Dynastic successions and its antecedents in North Korea.
When Kim Jong Il died on December 17th, I was lucky to be in Singapore. That way I could watch from a salutary distance the froth and drivel that passed for expert American commentary: How can his callow son expect to grapple with octogenarian leaders in the powerful military—won’t there be a coup? Then again, Kim Jong Un might “lash out” to prove his toughness to the militarists. “North Korea as we know it is over,” a Korea specialist who served in the second Bush administration confidently asserted in the New York Times, a mere two days after Kim died; it is just a matter of weeks or months, he wrote, before the regime comes apart. Others worried that such a collapse might require US Marines on Okinawa to swoop in to corral “loose nukes” (one of their key missions for several years). Meanwhile Obama administration officials fretted about a “power struggle” erupting, something Secretary of State Hillary Clinton prattled on about after Kim’s stroke three years earlier. Their model seems to be the USSR after Stalin died, or China after Mao. Utterly ignored is what happened when Kim Il Sung died in 1994: nothing.
On my first visit to North Korea in 1981, I flew in from Beijing and hoped to go out through the Soviet Union, on the Trans-Siberian Railway. Consular officials said I should obtain a visa at the Soviet Embassy in Pyongyang. When I duly arrived at its doorstep, a friendly (read KGB) counselor sat me down, offered me cognac, and inquired as to what I might be doing in Pyongyang. More cognac, more discussion, and then he asked what I thought of Kim Jong Il, who had just been officially designated as successor to Kim Il Sung at the 6th Party Congress in 1980. “Well, he doesn’t have his father’s charisma,” I said. “He’s diminutive, pear-shaped, homely. Looks like his mother in fact.” “Oh, you Americans,” he said, “always thinking about personality. Don’t you know they have a bureaucratic bloc behind him, they all rise or fall with him—these people really know how to do this here. You should come back in 2020 and see his son take power.”
It proved to be the best prediction I’ve ever heard about this hybrid communist state-cum-dynasty, except that Kim Jong Il’s heart attack at the age of sixty-nine merely hastened the succession to Kim Jong Un by a few years. The North Korean people have known only millennia of monarchy and a century of dictatorship—Japanese from 1910 to 1945, where in the late stages of colonial rule Koreans had to worship the (Japanese) Emperor, and then the hegemony of the Kim family for the past 66 years. On the grandson’s birthday, January 8th (his birth year still seems to be a secret, but it was 1983 or 84), Pyongyang television ran an hour-long documentary bathing him in every North Korean virtue and identifying him with every salient place or monument visited by Kim Il Sung, but especially White Head Mountain, the vast volcanic peak on the Sino-Korean border, mythical fount of the Korean people, site of some of Kim’s anti-Japanese guerrilla battles in the 1930s, and purported birthplace of Kim Jong Il in 1942. Most interesting, however, was Jong Un’s body language: tall, hefty, grinning, pressing the flesh, already a politician, a hearty individual seemingly at home with his sudden role as “beloved successor.” Erased was the dour, dyspeptic, cynical and ill-at-ease Kim Jong Il, swaddled in a puffed-up ski jacket, his face hidden behind enormous sunglasses. Most important, in visage and personal style, Jong Un is the spitting image of his grandfather when he came to power in the late 1940s, even to the point of shaving his sideburns up high (the documentary pointedly featured photos of Kim Il Sung with the same haircut). It is as if the DNA passed uncontaminated through son to grandson—and no doubt that is what the regime wants its people to believe.
Korean culture is steeped in the ceremony, ritual, literature, poetry, lore, and gossip of royal families—and especially, which son would succeed the king. Many did so at a young age. The greatest of kings, Sejong, under whom the unique Korean alphabet was promulgated, took office in 1418 at the age of 21, assisted by the regency of his father. Like Jong Un, he was the third son; the eldest son was banished from Seoul for rudeness, and the middle son became a Buddhist monk. Kim Jong Nam, Kim Jong Il’s first son, embarrassed everyone by getting caught entering Japan under a pseudonym (hoping to visit Disneyland, it is said), and prefers to reside in Macao, the gambling capital of the world. Virtually nothing is known about the middle son, and neither appeared at their father’s funeral.
Asians, it is often said, hate to lose “face.” It is a word better translated as dignity, or honor. In North Korean eyes, the prestige of the nation is bound up with the visage of the leader. On the way in from the airport in 1981, as we sped by various Kim Il Sung billboards, my friendly guide had one solemn admonition: please do not insult our leader. (I hadn’t planned to, lest I jeopardize my exit.) The leader’s ideology, then and now, was “Juche,” or chuch’e, a concept meaning always to put Korea first and above all else in one’s mind. Scholar of Korea Gari Ledyard has written that the second character, when joined to the word for nation—kukch’e—was used in classical discourse to connote the national face, or dignity. As Ledyard wrote, “The kukch’e can be hurt, it can be embarrassed, it can be insulted, it can be sullied. The members of the society must behave in such a way that the kukch’e will not be ‘lost.’ This sense of the word resonates with emotions and ethics that spring from deep sources in the traditional psyche.” Anyone who has visited the North will recognize that this idea is alive and well—too often in overweening pride and grandiose monuments, but at bottom, in an insistence on national dignity.
