man who belongs alongside Pol Pot as one of the most destructive men who ever lived, one who would belong in the same category as Hitler or Stalin if he had ruled a country with a larger population or GDP. The legacy of Kim Jong Il will be of the millions he starved for his own profligacy and megalomania, and of the hundreds of thousands more who perished in the cruelest system of prison camps on this earth since Stalin died in 1953. When men like this die in their beds, the very idea of justice dies a little, too.
Update: The BBC has video of the announcement on North Korean state television.
Update: Here’s what I’d written about Kim Jong Eun for the New Ledger last year:
Not much else seems remarkable about Kim Jong-Eun, the new Porcine Prince of Pyongyang. It’s unlikely that he’ll be as much a successor to Kim Jong-Il as a figurehead for a junta of his septuagenarian minions. If we were speaking of any place but North Korea, it would count as remarkable that we know so little about him. We think that he is somewhere between 26 and 28, and that his mother was the actress Ko Young-Hee, whom Kim Jong Il expropriated from her then-husband but never married, and who later went mad and died in Moscow. Kenji Fujimoto, who spent part of North Korea’s Great Famine making sushi for Kim Jong-Il, says Jong-Eun inherited his father’s appearance and his narcissistic personality traits. Maybe he studied in Switzerland, and then again, maybe that was his younger brother Kim Jong-Chol, the one who possibly likes Eric Clapton, has a hormonal imbalance, and acts “like a girl.” It wasn’t until January of 2009 that Japanese and South Korean media first began to report on the regime’s campaign to deify him.
Our first look at Kim Jong-Eun has answered a few important questions. For one thing, we may have just found where all our food aid went. With all that we don’t know about North Korea, I’m confident in my disbelief that this is a face starving people will accept as a legitimate ruler and benefactor. South Koreans certainly were quick to poke the elephant in the room. As the British scholar Aidan Foster-Carter put it, “He sure looks like he gave up basketball.”
Of course, Kim Jong Il wore his own kleptocratic girth until his stroke in 2008, but even the dictator of a starving nation can survive if he wears his corpulence with confidence. Kim Jong Il had spent the decades before his father’s death cultivating relationships with his father’s generals. Now look at Jong-Eun’s eyes. There is cruelty and arrogance in them, but it’s the fear I see. That’s the sort of face a suburban sex offender wears to the exercise yard at Pelican Bay. No matter how many icons of him are placed in living rooms, classrooms, or lapel pins, he will spend the rest of his life stepping warily within a nest of vipers. The real power will stay with Kim Jong Il’s old comrades and relatives: Kim Young Il; Jang Song-Thaek, whose portfolio includes North Korea’s political prison camps; General Ri Yong-Ho; General O Kuk-Ryol, whose family controls the counterfeiting rackets; and Kim Jong Il’s sister (and Jang’s wife) Kim Kyong-Hui, who is said to have pushed hard for North Korea’s disastrous currency redenomination and confiscation last year. As a partial consequence of that, refugees report finding the night’s toll of the dead lying around the train stations each morning. That is why any hopes that this transition is a harbinger of reforms are probably false. The state isn’t interested in reform, and Kim Jong-Eun’s coronation won’t change that, because it is a sham. But that doesn’t mean that the regime can stop change forever.
Until public opinion polling becomes possible in North Korea, we will have to rely on anecdotal reports, clandestine cell phones, and defectors to gauge the reaction of the people to a medieval succession in a nominally socialist state. What reports we do have are overwhelmingly unfavorable for Jong-Eun, whose function is, after all, to be a genetic vessel for the legitimacy of a deiocracy once their god finally dies. If so, Jong-Eun may have outlived his usefulness. One defector claims that North Koreans openly call Kim Jong-Eun “an immature little bastard” who is “more savage than his father” and “a scoundrel who relies on his father’s power to do whatever he wants.” Students in Pyongyang and other cities criticize the feudal dynastic succession from father to son and call it “a betrayal of socialism.” Some North Koreans blame him for exhausting mass labor mobilizations and last year’s disastrous currency confiscation. Kim Eun Ho, a former North Korean policeman and now a correspondent for a Seoul-based radio station that broadcasts to North Korea, says, “For general citizens, Kim Jong Eun is vastly unpopular …. People cannot take him seriously, in reality. He just suddenly appeared, and he’s too young.” This discontent, by itself, is less consequential than the fact that North Koreans express it openly to fellow citizens, at least to the ones they trust.
