[Viewpoint] What will follow farce?“The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte,” published in 1852, is a famous study of the capitalist state by Karl Marx focusing on the events leading up to Louis Bonaparte’s coup d’etat of 1851, making himself the third emperor (Napoleon III) of France. Marx’s description of the nephew trying to mimic his great uncle Napoleon I as a “grotesque mediocrity playing a hero’s part” strikes a chord with the farce of the third-generation dynastic succession unfolding in North Korea.
In his preface, Marx wrote, “Hegel remarks somewhere that all great world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice. He has forgotten to add: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.” The former refers to Napoleon the Great, who is credited with military genius, and the latter to Napoleon III, who attempted a coup d’etat like his uncle’s five years after becoming president but proved to be disastrous as a leader.
Kim Jong-un, who is in his late 20s, has been virtually named heir to the throne by being given the rank of four-star general, a high post in the ruling Workers’ Party’s powerful Central Committee and vice chairman of the party’s Central Military Commission.
He remains untried and thoroughly enigmatic to the outside world. It is therefore too early to determine whether he will turn out as a mediocre contrast to his charismatic father and grandfather.
The younger Kim is too young and untrained to assume leadership. Moreover, his move to the center stage of power has been too abrupt and clumsy. Nothing could be more comical than a third-generation dynastic rule in modern times. The buffoonery was accentuated with the naming of Kim Kyong-hui, the Dear Leader’s sister and caretaker aunt to the heir, as a four-star general in an apparent attempt to ensure the continued control of the Kim clan. The drama contained all the makings of comic-tragedy.
We can go on and on about the ludicrous elements of the younger Kim’s rise to power. What really concerns us is whether Kim Jong-un will be capable of keeping the regime intact, fixing the devastated North Korean economy and rebuilding the country as a normal state after his ailing father has gone to meet Marx.
Whether he can maintain stability, plus control of the military hierarchy, is the imperative question. His father has constructed a tight safety net around his son through his sister and brother-in-law Jang Song-thaek, who was promoted in June as the vice chairman of the National Defense Commission, which controls the military.
But no one can know if such protection can withstand possible resistance from senior military and Politburo members as well as the public. Kim Jong-un may be the rightful descendent of the “impeccable” Kim bloodline, but his demise would be a fatal blow to the dynasty.
Simply put, the fate of the Kim Jong-un regime will depend on whether he can succeed with his balancing act between the military and party executives.
Kim Jong-il braved mockery from his army and the outside world by giving his son, who has no military experience, the highest military rank in the hope of cementing his succession plan and nurturing military devotion and commitment to the young leader.
Kim Jong-il heightened the morale and expectations of his soldiers through a “military-first” policy and a pledge to turn North Korea into a military powerhouse by 2012. In fact, North Korea has become a military state. Kim Jong-un may be pressured to prove his dominance over the military by putting his own loyalists in senior ranks and accomplishing something impressive that can win respect from soldiers. We must keep a watch on how fast and deeply Kim Jong-un builds a rapport with the military.
The young heir’s foreign policy is equally unpredictable. To win support from the military, he may succumb to the risky security games his soldiers enjoy. But as long as his father’s health keeps up, Kim Jong-un will have time to examine the North Korean policies of South Korea, the United States and other neighboring countries before he concocts a longer-term survival strategy and short-term military and security plans.
To expect changes and opening by the Swiss-educated Kim Jr., with his first-hand experience of the free and wealthier world, may be wishful thinking. At the same time, we need not jump to premature conclusion that North Korea’s relations with South Korea and the U.S. will be strained under the young leader in the process of legitimizing his leadership.
Kim Jong-un’s ascent to power opens a new era for North Korea. We must closely watch the power transition and developments in North Korea. Only can we then review our current policies toward North Korea and come up with new ones to reflect the changes and new paradigms in pursuit of improving inter-Korean ties, peace and denuclearization.
Stability in the North is an important foundation for peace in the region and is also essential to make any progress in the denuclearization process of the North. We just hope that Marx will be wrong about history repeating itself as a farce in the case of North Korea and its newly designated leader.
*The writer is a senior columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.
By Kim Young-hie