[Viewpoint] In the eye of the stormA new chapter in the history of Korean Peninsula opens with the death of North Korea’s longtime absolute ruler Kim Jong-il. North Korea’s pariah status as an isolated, impoverished nation obsessed with nuclear weapons was earned during the 17-year reign of the late erratic leader. Kim received tough training to become leader from his father, North Korea’s founder Kim Il Sung, in the aftermath of the Korean War, when North Korea outpaced the capitalist South in recovery thanks to the financial support from the Soviet Union and China.
After the elder Kim established absolute and invincible power, he gave his son high-level secretarial posts in the Workers’ Party. The father and son built a personality cult as the “great leader” and the “dear leader,” and they ended up jointly running the Communist regime. The younger Kim formerly became the heir-apparent after he was named supreme commander of the North Korean army in 1991. When his father suddenly died in July 1994, he succeeded him without any questioning, becoming part of the first Communist dynasty.
The North Korean economy had fallen into dire straits by the time Kim ascended to the throne. Uncounted thousands of North Koreans died of starvation after a series of floods and droughts. A sensible new leader would have taken radical steps to address the economic crisis, but Kim Jong-il was not one. Instead, he squeezed resources to reinforce the military’s power - and his control over the armed forces. He pursued nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction to protect his regime. North Korea’s economy went from worse to beyond help over the last two decades. But Kim and his elite inner circle remained intact. In 2002, Kim attempted economic reform by experimenting with a partial market economy to boost output. But few changes and improvements resulted because Kim maintained a rigidly controlled economic system and ideology.
To North Koreans, Kim was more of an inevitable leader. He was regarded differently from his father, who was worshipped as a kind of deity. Kim’s attitude toward the people was condescending. The oppression and rigid control he wielded over his people awed even the most infamous dictators of the world. Kim’s words eclipsed any law, morality or religion. He extracted fear to suppress the people and brainwashed them into a sense of helpless devotion to the leader.
While maintaining hostility toward South Korea, Kim nevertheless met with two South Korean leaders for summit talks. The contradictory leader attacked American officers in the truce zone, blew up a Korean Air passenger jet, attempted to murder President Chun Doo Hwan, sunk one of our warships and fired deadly artillery at a South Korean island. At the same time, he removed North Korean armed forces from the frontline and opened special zones in Kaesong and Mount Kumgang to deepen inter-Korean relations. Those measures were aimed at getting more aid and money from South Koreans, but they were nevertheless radical just by the fact that thousands of South Korean citizens were allowed to cross the border.
The death of Kim Jong-il means the end of deity-like absolute power in the reclusive state. A country with such a power vacuum could face a breakdown. Kim’s 20-something successor, Kim Jong-un, cannot wield the same irrefutable authority as his father. After suffering a stroke in 2008, Kim prepared for his own death by arranging for another dynastic succession. It remains to be seen if his efforts will really work.
It is premature to predict chaos at this stage. But as time passes, North Korea will inevitably undergo major changes. If the younger Kim resists opening to the outside world and economic reforms, as his father did, there will be no end to the North Korea crisis. But a dramatic shift toward reform could easily lead to the collapse of the Communist regime. Kim Jong-un and the people around him sharing power do not have many choices. North Korea is now in the eye of a heavy storm.
We must keep tensely alert and be ready to make fast decisions. North Korea may suffer another major natural disaster, or it could attempt a new military provocation. Skirmishes at the frontline are possible. At the same time, there is a chance that North Korea will make some conciliatory gesture to South Korea. We don’t know which way North Korea will go, but we must be ready to use this situation, however it may unfold, to our advantage.
*The writer is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Kang Young-jin