[Viewpoint] Stability is still an issueThe media coverage and broadcasting of celebrity weddings usually focus on the childhood and family background of the bride and the groom, the dress and jewelry worn by the bride, and the guest list. The highlight of the televised wedding is the carriage ride to the wedding chapel.
As I watched the media coverage on the death of Kim Jong-il, I was reminded of a celebrity wedding. The media circus began with the life of Kim Jong-il and continued on to stories about Kim Jong-un and other power elites, the funeral, the memorial ceremony and a New Year’s editorial. Each report was accompanied by commentaries and interpretations by North Korean specialists, just as fashion experts would comment on celebrity weddings.
Thanks to the intensive media coverage, average Koreans have learned a few names of the North Korean elites, such as Jang Song-thaek and Kim Kyong-hui. It is not rare to meet someone who boasts of his knowledge on North Korean power dynamics at year-end parties. It reminded me of how the Hwang Woo-suk controversy made every Korean an expert on stem cell research a few years ago.
The media report on Kim Jong-il brought these two instances to mind largely because the coverage was limited to surface observations rather than anything in depth. Before the death of Kim Jong-il, the international and domestic attention on North Korea was concentrated on the instability of the system and the discussion of reunification. It is rather absurd that the focus moved on to the stability of the North Korean system after Kim died.
Of course, the stability of the North hinges on the power transfer to Kim Jong-un, so it is important to focus on it right now. In fact, we welcome a smooth transition. However, Pyongyang has not changed in terms of overall stability, and therefore, we must not conclude that things will improve if Seoul changes.
Now that the funeral is over, we are getting back to normal. Not only the media but also the experts and policy makers need to look at the essence of North Korean affairs. The interest and focus on the power elites in Pyongyang and the funeral procedure should be shifted to the daily lives of North Koreans, the nuclear issue and reunification.
For the past few years, North Korea has been mobilizing all the human and material resources to Pyongyang with the goal of becoming a “strong and prosperous nation” by 2012. When North Korea did not have sufficient resources to concentrate on Pyongyang, a section of the municipality was excluded from the city limits to reduce its size.
As a result, the gap between Pyongyang and other regions grew, and non-Pyongyang residents have grown increasingly discontent as they suffer from discrimination and exploitation. In the course of distributing insufficient resources, the gap between the elite and average citizens widened. Even the armed forces are struggling with a shortage of clothing and food. The extensive purging after Kim Jong-un was selected as the heir has caused dissatisfaction and anxiety among the elites.
After a series of events scheduled in the first half of the year, including the centennial celebration of Kim Il Sung’s birth on April 15, are concluded, Pyongyang will likely suffer from dormant aftereffects. In 1989, North Korea hosted the World Festival of Youth and Students, but the excessive spending triggered the economic struggle of North Korea. The cycle may be repeated this year. Pyongyang has weakened the slogans of the “strong and prosperous nation” in a New Year’s editorial and revealed signs of difficulties.
After the death of Kim Jong-il, North Korea is prioritizing solidarity. We certainly feel the need to control the situation and assure Pyongyang, and it would be advisable to seek new opportunities from uncertainty. But we need to carry out our North Korea policies based on balanced and objective understanding of various scenarios. If necessary, Seoul may need to make changes in its North Korean policy. However, the changes should be inspired by flexible thinking and policy making, not based on a lack of principles.
*The author is the director of the North Korean Research Center at the Korea Institute for National Unification.
By Choi Jin-wook