What does the death of Supreme Leader Kim Jong-il mean for North Korea and the world? “North Korea, as we know it is over,” a New York Times op-ed page piece has already trumpeted. “Whether it comes apart in the next few weeks or over several months, the regime will not be able to hold together.” Whether that dire prophecy comes true or not, “the Great Successor”, Kim Jong-un, a Switzerland-educated 29-year- old, clearly has a job on his hands.
This, after all, is a country with enough plutonium to build at least six or seven nuclear bombs, and a decades-old food shortage. This is how the late Christopher Hitchens described the food situation on a visit to the country in 2001: “North Korea is a famine state. In the fields, you can see people picking up loose grains of rice and kernels of corn, gleaning every scrap. They look pinched and exhausted. Even… in the few modern hotels [in the capital Pyongyang]…morsels of inexplicable fat or gristle are served as “duck”...[I] found my appetite crucially diminished by the realization that I hadn’t seen a domestic animal, not even the merest cat, in the whole time I was there [In a Pyongyang restaurant, don’t ever ask for a doggy bag].”
A file photo of North Korean leader Kim Jong-il
The only item in Kim Jong-un’s CV that evokes a little confidence is that he introduced the internet and cellphones to his country, though these were limited to a highly restricted elite. (In 2001, Hitchens found schoolchildren painstakingly learning Morse code).
In the end, the fate of this dark, secretive kingdom that beats most fantasy authors’ imagination on sheer unreality, will rest with China. North Korea has been surviving with China’s patronage, and it is Chinese leaders who will now have to decide what to do with their little neighbour. Beijing has already announced that it is important to preserve the continuity of North Korea’s leadership. But the point is that Kim Jong-il, for all his crackpot eccentricities, provided stability. Will his son be able to maintain his chair with his father’s old guard and a not-too-happy military (Kim Jong-un is a four-star general in the army, though he has never spent a day in the barracks) in a wait-and-watch mood?
What is most likely is that China, through the lure of aid and investment, will draw North Korea even closer into its fold, until it is assimilated into China in all but name. This may not be good news for anyone except the Chinese and the North Koreans, who may perhaps finally get enough to eat some day.
Meanwhile, the Pakistanis also cannot sit silent, given their long association with North Korea’s nuclear programme. Said an editorial in the Pakistani paper Dawn: ”Pakistan’s own linkage with North Korea has exposed Islamabad to charges of nuclear proliferation. But with the help of a common neighbour, China, Pakistan can help North Korea chart a new course for itself to become a responsible member of the international community.” The writer also goes on to suggest that the United States should try to tempt the new leader into pulling his country out of isolation.
Pious and well-meaning sentiments indeed. But how likely is it that China will lend even half an ear to anything the US might have to say about China’s little communist kid?
So I see no good news emanating from the region in the near future. Except that—and that should please anyone, whatever his or her political persuasion—the Chinese might let the average North Korean eat a bit more. In the long run, that’s good for China, and in the very long run, perhaps good for the world. A yearning for democracy can emanate from many diverse and unpredictable historical forces.