[Viewpoint] No Dengs or Gorbachevs up north

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[Viewpoint] No Dengs or Gorbachevs up north

In October 2000, I was among the foreign press corps accompanying U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright on a high-profile and historic visit to Pyongyang. During the two-day trip, the entourage was invited to a mass propaganda rally commemorating the 55th anniversary of communist rule in the country, and the birth of the Workers’ Party.

When Dear Leader Kim Jong-il entered the stadium with his American guests, a crowd of thousands let out a sonorous roar and eardrum-piercing applause. Our guard stood up self-consciously and started clapping and shouting wildly beside us.

At the center of the podium sat Kim, with Secretary Albright to his right and Wendy Sherman, special adviser to President Bill Clinton and his North Korea policy coordinator, on his left. Hawk-eyed, armed bodyguards were lined behind him.

Thousands of performers meticulously acted out scenes touting the cult of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong-il, including a representation of the firing of a nuclear weapon. At the performance’s climax, hundreds of soldiers ran toward the podium flashing billiard flags lined up to say “Those who strike us will be wiped off from this planet.”

Ten years have passed. Throughout those years, South Korea and the international community have engaged and tried numerous diplomatic efforts to persuade the reclusive state to open up and reform.

But North Korea remains steadfastly recalcitrant.

There is a saying that a communist’s hands on the table - and his feet under it - say different things. No one is better at that game than North Korea. North Korea’s commitments to freeze its nuclear program in Geneva, in the six-party talks and at inter-Korean summit meetings proved to be a facade.

Its officials shook hands with foreign diplomats in order to earn time and dollars to power its regime and build its nuclear program. And they got what they wanted from the charade they put on for the international community: financial aid and nuclear weapons.

South Korea and the international community had hoped to send a breath of fresh air into the isolated society. But they have failed. Why does North Korea so vehemently refuse to change? Other Stalinist states like China and Russia have become more prosperous by converting to a more open, free market system. Why does North Korea insist on being the oddity?

Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping in the 1980s was the reforming figure that led China toward an open economy and markets. Unlike his North Korean counterpart, he was not a cult figure or corrupt.

If Deng’s authority was known for omnipotence and corruption, the June 1989 massacre in Tiananmen Square would have swelled into a sweeping revolutionary attempt to overthrow the government. But the public protests in Beijing did not flare into a nationwide anti-government movement, even after the army mowed down protesting students and civilians - because Deng’s leadership was largely free of pretentiousness and profligacy.

Mikhail Gorbachev was the last general secretary of the Communist Party and head of the Soviet Union. He opened markets and restructured society as the head of the party, or de facto leader. He was able to pull it off, even as the Iron Curtain collapsed, because he too didn’t demand worship and was not associated with corruption.

The hereditary dynasty of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong-il could not emulate the leadership of Deng Xiaoping and Gorbachev. They foreswore moderation for the Socialist model and insisted on their own style.

It isn’t that they didn’t want to open up. They could not because of their never-ending cults of personality and corruption. When an economy opens up to the outside world, the public sees the truth and becomes disillusioned.

When the common citizen realizes he has been duped and starts to rage against corruption, what then? The North Korean regime is essentially unable to walk in the path of opening and reform.

The attack on our naval corvette Cheonan suggests extreme desperation of a state in isolation. As the United States changed after the Sept. 11 terrorism attack, our nation should also change its attitude toward North Korea.

The heir-to-be, Kim Jong-un, will likely inherit paramount power as well as the cult and corruption legacy. There is no room for opening and reform in a third-generation dynasty.

South Korea must reinvent its policy toward North Korea based on this crude reality. We must wash away our hopes and illusions that “they can change” in the waters of Baengnyeong Island. The Cheonan has taught us a lot of things. The wreck at the bottom of the Yellow Sea is a woeful harbinger of our destiny if we do not wake up to North Korea’s fundamental reality.

*Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.
The writer is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.


By Kim Jin

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