[Viewpoint] Goodbye Kim Jong-ilIn five millennia of history, the Korean people have made four world records. South and North Korea each have two records. South Korea has a record for the most rapid industrialization and democratization in the history of humanity, which occurred in only 26 years from 1961 to 1987. Having recovered from the devastation of the war, South Korea has risen to the top in many ways. South Korea constructed the largest passenger ship and built the tallest building. It is the largest manufacturer of televisions and semiconductors. South Koreans stand first in archery, figure skating, golf, baseball and skating.
In contrast, North Korea’s world records are not very honorable. The poorest country in the world has, for instance, built the most powerful arms - nuclear weapons. More shockingly, it has set a record for the longest dictatorship. Kim Il Sung tied with Cuba’s Fidel Castro for the longest rule under one autocrat, but including Kim Jong-il in the count shows the two Kims ruled North Korea for an incredible 66 years. Muammar el-Qaddafi was about to break the record himself but was ousted by his people. And North Korea holds more than a record in terms of length of autocratic rule. It is also exceptional when it comes to cruelty imposed on citizens.
Eleven years ago in October 2000, I remember sitting at Neungrado Stadium in Pyongyang. I attended the celebration of the 55th anniversary of the Workers’ Party of Korea and watched mass gymnastics and artistic performances. Kim Jong-il, then chairman of the National Defense Commission of North Korea, was not far from me. Two security officials were standing behind him with eyes as fierce as a viper. American delegates, including Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, were sitting next to Kim Jong-il.
A deafening whoop marked the beginning of the show. Thousands of children, students, civilians and armed forces were dressed in colorful uniforms and moved like robots, presenting cards to create images of nuclear weapons and missiles. At the climax of the show, hundreds of soldiers held fixed bayonets and showed fencing and other stunts. The soldiers shouted at once and stormed toward the VIP section, displaying cards reading, “Anyone provoking North Korea will not survive on this planet.”
This kind of behavior left the foreign press in a complete shock. On the bus heading back to the hotel, reporters uttered, “Incredible!” “Unimaginable!” “Shocking!” One added, “Not even Lenin, Stalin, Ceausescu, Castro or Mao Zedong could do this!” And he was right. None of the Nazis, fascists, kamikaze fighters, the Red Guards, Saddam Hussein or Qaddafi could make such a performance possible. Kim Jong-il was the only dictator who could move people like robots.
Yet though his rule led to spectacularly staged performances, it made the everyday lives of North Koreans torturous. I will never forget the broken windows I saw on farm houses in North Korea in the chilly wind of late autumn. The windows were roughly covered with plastic sheets. Under Kim Jong-il, North Koreans suffered from cold - as I saw - and starvation. And these living conditions left a particularly poignant mark on North Koreans by shrinking their average physique.
In 1945, when the country was liberated from colonial rule, the average height of a Korean male was 166 centimeters (five feet, five inches). After 66 years, South Koreans grew 7 centimeters taller to an average height of 173 centimeters. In contrast, the average height of North Koreans is 160 centimeters. They are actually shorter than people from more than a half century ago.
Some members of pro-Pyongyang groups in the South must either be unaware of or ignore the reality of dictatorial rule in North Korea. They denounce Park Chung Hee’s accomplishments in the South, instead preferring to be generous to Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong-il. But the evidence of the dictators’ misrule cannot be more obvious - they shrunk their people through mistreatment and malnourishment.
Kim Jong-il, a terrorist and dictator, died of illness. He did not stand trial like Hussein and Hosni Mubarak or suffer a tragic end like Ceausescu or Qaddafi. However, his journey to the other world is still not likely to have been a pleasant one.
On the way to the netherworld, he would have come across 46 South Korean naval officers who were killed in a North Korean torpedo attack. He would have had to listen to the South Korean martial songs and drink water from the Yellow Sea.
On another corner, he would have met the souls who died in a bomb attack in Myanmar in 1983. And around the next bend, he would have met the “working people” his empire had praised. They were buried in the water as they came home on a Korean Air passenger jet from the Middle East.
Mankind is sending off Kim Jong-il. So we must now ask: Is the world a better place now? Will Kim Jong-un be able to atone for his father’s many, many sins?
*The writer is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
By Kim Jin