This morning, I was very surprised to learn that North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-il had died at the age of 69, or 70 by Korean reckoning. Kim Jong-il, Chairman of the National Defense Committee, never used the title of president. Rather, that title is held by his late father who is North Korea’s “eternal president”.
What will happen is, of course, anybody’s guess. Some experts have stated that there will be a power struggle. However, B.R. Myers, a professor at Busan’s Dongseo University argues that this unlikely. Given that the North Korean regime draws its legitimacy from the Kim Il-sung legend, it’s unlikely that the regime could survive were someone from outside the family to run the country. It’s a difficult situtation right now. In 1974, Kim Il-sung, the founder of the reclusive state, named his son as his successor. Kim Jong-il had twenty years to prepare and to also become known, or at least a propagandized form of him, by the people. Kim Jong-un was only designated as the successor a year ago.
Here in Korea, it was of course big news. There were also protests against the Kim regime in Seoul, but it has been more or less quiet.
In looking at the life of Kim Jong-il, one has to be in awe of the man’s sheer audacity and shrewdness. Kim was able to play the most powerful nations in the world off of each other while continuing his nuclear weapons development. But the worst aspects of his life are the sheer luxury in which he and his family lived while most of his people were starving. The government of North Korea spent millions of dollars preserving the corpse of Kim Il-sung. It will likely to the same with Kim Jong-il’s body. Like his father, Kim Jong-il had a fear of flying. Thus, when he visited Russia or China, he travelled on his private train. According to some reports, live lobsters were flown to his train every day of his journey towards Moscow. Needless to say, it was well-stocked with fine wines and presumably Hennesy cognac, one of the most expensive varieties available. One of his sons, Kim Jong-nam, lives in luxury in Macau, one of the two Special Administrative Regions of the People’s Republic of China. Macau is sort of like the Las Vegas of Asia, given that it derives much of its income from gambling and tourism. Kim Jong-nam, while pretty much exiled, still lives pretty comfortably. He has two families, a wife and family in Macau and a wife and family in Beijing. On top of that, he is also said to support another mistress.
As I mentioned before, Kim Il-sung’s body was given very expensive treatment. It rests at the Kumsusan Memorial Palace in Pyongyang. This palace was completely overhauled. Those who have been through it report that it’s a bit like entering a clean room of a semiconductor plant. Any speck of dust is blown off of the clothes of visitors and they must wear special slippers inside. Kim Il-sung’s embalmed body lies in state where presumably Kim Jong-il’s body might also be on display. Hundreds of millions of dollars were spent on this project.
Meanwhile in Pyongyang and elsewhere, starvation is commonplace. One wonders whether or not Kim Jong-il’s death will also herald something along the lines of the massive famine of the 1990s which killed some two or three million people.
Al Jazeera had some of the best coverage of what had happened. In this report, they interview Professor Myers. His comments are well worth hearing.