A few years ago, NASA put together a wonderful composite portrait of planet Earth: a map of the world at night as viewed from space. In that mosaic, clusters of light stand out against the darkness in those places where human-beings have gathered to live and work in significant numbers. In Asia, one particular exception to this rule stands out. Only a few feeble rays of light escape that portion of Asia between the 38th parallel and the Yalu River. Symbolically, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, better known as North Korea, thus remains lost in the darkness that has shrouded its people for over sixty years.
North Korea is tragically unique in many ways, and the way that its leaders have combined communism with cultism is unprecedented in the modern world. The nation has known but two chiefs since its creation after World War II: the “Great Leader” Kim-Il Sung and his son, the “Dear Leader” Kim Jong Il who took over after the elder Kim died in1994. Said to be ailing, the sixty eight year old Kim Jong Il seems to be trying to put his house in order before he takes his place on the Great Politburo in the Sky. By elevating his sister Kim Kyong Hui and his third son Kim Jong Eun to the ranks of four star generals, the Dear Leader reinforced yet again what really matters in North Korea. What happens to that nation’s cowed, impoverished populace is of no importance to its leaders. What really matters is the fate of the Kim clan.
By all accounts, conditions within North Korea are horrific. According to CIA data, its average per capita income in the DPRK is about $1,900 per year. Famine is rampant, despite billions in international aid. Every year, ordinary North Koreans try to flee the nation in droves. Many young women leaving the country end up in China, where they become prostitutes or are sold into “marriages.” In either case, those women who are able to escape into sexual slavery count themselves lucky, for they have at least escaped starvation. This is the legacy of a nation that has been run “of the Kims, by the Kims and for the Kims” for over half a century.
Analysts will speculate over what this latest announcement means, in terms of both content and timing. Is Kim Kyong Hui being given more power in her right, or is she being further elevated as a counterweight to her powerful husband, Song Taek, or is this about her helping her husband to consolidate more power? Perhaps this is the Dear Leader’s way of protecting the twenty-eight year old Kim Jong Eun until he’s comfortable wielding power. Is this a sign that the Kim Jong Il’s health has taken another turn for the worse? Such attempts to understand the motivations that drive the actions of a crazy man might be accidentally successful at times, but most often they are doomed to failure. The Kims of North Korea don’t act rationally any more than they rule rationally. In their world, the United States is and always has been the great enemy. There is no need to consider any further issues. The starving, desperately poor nation that North Korea has become is irrelevant in the face of this very personal crusade. The Kims of North Korea are, in their own way, as fanatic in their hatred for the west in general and America in particular as is Osama bin Laden or any of his cronies.
The only thing that transforms the Kims from tragic jokes into dangerous despots is the fact that the family controls nuclear weapons and that they happily export this knowledge – along with other weapons technologies – to rogue states and terrorists around the world. But for its nuclear capability, North Korea’s bluff and bluster would make it a laughingstock. Its conventional forces are pitifully equipped and it lacks the resources to logistically maintain any sort of protracted military campaign. North Korea has one bullet in its gun and one bullet only. Whatever time he has left on this planet, Kim Jong Il’s legacy is that he has played that single bullet for all that it is worth. The Dear Leader may be crazy like a fox, or he may be just plain crazy, but his genius, or perhaps the genius of his handlers, is that no one in the free world can really be sure either way. Firing missiles – issuing threats – sinking a South Korean warship; these would all seem to be acts of a madman. Yet, who can know? The alternate view is that Kim pushes the west just as far as he calculates he can, in order to wrest more aid out of the developed world. With the curtain of secrecy drawn so tightly around the DPRK, it’s impossible to be sure what its leaders really think. But, does it really matter? Would you rather deal with a crazy person who has the bomb, or somebody with a nuclear arsenal who’s crazy enough to pretend to be crazy?
Whatever really happens within the halls of power in Pyongyang, it’s clear that a Kim will continue to call the shots for some time to come. The latest signs of the family’s resilience should be troubling to a free world that must tolerate their bluster and threats. Yet, that hardly compares to what the people of North Korea must endure as this singularly despotic regime continues to exploit and enslave its once proud populace.
Leave a Reply