Nightmares are best left unrevisited, but the death on Dec. 17 of the “Dear and Great Leader” of North Korea, Kim Jong Il, deserves a deeper look down a particularly grisly memory lane. The entire Sturm und Drang of the death and succession to the third generation Kim Jong Un, already dubbed “Respected” and “Supreme Commander,” evokes some of the worst propaganda excesses of the Maoist regime in Communist China, especially during the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, nearly half a century ago.
The pictures of North Koreans amassed in central squares across the country, sobbing their grief to the nation and the world, are almost identical to the pictures that came out of China in 1976 when the Great Helmsman reluctantly gave up the ghost. Militarized mass mourning is at the heart of these wretched regimes, as if the forced or brainwashed operatic bawling of the masses can—through sheer volume if nothing else—comfort the worried dinosaurs who struggle to maintain the totalitarian status quo.
When people ask what it was like in China during the Hundred Flowers campaign (1955-57), or Great Leap Forward (1958-60), or the Cultural Revolution itself (1966-68), you just have to say: “Tune in to North Korea.” Ditto for forced labour camps, human rights abuses, avoidable starvation, and all sorts of mind-numbing terror campaigns to engender “enthusiasm” in the masses—a cowed and brutalized population ignored by a world that can’t do much about their lot except call their regime “evil.”
It is also a regime unsurprisingly protected by the People’s Republic of China, which largely props the country up in bad times and worse times for its own self-interests. Alas for its beleaguered citizens, North Korea is set for a whole lot more misery now that the successors seem to have stabilized their positions. Two current world-beating records guarantee this: the worst human rights abuses of any nation on earth; and this is combined with the most militarized society anywhere (more than one million in uniformed service and another 6.3 million in active reserve forces, in a population of barely 24 million).
The cruelly comical nature of the regime has long been established, even before Kim Jong Il (Kim the Second) was a featured puppet character in the 2004 American satirical film, Team America. Kim the Second’s father, Kim Il Sung (Kim the First), was the original nightmare who defined the character of North Korea and actually modelled his “revolution” on China’s brutal Maoist regime. For “Mao Zedong Thought,” Kim the First offered the concept of “Juche”—an ideological mumbo-jumbo in which mankind is the master-genius of all action and the justification for the fully loaded totalitarian state, now being passed along to his grandson.
Passed along, but—with luck and the forces of history—not necessarily for some future Kim the Fourth. The misery North Koreans must still endure will last for however long it will take before the regime either collapses from the inside thanks to its own inadequacies, excesses and corruption (like the Soviet Union and East Germany), or its people rise up in righteous and bloody rage (like Albania or Romania). A third possibility exists, of course, which is the one the world largely hopes will happen, and that is the China model, for want of a better phrase. The China model will see a limited amount of internal turmoil a few years after the bloated Kim heir fizzles in the wake of competing factions within the North Korean military. Probably, a “sensible and visionary” military leader will take over and guide the country into a China-like compromise in which sedate authoritarianism and unredeemed capitalism discover, as they did in China, that they can be kissing cousins.
For the moment, though, leave aside the Communist world’s extraordinary version of royal succession (“The Brutal Monster is dead, long live the Brutal Monster”). Ponder instead the lessons learned from China, which one day will be discovered about the North Korean regime. Using what the world has learned about the final period of state Maoism in China (which includes the period immediately following his death, when the party and state were under the nominal leadership of chairman Hua Guofeng—now confined to what chairman Mao himself delighted to refer to as “the dung heap of history”), we know for sure:
• That there are thousands of Korean political prisoners, some of whom will survive and tell their tales. There will be stories of both extraordinary bravery and craven cowardice. Wait for it.
• That the economic absurdities of the regime will eventually make it implode, but probably not before another period of mass starvation caused by bad planning, bad leadership and world-class corruption. Wait for it.
• That traditional religions are thriving underground and will resurface with a vengeance the moment there is any relenting by the regime or after its eventual downfall. Wait for it.
• That regime conflicts and disagreements, almost wholly shrouded from the public, are raging even as we assume everything is settling down for the reign of Kim the Third. This includes internal struggles within the hierarchy of the all-powerful armed forces. Wait for it.
• That the younger generation of the elite—the children of state and military leaders—will be the motor force behind change, but not before some of them will be branded traitors and subjected to “rigour” as examples to scare the others. They will be executed in public stadiums before crowds of over 100,000. Wait for it.
And what will North Korea be like when the walls of totalitarianism come tumbling down? It could be a lot like the China of today, with Korean cultural embellishments, or—if the North is really lucky like East Germany has been really lucky—as part of thriving, bustling, freedom-loving South Korea. When it will happen or how it will happen is, obviously, impossible to predict, but the fact that it will happen is a no-brainer. That, at least, must supply a few nightmares for all the entourage around Kim the Third who, if North Koreans are lucky, will also go down in history as Kim the Last.
John Fraser, who was the Globe and Mail’s correspondent in China from 1977 to 1979, is master of Massey College at the University of Toronto