Danger signs in NorthFew are naive enough to believe that the fantasies presented in Hollywood-made films are possible in real life. But there is a strange yet chilling resemblance between the kingdom of lions in the Walt Disney animated film “The Lion King” and the hermit kingdom of the Kim dynasty in North Korea.
A few years after returning home from school in Switzerland, Kim Jong-un was made heir-apparent to North Korea’s omnipotent leader Kim Jong-il. One of the first things he did after succeeding his deceased father two years ago was have Mickey Mouse and other Disney characters perform on a stage in Pyongyang, giving the show a lot of publicity.
Pundits and North Korean watchers scrambled to understand the meaning of the event, with some concluding hopefully that the young Western-educated leader could lead the isolated country down a path very different from the one favored by his anti-West father and grandfather.
Those hopes were quickly dashed. The leader, who is not yet 30 years old, unleashed a deadly artillery attack on the inhabited South Korean frontline island of Yeonpyeong, tested a long-range missile and carried out a third nuclear test. Recently, the entire world witnessed the merciless purge and execution of Jang Song-thaek, Kim Jong-un’s uncle, former political protector and the second-most powerful person in the country.
Despite its lightheartedness and Disney-style happy ending, “The Lion King” is inspired by the biblical tales of Joseph and Moses and Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Simba, a young lion and heir to the throne, is sent into exile after his uncle, Scar, kills his father and steals the crown.
He makes new friends and enjoys life in exile. But his father visits him in a dream and beseeches his son to be brave and recover the kingdom that is rightfully his. He returns and challenges Scar and his tyrannical rule.
When North Koreans first watched this film, they whispered among themselves, asking who the bad uncle could be. Some quietly assumed that it represented the powerful military. They were surprised when their assumption came true with the sudden dismissal of Vice Marshal Ri Yong-ho, who had been ranked the second-highest man in the military. But the recent purge shows it was Kim Jong-un’s real uncle (through marriage) who had been overseeing party administration and economic affairs on behalf of the inexperienced leader over the last two years.
Local media raised a hoopla about the nakedly cruel face of North Korea and its young leader. But that may have been just the beginning. The German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel famously said that all existence shows its true face at the point of breakdown. The Kim Jong-un regime may be heading for such a showdown.
After the stunning and quick purge of an actual member of the Kim dynasty, the country is engrossed in paying absolute allegiance to the young generalissimo, building a new cult to bestow the deity-like worship they afforded his father and, particularly, his grandfather.
Russian revolutionist Leon Trotsky warned that the overzealous personality cult being built around Joseph Stalin could lead to a coup like the Thermidorian Reaction of the French Revolution, which brought an end to the excesses of the Maximilien de Robespierre reign of terror. What appeared to be a conflict within the influential Jacobin Club at first brought about sweeping fundamental changes to the order and balance of social power. When excesses by Jacobins went well beyond bourgeois norms, the bourgeoisie sought military help to send the rulers to the guillotine. Marx called this process the ascending path of the revolution.
The de-Stalinization campaign by Nikita Khrushchev triggered a reactionary movement in the Soviet Union that eventually led to the progressive movement of perestroika, or radical reforms, and dissolution of the Soviet Union under Mikhail Gorbachev.
It may be too early to seek out signs of such a reaction in North Korea.
There are few of the bourgeois class left in the country and the working class, which has been subjected to rigid control, can hardly be expected to rouse itself to demand a different social order and justice. Therefore, the execution of Jang may be just a by-product of conflicts of interests within the inner circle.
But Communist societies are not immune to Thermidorian movements. Despite the overwhelming heavy-handedness of the state, North Koreans have tasted the power of money. One expert has said North Korea is increasingly becoming “dollarized.”
The late Jang Song-thaek had been promoting such an economic principle. His indictment and death sentence charged that he brought in the evils of capitalism under the pretext of drawing foreign investment to the nation.
With the dollars and wealth he siphoned off from foreign business deals, he built his own kingdom within the party. He may have dreamed that he could be North Korea’s Deng Xiaoping or Mikhail Gorbachev.
Kim Jong-un may be pleased with himself after the permanent removal of one political opponent. But he cannot kill them all. The country does not have a future without economic reform. Kim must read the signs of a Thermidorian Reaction from the rise and fall of his uncle.
*The author is professor emeritus of political science at Seoul National University.
by Chang Dal-joong