[Viewpoint] Some kind of turning pointHistory evolves dramatically. It hinges on turning points. Historic currents suddenly develop into unpredictable waves. Changes in despotic rule are particularly swift. Absolute power has a habit of disappearing absolutely, swiftly and surprisingly. Only God knows when the end is around the corner. Human predictions are blinded by ambiguous signs and unusual coincidences.
The end of tyrannical autocrats is often bewildering. It comes too quickly to be absorbed easily. North Korea’s omnipotent leader Kim Il Sung died suddenly and so has his son Kim Jong-il. According to North Korea’s official media, the late Kim died of a heart attack on a train, a death that could have occurred to anyone. Despite his vast power over his subjects, Kim’s death was simple and common. Death treats everyone the same.
The crumbling of the Berlin Wall caught everyone by surprise. It was something even German leaders didn’t anticipate. German politician Willy Brandt, who sought to improve relations with East Germany and favored reunification ever since his 1969-74 term as chancellor, doubted a dramatic turn in the division of Germany. Just two weeks before the fall of the wall, he said the likelihood of reunification was higher on the Korean Peninsula than in Germany. But the Iron Curtain crumbled. History’s lightening bolts strike on the spur of the moment. Once the wall came down, there was no turning back.
The Arab Spring also arrived as a complete surprise. Few people predicted a wave of revolutionary pro-democracy movements in the Muslim world. Three despotic or authoritarian governments were overthrown. Long-time Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak resigned after massive protests, and Libyan leader Muammar el-Qaddafi was killed while on the run from civilian rebels and international forces. History has its own ideas about what is possible.
Kim Jong-il’s death has been revealed in a slow and creepy way. The death was kept a secret for two days. A TV newscaster in a black gown broke the news to people at home and abroad in a chocked and teary voice. The following day, state television showed Kim’s body lying in a glass coffin surrounded by flowers and scenes of North Koreans wailing and shrieking in grief on the streets. It was like a classic rerun from the days of the Soviet Union. North Korea concealed Kim’s death for 51-and-a-half hours. One can only imagine what went on during that time. For people living in the real 21st century, it’s a surreal situation, and perhaps we won’t see something like this again. Kim’s death should mean the end of North Korea’s hermetic and outlandish dictatorship.
His young and inexperienced son, Jong-un, will undoubtedly try to uphold his father’s legacy. He will meticulously refer to the leadership manual he received while being trained as heir. When Kim Jong-il succeeded to power 17 years ago, he too kept faith with his father’s teachings. It was the best way to maintain undivided solidarity and loyalty from the military and apparatchiks. The new heir will likely do the same and strive to keep up the Kim family personality cult.
The North Korean military and party elite - at least for now - are maintaining the status quo, pledging allegiance to the third Kim. Rejection of the Kim family would be too big a risk. The Pyongyang regime, for the time being, will likely remain intact. But the ground it stands on is fragile.
Kim Jong-il had planned to complete the power transition by 2012, the year he promised a strong and prosperous nation to his people. Those achievements were to coincide with the centennial anniversary of the birth of his father, the founder of the nation. Kim died prematurely. His son ascends to power not fully prepared. At the time of his father’s death, Kim Jong-il had been co-running the nation for years. By 1994, North Koreans were used to having two leaders - the “great leader” and “dear leader.”
The new heir had little time to build credibility within the ruling class. Kim Jong-un will have to rely on a pool of senior family members and veteran officials. But power is not something to be shared. Conflict and struggle could surface. The aftermaths of the deaths of Joseph Stalin and Mao Zedong were bloody. North Korea’s economy is in dire straits. People are starving. The unpredictability of the Kim Jong-un regime only worsens North Korea’s future prospects.
The Korean Peninsula faces a tumultuous turning point. The major four powers have begun to move. China, North Korea’s consistent ally and patron of Kim Jong-il, wants to be caretaker of the youngest Kim.
There still is a good possibility for the worst-case scenario: collapse of the regime, an exodus, some kind of war. We cannot predict where North Korea will end up after the turmoil. We only have to be prepared. We must start by taking the initiative on affairs concerning the Korean Peninsula. We must have the biggest voice in the future of our race.
*The writer is a senior columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Park Bo-gyoon