Thoughts on Kim Jong-il’s Death

Originally I had intended to write about South Korea’s plan to put up a hundred-foot tall Christmas tree. North Korea was quite upset about this affront to their nation, declaring it to be tantamount to psychological warfare, and threatened that “unexpected consequences” would ensue if the tree went up. Where North Korea is concerned, almost all consequences are unexpected, so I found their threat convincing enough.

But a rather unexpected circumstance popped up on its own, a development more compelling to write about: Kim Jong-il died. I found out after work on the 18th; I had called my boss to talk shop on the walk home and as I was about to hang up she told me. We both sounded happy when we got off the phone with each other. I reflect that most people outside North Korea seem pretty happy about the news, though they may not proclaim it loudly. But the tone of the activity seems, on the whole, celebratory.

Kim Jong-Il in August 2011

No person deserves a celebrated death, not even a dictator. Yet Kim Jong-il at his death was no longer only an ordinary person; he was a figurehead for his regime. At that level, all of his affairs took on a mythical perspective, and his death, I think, represented to us in a small part the death of that regime. It seems that none of us are reacting to his death—who of us knew Kim Jong-il at all? Instead, we are reacting to the perceived effect of his death on the institution of the North Korean state.

The way we perceive institutions, though, is probably very different from the way they operate in fact. We metonymize them for convenience of thought. But the institution of North Korea’s political system—the beliefs of its people, the attitudes of its officers, the ways different citizens interact—has more inertia than can be derailed by the death of one person.

* * * * *

I wonder what it’s like inside North Korea now. When Kim Il-sung died in 1994, it was probably the greatest shock most North Koreans had ever had. According to Barabara Demick’s research, ask a North Korean where he was when Kim Il-sung died, and he’ll remember. As then, there was a special annoucement on the national news at midday instead of the usual 5:00pm. As then, even though their country’s president was old and ill, no one ever expected he would die. For the next ten days everyone took to the streets for the nearest statue of their Dear Leader, weeping publicly and loudly, and from all reports the same thing is happening now.

There are probably some whose grief is sincere, and probably some who fake it. I watched video footage of Kim Jong-il’s death, and of Kim Il-sung’s before that. It is difficult to believe that any of the people I saw in those videos were sincere in their grief. They were hyperbolic, histrionic, ridiculous, over-the-top. I cannot connect their expressions with any experience of my own. Maybe it is a mob mentality, or maybe they are acting a part; maybe they are just feeling a deeper grief than I’ve known.

Half of my Facebook friends, it seems, have some connection with Korea, and they are all thinking about Kim Jong-il’s death too. Most are hopeful for a brighter future for North Korea, and so it seems like they are celebrating his death. Inside North Korea, everyone mourns. Outside, everyone rejoices.

But both inside and outside, life goes on. I’m sure that my Facebook feed will soon change to statuses of Christmases and New Year’s resolutions and new school semesters starting. And inside North Korea, I’m sure little will change after Kim Jong-il’s death—the same system will march on.

* * * * *

So, what comes next? We talked a little bit about Kim Jong-un during our briefings this summer. My only lasting impression is how similar he looks to Kim Il-sung, his grandfather, when the elder Kim was his age. He was educated internationally, so there’s some hope he might be a bit more liberal, a bit more Western, a bit more open to reconciliation with the South than his father. But Kim Jong-il, by most accounts, was born in Russia, had some schooling in China during the Korean War, and attended the University of Malta for English-language instruction. Kim Il-sung, too, spent twenty-five years outside Korea. It seems unlikely that the newest leader’s intenational experience will lead him down any different path than his family’s before him.

Kim Jong-un, at right, with father Kim Jong-il at left

In any case, time will tell. The Christmas tree at the South Korean border remains an issue—perhaps more so than before, now that it is one of the first international conflicts that might present themselves to Kim Jong-un. Will the South’s government, very much on edge, still light the tree on December 23rd as planned? Or will that seem too much a deliberate provocation to a new leader waiting to be tested?

And if they do light it, how will the “new” North Korea respond? I expect that people both inside and outside await North Korea’s new leader as I do, with a confused mixture of hope and of the fear of hoping for too much.

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