The penultimate Korean king, Kojong, was a mere eleven when he took the throne in 1864, guided by his father—a powerful regent known as the Taewon’gun—until he reached maturity. During his regency the father reenergized the dominant ideology (neo-Confucianism), practiced a strict seclusion policy against several empires knocking at the Korean door, and fought both France (1866) and the US (1871) in serious wars; two years later the new Meiji leadership in Japan came very close to invading Korea. This was the Hermit Kingdom at its height, and kukch’e was a particularly prominent concept under the Taewon’gun. But when Kojong came of age he sought modern reforms, signed unequal treaties opening Korea to commerce, and tried to play the imperial powers off against each other. It worked for a quarter-century, and then it didn’t: opening up merely staved off the eventual and predictable end—the obliteration of Korean sovereignty in 1910. At the Revolutionary Museum in Pyongyang, fronted by a 60-foot statue of Kim Il Sung, visitors witness a paean of praise to the Taewon’gun, stone monuments from his era meant to ward off foreign barbarians, and breast-beating tributes to Korean “victories” against the French and the Americans.
During the recent funeral procession on a wintery day, Kim Jong Il’s brother-in-law, Chang Song-t’aek, walked behind Kim Jong Un; Chang, 65, has long been entrusted with command of the most sensitive security agencies. Behind him was Kim Ki-nam, a man in his eighties who was a close associate of Kim Il Sung. Three generations walking solemnly alongside the vintage mid-1970s armored Lincoln Continental carrying the coffin of Kim Jong Il, and strolling on the other side of the limousine, top commanders of the military in what has to be modern history’s most amazing garrison state, with the fourth largest army in the world.
These rituals were markedly similar to those when Kim Il Sung died, and just like today, pundits and officials emitted the same derivative commentary— Newsweek ran a cover story titled “The Headless Beast,” the US military commander in the South said over and over that the North will “implode or explode,” and the imminent collapse of the regime became the CIA’s mantra in the mid-1990s. (Here we are almost two decades later, and if you give the DPRK another few years, it will have been in existence for as long as the entirety of the Soviet Union.) A few months before Kim Il Sung’s death I heard a Korean-American scholar tell a conference crowd that when Kim died, the people would rise up and overthrow the regime. Instead the masses wept in the streets—just as they did when King Kojong died in 1919, touching off a nationwide uprising against the Japanese.
After his father passed away Kim Jong Il disappeared, feeding more rumors of power struggles. Actually he was doing what the heir-apparent prince was supposed to do under the ancien regime: mourn his father for three years. By the 50th anniversary of the DPRK’s founding in 1998, it was clear that Kim Jong Il was in full charge of the country, and he launched their first long-range missile to mark the moment. He also opined many times that communism had fallen in the West because of the dilution and erosion of ideological purity. North Korea has turned Marx on his head—or put Hegel back on his feet—by arguing that “ideas determine everything,” a formulation the Taewon’gun’s neo-Confucian scribes would have liked.
It will be interesting to see if Kim Jong Un follows the same mourning ritual—so far he has not, visiting military units and appearing publicly elsewhere. Certainly it is in his interest to lay low and gain experience, while the seasoned old guard runs the country. Furthermore with American and South Korean presidential elections later in the year (the current Korean president, a hardliner whom the North loathes, cannot run again), top leader Hu Jin-tao stepping down in China and Putin’s election now less of a certainty in Russia, biding one’s time is smart. But he has unquestionably (if instantly) become the face of the regime, one much more agreeable to the public than Kim Jong Il’s.
Still, my Soviet informant was right and I was wrong about the significance of bodily appearances: regardless of what he looks like, the king can do no wrong—he can even shoot several eagles on his first golf round (as Kim Jong Il’s acolytes claimed). In a classic book, The King’s Two Bodies, Ernst Kantorowicz wrote that there were two kings: the frail, human and mortal vessel who happens to be king, and the perfect eternal king who endures forever as the symbol of the monarchy. The Koreans thus made the dead Kim Il Sung president for eternity, all imperfections erased, and now his elaborate mausoleum is the most important edifice in the country. Jong Un’s mimetic face, one imagines, will make the population quickly forget about Kim Jong Il, whose seventeen-year reign was one of flood, drought, famine, the effective collapse of the economy, mass starvation leading to hundreds of thousands of deaths—the time-of-troubles expected to follow on the death of the dynastic founder. Kim had one singular, if dubious achievement: the acquisition of nuclear weapons. (But here a lot of credit goes also to the ignorantly provocative “Bush doctrine,” which listed the DPRK along with Iraq and Iran not just as an “axis of evil,” but as targets for preemptive attack.)
By virtue of my wife’s position at the University of Virginia, we live in one of ten campus “pavilions” designed by Thomas Jefferson nearly 200 years ago. Here is one hallowed ground that is not “history,” that curious American term for the obliterated, irrelevant past. Still “Mr. Jefferson” to everyone, he often seems “perfect”—but the brick shed where slaves kept their tools still sits in our garden. We human beings all, consciously or not, live within our history and yearn for a usable past. North Koreans will welcome the only handsome face of authority that all but the most elderly Koreans have known, the founder of the country, the “fatherly leader,” now reincarnated. He may not yet be thirty, but if my Soviet interlocutor was right (and he has been for three decades), we are going to see Kim Jong Un’s face for a long, long time.
The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.
*[A version of this article was published by Le Monde Diplomatique  on February 10, 2012.]