It will have occurred to you by now that North Korea’s next mid-term election has yet to be scheduled, and that there is no effective opposition to its system. That is all true, and North Korea’s only hope is that these things should change. We can only hope — they can only hope — that somewhere in the outer provinces, a Madame Defarge works patiently at her knitting. At the confluence of desperation and hope, an organized opposition will eventually coalesce. The thought of trying to survive until the end of Kim Jong-Eun’s natural life should supply ample desperation.
It suddenly strikes me that the gathering of crowds for choreographed mourning ceremonies will be a volatile moment. If the clandestine reporting is accurate, Kim Jong Eun inspires loathing, but the regime has had little opportunity to deify him. I doubt that he inspires anything like confidence or respect (maybe “awe” is the word I’ve been searching for) in the minds of most North Koreans. To them, the idea of being ruled by this third-generation tyrant for the rest of their lives must be almost unimaginably dreary.
More updates, 19 Dec 2011:
First Bin Laden, then Khaddafy, and now Kim Jong Il. Overall, 2011 had more joyous obituaries than any year I can remember. It’s plausible to hope that Bashar Asad, Ayman Zawahiri, and Kim Jong Eun will be the most likely joyous obituaries of 2012.
Psychologically, so much has changed in North Korea. The regime was not really ready for this day. Its deification of Kim Jong-Eun has been uncharacteristically halting, even timid. The regime understands how volatile a moment this is. The Daily NK reports that it has closed its border with China, closed all markets, imposed a near-curfew, and filled the streets of at least one city with armed soldiers. This is not the reaction of a state that expects its subjects to erupt in spontaneous grief.
North Korea isn’t sending a conciliatory message to the outside world, either. Shortly after it announced Kim Jong-Il’s death, it tested a short-range missile off its east coast. South Korea is halting all visits to North Korea by its citizens, except at the Kaesong Industrial Park.
Say what? It’s Lee Myung Bak’s birthday? That’s just too much.
Also, video from Pyongyang. Faking or not? In such a place as North Korea, it can’t be hard to find reasons to cry real tears.
Bruce Klingner: “Kim Jong-un is a pale reflection of his father and grandfather. He has not had the decades of grooming and securing of a power base that Jong-il enjoyed before assuming control from his father. [He] may feel it necessary in the future to precipitate a crisis to prove his mettle to other senior leaders or deflect attention from the regime’s failings.”
Joshua Trevino: “I’d like to think God let Havel and Hitchens pick the third.” It’s a nice thought, but I suspect Hitchens would still be (is?) insisting to God that He doesn’t exist.
Robert Kaplan’s 2006 discussion of regime collapse in North Korea is worth rereading.
It seems appropriate to reprise two pieces by Christopher Hitchens. The first one is also the source of my masthead image; the second is a review of Brian Myers’s “The Cleanest Race.”
I would add: the story of Kim Jong Il’s misrule was best told by Barbara Demick, but the story that hasn’t been told is the story of how the free world lost its conscience in the face of Kim Jong Il’s crimes against humanity. For various reasons — nationalism, partisanship, Chinese malevolence, political expediency — the consciences of the Human Rights Industry, South Korea, America, and the U.N. were all paralyzed as U.S. and South Korean taxpayers were conscripted into the vile work of prolonging Kim Jong Il’s misrule through aid that was too easily diverted. Kim Jong Il’s misrule was terminated by more-or-less natural causes because of the banality of diplomacy.