COMMENT Kim the petulant strikes out
By Tatiana Gabroussenko
When extolling the deeds of North Korea's Great and Dear Leaders, North Korean propaganda likes to emphasize the lessons that the Kims have allegedly taught to the world. I find myself in the rare situation of being in full agreement with North Korean propagandists.
Indeed, the current behavior of Supreme Leader Marshal teaches at least two lessons to parents all over the world, and these lessons are particularly precious for fathers of future dictators.
The first lesson: do not allow your children to play computer games too much lest they dangerously lose touch with reality. Read them some history books instead, with narrations about how
revolutions are normally started and finished being especially valuable: French, Russian, or Romanian - anything will do.
The second lesson: until your children are fully grown up, do not send them too far away from home lest they get some silly ideas into their heads and act according to such ideas after they return.
The behavior of young North Korean leader has already raised many eyebrows. It suffices to mention his marriage to Ri Sol-ju, a girl with a bohemian past, or his strange affection for Dennis Rodman, an eccentric athlete who did not bother to take off his cap in front of the Leader. However, the current downfall of Jang Song-thaek was jaw-dropping even by these standards.
This author still wants to believe that behind the theatrics that surrounds this event might lie some cold-headed Machiavellian scheme, some cunning, larger-than-life plot of the young Supreme Leader who might be worthy of his manipulative grandfather. If, however, things are just as they appear - the erratic act of a teenager's riot against an annoying adult - I am forced to admit that we have just witnessed pure, undiluted political stupidity. Such an act could be committed only by a person whose life experiences are limited, nervous system is unstable and survival instincts are dead.
Only such a person would not appreciate such rare assets in an impoverished and secluded nation over which he had inherited absolute power as political stability (a product of meticulous, conscientious decades-long efforts of his predecessors).
Kim Il-sung, who started his political career as a Soviet puppet, at first emulated Soviet Stalinist patterns of treating regime enemies, with its indispensable show trials, publicized purges and fervent rhetoric of ongoing class struggle. However, Kim the First turned away from the Soviet model quite soon into his reign. From the early 1960s, Kim Il-sung began to emphasize ethnocentric themes and ideas, rather than Leninist class struggle. This culminated in the regime's new Juche idea, which began to emerge at this time.
Juche postulates inseparable unity of all North Koreans in the face of external challenges. North Korean literature and the arts of Kim Il-sung's era presented the DPRK as a "people's paradise" inhabited by equally virtuous people, sons and daughters of the "Fatherly Leader" and "Mother Party." All the enemies, be it "Seoul puppets" or "American beasts", were placed outside the borders of this "paradise".
This rhetoric directly influenced Kim Il-sung's political practice, he used to follow the golden rule of traditional parenthood: mothers and fathers should never quarrel in front of the children. When Kim Il-sung removed somebody from his entourage, he did so without excessive fuss.
Kim the Second followed the same line. By placing political stability at the top of his political agenda, Kim Jong-il managed to survive the famine of the 1990s. The North Korean leadership had no choice but to recognize the fact that their country faced huge economic problems in order to get foreign help. However, the DPRK's domestic propaganda put all the blame for economic failures on external factors (mostly, American sanctions and disastrous floods), not on some scapegoats among North Korean politicians, let alone the leader himself. Even when Kim Jong-il chose to execute his Party secretary for agriculture, his execution was announced only to the chosen few.
To describe the events of the late 1990s, North Korean propaganda invented poetic euphemisms, the period was dubbed the "arduous march", this alluded to the march of Kim Il-sung's guerillas in 1938 in Manchuria, which bore the similar name. The whole nation was summoned to tighten their belts and stay closer to the Dear Leader; the latter was said to be sharing in the hardships of his subjects and allegedly ate only acorn jelly for lunch.
Any mistakes by local cadres if mentioned in the context of the "arduous march" were referred to sympathetically, as the results of misplaced goodwill and lack of experience. While he was a less skillful politician than his father, Kim Jong-il was still smart enough to understand that a chain of accusations aimed at his high-positioned subordinates (when kept secret) are easily reversible. Sanctioned and ignited hatred of the populace could create an uncontrollable situation and be turned against him, so it was safer not to let this genie out of bottle.
