The Nuclear Family: Kith and Kim in the DPRK


“The revolution is carried out by means of one’s thought, not through one’s family background.”  Kim Jong-il

It’s all in the mind? That’s all right then. No fear of a family dynasty in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, unlike in the United States with those neocolonial Bushes.

When Kim Jong-il, the dearly departed Dear Leader of North Korea, was rattling his nuclear sabre Jon Stewart said “now the security of the world is threatened by Kim Jong-il, a nerdy, pompadoured, platform shoe-wearer who looks like something you’d put on the end of your child’s pencil.”

If Stewart had made his graphic graphite comment in North Korea he would have been quickly rubbed out.  Now, for those far enough away, there’s an inviting new Juche target for ridicule. ( “Juche” as in”independent stand” or “spirit of self-reliance” or “always putting Korean things first”, though it could also be rendered as “homegrown propaganda”). Of course it’s not just Juche which keeps the Republic frozen in time. Fear of the State and the State’s suspicion of anything new are the parallel paralysing emotions.

Making even quicker promotion than David Shearer , the young ‘un Kim Jong-un is now supreme leader of the ruling party, military and people-the top table trifecta. The new and inexperienced leader had less than two years apprenticeship; his father had been groomed for two decades and led his 24 million people with absolute rule for 17 years after taking power following the 1994 death of his father, North Korea founder Kim Il Sung*. 

Good grief?
As Kim Jong-il’s funeral wound its way interminably behind a jumbo size photo of the latest late president the frozen citizenry of Pyongyang were outdoing each other in grief expression, but sorely in need of method acting lessons. Ceremonial head of state Kim Yong Nam  told a sea of people in the main plaza in Pyongyang that Kim Jong-un inherits his father’s “ideology, character and revolutionary cause’ but this was cold comfort.*

2012 was supposed to mark North Korea’s self-proclaimed transformation into a “strong and prosperous” nation, but it faces a tricky transition to a young, untested leader at a time when dictatorships across the world have shaken and fallen.

From Here to Eternity
While his grandfather is the only and Eternal President-no two terms and you’re out in his case-Kim Jong-un is first on the Party List of 232 names.

The DPRK List makes a New Zealand political party list like the batting order for a Boxing Day family cricket match.  Political news video watchers and terrain spotters could spot the hierarchical ducks lined up in a choreographed row at the funeral, which went into extra time.

Close by on the funeral march and one of the  real powers behind the throne was his uncle former harmonica player Chang Sung Taek.  Can he play “Bring Me Sunshine”? He may need to. Chang has got a tricky job orchestrating the harmonics of the Army Band but there a lot of people invested in the status quo who won’t want to see even an Arab Autumn in their part of the globe. Behind his uncle was his aunt Kim Kyong Hui and behind her Vice-Marshall Ri Yong Ho.

With Kim Il Sung, the country’s first and only president Kim Jong Il held three main positions: chairman of the National Defence Commission, general secretary of the Workers’ Party and supreme commander of the Korean People’s Army. According to the constitution, his position as chairman of the National Defence Commission made him Supreme Leader of North Korea.

Kim Jong Un was made a four-star general  out of the blue last year. Since his father’s death his meteoric rise has accelerated. He has picked up major titles from officials, state media and today the army: Great Successor, Supreme Leader, Great Leader and now Supreme Commander. The power transition has been smooth and fast.

Bouffant Buffer State
North Korea is a classic buffer state, formed in 1948 after the division of the former country of Korea at 38° N as part of the unfinished business of World War II. It is bounded on the north by China, on the northeast by Russian Siberia, on the east by the Sea of Japan and on the south by South Korea. Big powers will be big powers and the state is a prisoner of its geography.

The new ruler looks like a young but plumper Mao about to begin a long lunch not a long march.* His eldest brother lost brownie points years ago after a visit to Disneyland in Japan, rather a sane land in comparison to his homeland, but Kim Jong-un has the hereditary haircut required to rule the bouffant buffer state. 

