The death of North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Il has thrown pundits into a speculative tizzy over what this means for the future of the country. Based on our recent visit to the isolated nation we have a few insights of our own to offer.
The country has been propped up for the last 60 years on the basis of a Cult of Personality. First for the Great Leader, Kim Il Sung, and then for his son, Kim Jong Il, known as the Dear Leader. The son benefited from the halo effect of his beloved father but did not generate as much adoration on his own.
It surprised me on our visit that the pins every citizen wears bore only the image of the father and did not include the son. Every room has a picture of the two side-by-side and there are images and statues all over Pyongyang and the countryside of the powerful and iconic father, less so of the son. When Kim Jong Il was portrayed, it was often as a prop to bask in his father’s reflected glory.
The propaganda machine was effective in propping up Kim Jong Il because he actually knew the Great Leader. However, just like a family business often gets diluted and fails when it is passed on to the 3rd generation, the same scenario will likely hold true for the next regime. The designated successor, Kim Jong Un, will benefit from no direct halo effect associated with Kim Il Sung. He was about ten years old when his grandfather died. Kim Jong Il’s two oldest sons were deemed unfit to take over for the Dear Leader after his death. One is seen frequently gambling in Macau. Passing the torch to an ill-prepared third son is indicative of the weak position of the regime.
Kim Jong Un, without any military experience, entered the army as a four-star general, since he who controls the army controls the military state of North Korea. But Kim Jong Un looks like the soft, spoiled boy that he is. In propaganda materials handed out to us in North Korea there were photos of him. He appeared as a pudgy young despot in training. It is hard to imagine him rallying the various forces that control the country. The bloodline that has led North Korea for over 60 years is obviously thinning.
Some predict that Kim Jong Il’s death will lead to a German style reunification. However, the East Germans, who received TV signals from the West, knew what they were missing by living in a Communist country. The citizens of the isolated Hermit Kingdom are lacking in this basic knowledge so don’t expect any citizens’ revolt as we’ve seen in the Middle East. The more likely scenario is a military takeover that may or may not include Kim Jong Un as a figurehead to keep the people in line. Either way, North Korea will remain just as obstinate as it has been in nuclear talks and will continue to be an unsettling presence on the Korean peninsula.
Click the link to view more about our visit to North Korea.