All sorts of media in the DPRK have been efficiently mobilized for promoting the idea of classless paradise; strictly controlled professional propagandists have been working on fostering the necessary public mood . North Korean propaganda specialists, indeed, deserve their extra bowl of rice and a slice of pork: as foreign surveys of refugees demonstrate, up until today the vast majority of the North Korean populace tends to believe in the major postulates of North Korean propaganda. Those few North Koreans who might harbor some doubts have no channels through which they could even hint to at their frustrations (in public).
While the North Korean elite used to be the major benefactor from this state of affairs, I dare to suggest that regular North Koreans got their share of advantages too. Mentally they lived in a harmonious space: rarely is ideology as appealing to popular sentiments as the North Korean picture of a paradise inhabited by thoroughly good people. Confucian traditions and low social mobility both contributed to the fatalistic ease with which many North Koreans continue to accept the concept of "upper water and low water", the innate inequality of different social strata and the notion that everyone in society should mind their own business and do what is expected of them.
And their "business" they indeed minded. Since the mid-1990s, after their state socialist economy collapsed, North Koreans have been busy constructing a market economy - as if obeying state propaganda, which summoned people to solve their problems "relying on their own strength". This crawling marketization, which Kim Jong-il's government grudgingly tolerated, made it possible for the economic situation to improve in recent years.
The state and people in the DPRK have come to a kind of unspoken consensus, a social contract according to which they would live parallel but mutually beneficial existences. The state is obliged to provide people with basic medical services, protection and education under the facade of socialism, and at the same time close its eyes to the new sprouts of capitalism; the people in exchange fed the country through their unofficial businesses and do not meddle in politics.
This unspoken social contract had one important consequence. The dirty and painful job of shattering the last remnants of state socialism and introducing capitalism in the DPRK was done not by state elite or group of reformers, but happened quite naturally, at the hands of normal people, local "activists" of the black market. This situation was the opposite to that in post-Perestroika Russia. In Russia, the unpopular duty of demolishing of state socialism's bloated but popular system of welfare provision and full employment had to be done by the post-Soviet state. This made the new elite the object of popular hatred.
Thus, the country that Kim Jong-eun has inherited, for all its deficiencies, has some advantages. People who happen to be his subjects are patient, hard-working, adaptable and responsible, accustomed to challenges and are ready for innovations and market reforms. They have one specific requirement, however: they are used to working in a politically stable environment.
Not accidentally, the idea of political stability was essential for the legitimization of Kim Jong-eun. He is after all a politician of dubious credentials who, unlike his father, was barely known to North Koreans before being announced as their new leader. Kim Jong-eun was introduced as his resurrected grandfather, "Kim Il-sung of today".
As the disgrace of Jang Song-thaek demonstrates, Kim Jong-eun barely recognizes the value of political stability. Even if his conflict with high-positioned party cadres is indeed of an ideological nature and Jang was a hindrance to his new course and therefore had to be demoted, it is difficult to understand how washing dirty linen in public helps in olving this ideological conflict.
Public humiliation of a dignified aged politician who also happens to be Kim Jong-eun's close relative, loud accusations of a distinguished party grandee womanizing and gambling (the accusations which demonstrate a rather mediocre flight of fantasy of their inventors), strike at the very foundation upon which North Korean society is built. It makes a ready scenario for civil war that, when the time comes, could easily swallow up the young leader.
The most important thing is that this public scandal is apparently incongruent with the reform course that the new leader had seemed to support up to now. Part of the accusations against Jang Song-thaek are aimed at China, so far the only loyal sponsor of the DPRK. These accusations are therefore potentially very damaging to vital economic ties with Beijing.
A return to the age of public executions and mass trials in the style of mid-1950s may terrify Kim Jong-eun's real or imagined adversaries; yet, it would hardly help to release the creative energies, initiative and entrepreneurial spirit of North Korea's common people. It is the latter which is all too necessary for improving the life of this impoverished and unlucky country.
Tatiana Gabroussenko is a professor of North Korean studies at Korea University. Her book Soldiers on the Cultural Front: Developments in the early history of North Korean literature and literary policy was selected for the Choice magazine list of Outstanding Academic Titles of 2012.
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