[Viewpoint] Reality show: ‘Survivor Pyongyang’The curtain is raised on a reality show that features the third-generation hereditary succession of world’s first communist dynasty. A mammoth military parade with a wave of red flags; heir-apparent Kim Jong-un viewing the parade along with his father Kim Jong-il; and the group photo of hundreds of party leaders in which Kim Jong-un is seated prominently in the front row all may give the impression that what is going on in the North is a reality show.
The players of the show are North Korean leader Kim Jong-il’s third son Jong-un; Kim’s younger sister Kyong-hui and her husband Jang Song-thaek; his right-hand military man, Lee Yong-ho; and a group of new military leaders to whom Kim conferred the title of four star general, together with Jong-un.
They are the players of the reality show “Survivor Pyongyang” and their mission is to complete a third-generation hereditary succession on an island called North Korea, leading starving tribes and people in rags. The situation is abnormal: North Korea is a completely closed country, isolated from the international society. Since North Korean residents living extremely impoverished lives, it is comparable to the “Survivor” series of the castaway television production that sparked a reality-television revolution in the United States.
The difference is that Kim Jong-un’s team has no competing tribes and that there is no need to eliminate team members one by one through competition. Solving upcoming problems while they fulfil their mission is the challenge. However, the problems ahead of them are not easy ones. The greatest challenge is that the time given to them is not long because the ailing old chieftain has a limited life. Before his death, they must consolidate the foundation for power succession to Kim Jong-un. Although North Korea is a controlled communist state, it is difficult to predict that the transition will be smooth because North Koreans are getting weary of hereditary succession and dictatorship.
Moreover, South Korea is in its neighborhood, where people enjoy freedom and economic prosperity. If people in the North who envy South Korean economic prosperity and freedom take root in the North, the regime will be at risk of collapse. Therefore, Kim Jong-il has hurriedly designated his third son as his successor and formed a “survivor” team that will help him complete the power transition.
Now, the attention of the world is on what the survivor team will do. Some people predict optimistically that they will embrace reform and an open-door policy. During the transition, however, a state usually prefers to strengthen internal consolidation than improving external relations. Making Kim Jong-un look like the reincarnation of his grandfather Kim Il Sung is aimed at achieving the goal.
But there is a limit to the influence of symbol manipulation. A dictatorship will survive if only it is supported by strong military power. Kim Il Sung became the leader of North Korea with the backing of Soviet troops, and Kim Jong-il gave priority to a military-first policy in his rise to power. It is for this reason that Kim Jong-il conferred the title of four star general on Jong-un along with a group of military leaders who will support him.
The survivor team will show off North Korea’s military power for internal consolidation. Besides nuclear tests, missile firings and provocations at sea that were used during the Kim Jong-il era, they will try to use new techniques, such as GPS jamming and cyber terror attacks against South Korea.
Another important task is securing the recognition and support of North Korea’s guardian, China. Kim Jong-il succeeded in getting an answer from Chinese President Hu Jintao that the power transition to his son is North Korea’s internal affair. For this, he took the trouble of travelling, for the second time this year, to China by train in August, following one in May.
In return, Kim Jong-il promised to support China’s plan to develop three northeastern provinces and gave assurance that China’s rights for development of mineral resources in North Korea would be protected. Beijing advised Pyongyang to follow the reform and open-door policy that China took earlier.
Kim Jong-un and his team will get ready to comply with Chinese demands. For the plan to develop the three northeastern provinces and the mineral resources inside North Korea, they will speed up the development of Rajin and Seonbong. But the North will not follow Chinese-style reform and open-door policy now; it will open areas requested by China on a limited basis. When asked to choose between reform and openness, and the survival of the regime, dictators always choose the latter. And they meet a tragic end. Kim Jong-il and his followers are no exception. Kim Jong-un and his team will eventually accomplish the goal of power transition. But North Korea will be degraded to a satellite state of China in the not-too-distant future.
*The writer is a visiting professor of media studies at Myongji University.
By Park Sung-soo