[Viewpoint] The Buddenbrooks of the North

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[Viewpoint] The Buddenbrooks of the North

The dynastic power succession in North Korea bears an odd resemblance to the Buddenbrook family from German novelist Thomas Mann’s 1901 epic tale of a merchant family and its decline over the span of four generations. The affluent family is obsessed with the family name and its business. Oblivious to the sweeping changes in society over the decades, the Buddenbrook empire slowly degenerates into a complete ruin.

Mann’s family saga is a portrait of an influential mercantile family based in the German port city of Lubeck, and it shows the draining away of its wealth and power over the course of four generations. The young heirs live in past glories and luxuries, failing to confront the crude realities of their own world. They are neither aware of the changes in the society nor want to accept that their family name and firm is going downhill. Their lives are wasted in a pathological state of delusion and denial.

“Buddensbrooks” go beyond the characteristics of the bourgeois society of the 19th century by delving into men’s pathological blindness and unawareness of changes around the world. The male characters’ foolishness and weaknesses can be seen reflected in the North Korean leadership being passed down to a third generation. The world around North Korea is rapidly changing, yet the head of the family desperately clings to his ways. The son, heir to the family’s riches and power, is happy to wallow in a life of extravagance in the family residence, heavily shielded from the hunger and resentment of the locals and the threats and challenges from the outside world.

North Korea’s degeneration started out with its dramatic unmooring of the foundations of the state from traditional socialist ideology, and its hitching it onto the personality cult of Kim Il Sung. We may be witnessing the last episode of a tragic saga as an absolute faith evolves into an ideology with one goal: to insure a family’s absolute control. Kim Jong-un, heir-in-waiting, is therefore watched with the deepest concerns because of the uncertainties and risks he faces. Until a while ago, no one believed the reclusive and heavily-controlled state could allow any breach in its totalitarian autocratic system. Now everyone is uneasy over a breach being created by the succession.

History is the proof that totalitarian societies crumble from within. The Soviet Union and the Eastern bloc all fell due to internal conflicts. It was the communists themselves who ruined the communist system. The North Korean leadership is close to the last act of their drama. Some may disagree as North Korean’s military-first policy seems to be a solid protection for the regime. Food and oil resources from China can help cover the country’s basic necessities and silence complaints by North Korean residents. Most of all, there is no alternative to replace the governing ideology. Therefore the hereditary succession, for now, appears to be intact regardless of its obsolete nature. The military parade and clamorous chanting exhibited at the 65th anniversary of the Workers’ Party supports this belief.

But Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel said, “A party first truly shows itself ... when it breaks up.” No political movement can avoid internal and external contradictions as it continues to exist. Dialectic reasoning and conflict bring changes, although we cannot know if that is the case with North Korea.

But there is extraordinariness in the new leadership plan for North Korea. The power base has been split among several figures, not centered on one individual, as it was in Kim Jong-un’s father’s and grandfather’s time. This may signal a modest change in the North Korean leadership in that the power structure is expanding beyond a single leader. Hegel’s reference to “changes to higher elements” may be modestly panning out. However, we cannot at this stage determine whether the divisions between old and new principles are moving North Korea to a new level or pushing it into an abyss of internal divisions. But it is disheartening to watch the North Koreans who once enjoyed greater riches than South Koreans in the 1970s wither as they follow the path of the doomed Buddenbrooks under the rule of one family over three generations.

We have to ask whether North Koreans are aware of the end they are walking toward. North Korea’s sudden downfall spells catastrophe for us living across the border. We need to come up with wise policies to transform North Koreans’ mindset.

*The writer is a professor of political science at Seoul National University.

By Chang Dal-joong
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