Amid the political and financial turmoil of 2011, there do appear to be at least some good news as the villains of the modern world make their final exits. Osama bin Laden was finally found and killed, exposing his group as a shell of its former self on the downswing. Next, the tyrant of Libya, Muammar Gaddafi, was gunned down by rebel forces seeking revenge for decades of terror. And now, the petty warden of the world’s largest prison, Kim Jong Il, has died of a heart attack and left North Korea in the hands of his son and a number of powerful generals who will decide the nation’s fate. One would think that the end of the self-appointed demigod whose personality cult rules the Hermit Kingdom with an iron, spiky fist and frequent bouts of saber-rattling against a supposed foreign conspiracy to destroy his glorious gulag, would mean the upcoming liberation of the North Korean people. Unfortunately, things are far more complicated, and it may be that even if life under Kim Jong Un transitions from torturous to unbearable, the Kim clan will continue to rule the nation with little change and the streets of Pyongyang will remain gloomy and nearly devoid of people or cars for many years to come.
Here’s the key problem with the idea of a highly unstable, ready-to-topple-with-a-breeze North Korea. Even the most paranoid and narcissistic dictator who demands nothing less than to be worshipped by his people can’t hold an entire country together. The Kim clan created a cult of personality that even made Stalin balk, the man who thought nothing of erasing his colleagues and friends out of official history when they displeased him. In their quest for absolute power, they mandated that private homes were to be decorated with their portraits and pictures, and criticizing the regime meant death by starvation and torture in a concentration camp modeled on the most brutal Stalinist gulags. But to enforce their rules, they needed a massive spy apparatus, paramilitary police force, and a vast army. And even more importantly, they needed to elevate certain people to run them. It was actually how Kim Jong Un was groomed for his new post as the Great Successor, by being appointed to hold executive posts in all three arms of North Korean power. Behind him are his aunt and her husband, who is often rumored to have been the real power behind the Hermit Kingdom, Chang Sung Taek. Both were long said to be the designated groomers of Kim Jong Il’s successor but both now supposedly out of favor.
Whether Chang Sung Taek is still second in command of North Korea, and whether he would actually be put in charge of Kin Jong Un’s ascent to legitimacy is shrouded in rumor, just like everything about the country. As rumors is all we have to work with, expect more defections and crossings into China and South Korea as the people who’ve always wanted to escape decide that now, with the fate of the Hermit Kingdom up in the air, will be the perfect time to run for it, before things get even worse, or deteriorate into a family feud over who will get to run the country they’ve been treating like their toy for generations. It may be that Kim Jong Un will be slowly, steadily coached into his position by his aunt and uncle as originally thought. It could be that he already has a firm grip on power as his father struck a deal with the army and the intelligence apparatus to accept him as a legitimate successor to the throne. It could be that he will become nothing more than a puppet, a ruler only in name and public relations puff pieces, a big cardboard cutout of a dictator meant to shield whatever complex, paranoid machinations take place in North Korea’s political and military machinery. It may be that everything in the succession script goes off without a hitch, but the rampant poverty, starvation, and political isolation finally take their toll and break the nation as the bloated North Korean military begins to go hungry.
That’s the problem with North Korea. Its paranoia and secrecy makes trying to forecast its future a task much like reading tea leaves and also serves as an effective shield against foreign pundits. But there’s al least one thing we can say with certainty about North Korea and its rulers. Regardless of whether they fight for power or have a smooth succession plan in place, their dedication to absolute control one of the most improvised and hungry nations on the planet for their own gain and ego, and perusing their personal desires on the backs of millions of those forced to live under their totalitarian rules, or herded into slave labor camps where they often work themselves to death, speaks of the Kim clan’s and their cronies’ unspeakable disregard for human life, monstrous selfishness, and utter narcissism. One would think that ruling a nation of wealthy, healthy, and all- around prosperous people which cranks out hundreds of billions in goods and services every year would be far more preferable than pillaging scraps in the treasury and food aid in a nation-sized prison. The Kim family and those who benefit from their tyrannical rule, it seems, beg to differ.