[Viewpoint] The extinction of dictators

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[Viewpoint] The extinction of dictators

If there is a fortune teller assisting dictators today, he or she should seriously think about a career change. The year 2011 will likely be remembered as a cruel period for dictators. One day after Kim Jong-il’s death was revealed, Newsweek reported that seven dictators have fallen this year, including Kim.

The first was Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, who was president of Tunisia. He was ousted by the Jasmine Revolution. Then, Hosni Mubarak, who ruled Egypt for 30 years with an iron fist, fell as millions of Egyptians rose up against him in Tahrir Square. Jailed in a cage during court proceedings, he is still on trial.

The dictator with the worst ending was Muammar el-Qaddafi of Libya. After weeks on the run, he was finally caught by rebels while hiding in a drainage pipe. The world’s longest-reining dictator who ruled Libya for 42 years was buried in the middle of the desert after his body had been kept in a supermarket meat locker.

Ali Abdullah Saleh of Yemen, who killed 1,500 antigovernment protesters, is not an exception. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who has killed 5,000 demonstrators while warning against outside intervention, will soon join the club of fallen dictators, but probably not this year.

Newsweek included Laurent Gbagbo of the Ivory Coast, who was sent to trial at the International Criminal Court in The Hague, on the list of fallen dictators, but this is slightly wrong. Gbagbo had made an attempt to void an election in which he was beaten by his rival, but he failed because of outside intervention. He should be differentiated from dictators who were thrown out of power by an enraged public.

And listing Kim, who reportedly died of a heart attack, as a fallen dictator is a clear misclassification. If successor Kim Jong-un has strong affection for his father, he will likely ask Newsweek for a correction after his father’s funeral.

Kim is different from traditional dictators. A person with hereditary absolute power is an absolute monarch, not a dictator. The definition of a dictator is a ruler with absolute power over a country without hereditary ascension. Kim was a monarch of the Kim dynasty. Kim Jong-un, who was educated in Europe, will likely point out the differences and argue that his father was not a dictator.

Dictators all infringe on human rights and freedom, while forcing personality cults. Kim definitely displayed the characteristics of a dictator, but he was also a hereditary monarch, whose fate was largely dependent upon the will of his successor.

Dictators are becoming rare in the world. After World War II, many countries in Africa, the Middle East and Asia became independent from colonial rule. Leaders of the independence movements often become rulers of the new countries, but many of them failed to escape from the temptation of dictatorship. Some even used the justification of economic development to cling to power.

After the cold war ended, democratization proceeded in the countries with developed economies, and dictators slowly disappear. South Korea, Taiwan, the Philippines and Indonesia are the examples. Satellite countries in Eastern Europe of the Soviet Union also joined the democratization movement as well as countries in South America.

The wind of democratization reached the Middle East and northern Africa this year, and the last remaining dictators are disappearing one after another. It won’t be long before they are extinct.

The worsening wealth gap fueled by global economic competition and the rapid spread of digital media is endangering dictators. Unless dictators open and satisfy the economic demands of their people, uprisings are unavoidable. Today, mounting complaints can spread rapidly through social network services, and the outcome was the Arab Spring.

Expectations are high that Kim’s death could bring the spring winds to the reclusive North. The successor Kim Jong-un has not secured legitimacy yet. If he continues to shut the doors to the outside world while failing to satisfy North Koreans’ economic desires, the 800,000 mobile phones in the North will suddenly show their power someday.

There are only two choices for Kim Jong-un. He can either survive by opening up the country and embracing reform or walk on the path of self-destruction as a failed monarch of a reclusive country.

*The writer is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Bae Myung-bok

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