[OUTLOOK]What’s going on in the North?After the U.S. presidential election, there has been growing interest in North Korea. Aside from the busy movement to resolve the North Korean nuclear problem, reports of the removal of Kim Jong-il’s portraits, the omission of Kim Jong-il’s title and the acquisition of North Korea’s dissident flyers created some fuss in this country.
Some foreign media reported these incidents as signs that something was happening in North Korea’s political power structure, which was picked up by the domestic media. As a result, some of those who are unfamiliar with the North Korean situation may be unable to shake off their uneasiness that stems from the assumption that something is amiss with the North Korean regime.
A series of incidents and the explosion in Yongcheon train station have spurred much speculation about the possibility of instability in the North Korean regime, mainly because North Korea has maintained a closed system. Some reports turned out to be a reflection of “wishful thinking” aimed at “shaking North Korea.” Excessive attention to North Korea may have led to overreaction to even trifling things.
The speculation about the omission of Kim Jong-il’s title proved to be wrong, a result of an insufficient review of the cases in which various titles are used to address North Korean leader Kim Jong-il.
Regarding the content of the so-called dissident flyers, the term “great leader absolutism” was first used by Hwang Jang-yop, the former secretary of the Labor Party in North Korea, to conceptualize the North Korean regime after he came to South Korea as a defector, and it is rarely used in North Korea now. We should also note that many North Korea-related documents are made in China and in places other than North Korea.
The report that Kim Jong-il’s portraits were removed from public places frequented by foreigners has been verified. According to a defector’s testimony, Kim Jong-il is quoted as having ordered internally to withdraw his portraits early last year.
The North Korean authorities removed Kim Jong-il’s portraits from public places, including the People’s Culture Palace, for the following reasons:
First, the removal could be an attempt to change the negative image of Mr. Kim and North Korea held by the international community. As seen by U.S. President George W. Bush’s calling Kim Jong-il a “tyrant,” the North Korean leader has a very negative image abroad. Preparing to negotiate with the United States on nuclear weapons, North Korea seems to have removed Kim Jong-il’s portraits, a symbol of personal idolatry, to change its image as a “rogue state.”
Second, one could see the removal as inevitable because of a leadership crisis in the Kim Jong-il regime. The charismatic Kim Il Sung is an object of respect in North Korea as the “father of socialist Korea and Kim Il Sung’s nation.” After his death, North Korea has tried to link his image to Kim Jong-il, his son, by identifying the father with the son and equaling Kim Il Sung with the People’s Labor Party and Kim Jong-il.
But with the regime’s crisis deepening after Kim Il Sung’s death and a failed series of attempts to change policies, North Koreans have come to doubt the leadership of Kim Jong-il. The removal of the portraits may reflect the concern that North Koreans in trouble might be annoyed looking at their leader’s portrait hung side by side with that of the deceased head of state.
Third, Kim Jong-il may have ordered to take down his portraits to show loyalty and filial duty toward his father. After Kim Il Sung’s death, his son has backed up his father as “eternal head of state and leader,” and ordered his minions not to wear the Kim Jong-il badge and instead wear his father’s.
He may have considered the fact that in China, only Mao Zedong’s portraits are hung in public places, including Tiananmen Square. Kim Jong-il may want to remain a fallible “political leader of reality.”
In any case, such heavy speculation of trouble in the North Korean regime proves that the North Korean situation is serious. On the other hand, like during the first North Korean nuclear crisis, there are some rumors that just reflect our wishful thinking for North Korea’s collapse or an impending military coup.
If North Korea cannot solve its nuclear problem soon and conflict between North Korea and the United States continues, these rumors may come true eventually. As such, uncertainty on the Korean Peninsula will remain.
Now is not the time to shake up North Korea but to make an effort to stabilize the situation on the Korean Peninsula through the soft landing of North Korea.
* The writer is a professor of North Korean studies at Dongguk University. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.
by Koh Yu-hwan