The oxymoronic hereditary Communist despot was photographed at Wednesday’s funeral with a mystery woman looking over shoulder.  Apparently she may be his wife and may be the mother of his child, possibly via a virgin birth-a recently published poster of a younger new Korean Messiah with his youthful and taller parents had post nativity overtones*.

Dynastic despots catch their myths where they can. North Korean children are taught that, when Kim was born in February 1941, spring suddenly broke out and a shower of rainbows instantly appeared in the sky. The pot of gold has been close at his hand for most of the last two decades. He was indeed Dear Leader-at times a very Dear Leader. In the nineties he didn’t bother to to scotch the rumour that he was the world’s biggest buyer of Hennessy. He was reputed to also import German cars, Czech beer, Uzbekistani caviar and Swedish models (not Volvos) while millions of North Koreans died from starvation under his rule.

But he was also a very generous leader and should take a final bow, according to his Chief Mythologiser, who reported that the late Kim’s last gift to North Korea was extra loads of fish which he organized personally just before the final curtain.*  They don’t leave it to the market in North Korea. The Chinese Proverb attributed to Lao Tzu, 6th century BC and appropriated by Chairman Mao Zedong: “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime”. The Late Leader could have gone a little further: “Give the populace some extra fish when the chips are down and feed them some more propaganda and you’ve got them for life.”

Ace Golfer
Kim was not only a great philanthropist, he was a pretty good rooky golfer. According to official North Korean sources, but strangely absent from the Guinness BoR, the diminutive driver shot a 34 first time up on a championship, par-72 course. He drilled home 11 holes-in-one in his not bad 38-under round, witnessed by 17 of his bodyguards. Was there a translation malfunction? Was it actually one hole in eleven?  Apparently not. The ace golfer is to golf what Mao was to swimming. If he hadn’t hung up his golf bag soon after his debut he would have soon had Tiger by the tail.

One of his real quotes was revealing:“I’m an Internet expert too. It’s all right to wire the industrial zone only, but there are many problems if other regions of the North are wired.” No Arab Spring or even an Arab Autumn here. North Korea has plenty of cells but not too many cellphones. Cyberspace exploration hasn’t got off the ground outside the military/industrial space. China’s clamp down on digital dissent among its half a billion users on line is an object lesson to its neighbor.  People in the DPRK are kept in the DARK- in line not on line . 

North Korea is a warfare state-the welfare of its people comes second to military survival. There is no question that it possesses the WMD so elusive in Iraq but its saving grace may be that it is not an oil oligarchy  As Jay Leno said under the previous presidency: “President Bush said today we should be patient with North Korea and use diplomacy and not rush into any kind of military actions. You know what that means? No oil over there.”

Kiwi Connection
I recall as a child in the early fifties that film newsreels were dominated by ominous black and white images of the Korean War. The Korean War began in 1950, when North Korean forces invaded South Korea. Supplied by the Soviets, and eventually joined by the Chinese, North Korea fought forces of South Korea and the United Nations, including New Zealand. It was a real test of the fledgling world body of which New Zealand’s Prime Minister Fraser had been a prime mover and a spokesman for smaller nations.

End of the Fairy Tale?
At the fag end of 2011, is time also running out for one of the most closed and repressive regimes on Earth, with endemic food shortages and a deteriorating economy? Despite his Swiss education the “pudgy princeling”is not likely to do a Snow White and awaken the population in the hermetically sealed hermit state to the new world which surrounds them, despite the fact that, if they dare, North Koreans can look over the borders North and South to more prosperous-and taller-people practicing different forms of capitalism.

Grim realities remain for Kim Jong-un. He’s inherited the magic mirror of his narcissistic father Kim Jong-il  (jon•quil- Narcissus jonquilla) and been given a poisoned apple.  He’ll quickly be measured up for a glass coffin if he doesn’t measure up. 

But so far so good, at least from his point of view. He and those around him have quickly built a new power platform without either platform shoes or dark glases. He will have to do something about that hair though.

Are you the Kim Jong Il of your company?

#Lyall Lukey
31 December 2011 My other (bit more serious) blog 


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