From One Kim to the Next

In 1995, when Kim Jong-il consolidated power, an alarming number of frogs disappeared from North Korea. The reason was that desperate North Koreans were eating frogs to ward off starvation.

The famine that occurred between 1995 and 1998 ranks among the most underreported and obscured man-made tragedies. Half a million to 2 million people died; yet no one believed these estimates because the insular nature of the North Korean government turned any information about it into propaganda or rumors.

Tragically, the famine-related death toll is speculative, and we can choose to believe that no government would refuse foreign aid and let its citizens die. An argument can be made that the famine didn’t occur at all.

However, it is not so easy to dismiss the claim that every government, if given the chance, would besmirch its sullied past.

North Korea is not only besmirching its past, it is carving a future that would need besmirching as well. Nothing in the Stalinist state has changed since 1995.

On Nov 30, 2009 North Korea announced that it was devaluing its currency. Thereby, each family was allotted small amounts of new money. There was panic among the people, some reportedly committed suicide.

It’s not that other countries have not devalued their currencies (Turkey and Ghana, for instance, did) but it’s that most North Koreans were given a notice of less than 24 hours before the money they had became useless.

Many senior officials were informed before the public so that they could exchange the old currency for the new one.

Harrowing bureaucracy marks everything that the North Korean government does, and if a government exists long enough, its survival is the primary goal. Muammar Gaddafi’s brutal reign and equally brutal downfall is an example.

What better way to survive than by claiming the glory of the leaders. The record can always be besmirched if it’s not glorious enough.

Anachronism is a word for leaders too stubborn to humor themselves. After the devaluation of their currency, North Koreans could not burn the money they’d saved because the paper money bore the image of Kim Jong-il and it’s illegal to defame the image of the “Dear Leader.”

Imagine being punished because of placing a cup of coffee on a newspaper bearing the image of President Barack Obama.

The concepts of cynicism or satire are so alien to the suppressed public that it seems that the officials take advantage of that.

Kim Il-sung, Kim Jong-il’s father, is designated the “Eternal President,” while Kim Jong-il is the “Dear Leader.” Jong-il’s expiry was marked by “the great funeral of the nation.” North Korea’s official name is “Democratic Peoples’ Republic of Korea.” The regime is not as much paranoid as it is narcissistic.

Pyongyang not only controls the information it wants the world to know, it also controls the reactions that information ought to evoke.

For instance, the death of Kim Jong-il was announced government television by a middle-aged anchorwoman who was in tears, which pretty much summed up how the public was supposed to react.

On Dec. 19, 2011, the North Korean regime released pictures of its people mourning the death of the “Dear Leader.” The government was advertising the glory of its leader but the public crying seemed like an expression of sustained suffering instead of mourning.

South Korea is on high alert due to the assumed volatility of transition to a new leader, Kim Jong-un, the 20-something son Kim Jong-il.

And of course, the North Korean news media is referring to him as “heaven-sent leader,” and “the sun of the 21st century” apparently unaware that the sun shines everywhere not just in the militarized borders of a dimming regime.

But the reason the regime continues to dim and not burn out entirely is that South Korea recognizes what a burden a collapsed neighbor will be.

History is quite informative: the integration in 1990 of communist and collapsed East Germany with West Germany created an economic boom in the East while stagnating the West German economy. Overall, the East contributed more to unemployment and federal deficit than production.

Despite the difference in historical context, South Korea is doing its best to not be like West Germany. The former South Korean President, Kim Dae-jung, crafted the “Sunshine Policy” of economic coquetry with North Korea.

He was awarded the 2000 Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts, but it was revealed later that North Korea was paid large sum of money for Kim Jong-il to sit through a pro forma summit and smile for the camera.

In a way, South Korea wants its hostile neighbor to remain hostile but moderately so.

U.S. diplomats are never alarmed by the barbaric treatments that North Koreans receive from its government because we’re more concerned about the crummy nuclear state than the citizens unfortunate enough to live in that crummy nuclear state.

Hereby, diplomacy is about alliance between countries not between their people.

Another reason making the U.S. nervous aside from North Korea’s nuclear ambitions is Pyongyang’s alliance with Beijing. China cannot resist helping its ideological brothers-in-arms; it was once the Khmer Rogue in Cambodia and now it’s North Korea, but governments who are primarily interested in surviving don’t survive for long. No one can read Edward Gibbon’s “The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire” exhaustively enough.

But the Arab Spring brought about after Mohamed Bouazizi, a street vender, set himself on fire in Tunisia is evidence that regimes don’t necessarily have to be punished by an outside force; their own people will do that eventually. But until then many will suffer.

One of the first songs that North Korean children learn is called “We Have Nothing to Envy in the World.” Looking from the outside, we hope it’s true even though there is mounting evidence suggesting otherwise.

Sumeet Singh is a second-year English major. He can be reached at sumees1@uci.edu.