Wednesday, 28 December 2011

The Death of a Stalinist.

So Kim Jong-il has died at the age of 70, going by Russian records, and the hermit state of North Korea is in transition to another leader and this time the successor seems to be a man who has yet to enter his fourth decade on this planet. The country descended into 10 days of mourning as it had when Kim Il-sung died in 1994. It was out of respect to the wishes of the "Great Leader" that Kim Jong-il was allowed to become the Chairman of the National Defence Commission. But it was not automatic, Kim Jong-il took 3 years to consolidate his power within the bureaucracy of the Workers' Party. It was decided in 1998 that the Eternal President of the Republic would be Kim Il-sung and so Kim Jong-il is technically not the President of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea. So the notion of a President for life has been taken one step further, perhaps we should deem North Korea a "thanatocracy" as Christopher Hitchens suggested.

Now it looks as though Kim Jong-un will takeover the party-state apparatus in a similar manner, there have already been purges to undermine potential rivals for power. This was a surprise to Western commentators who predicted that the military establishment would not continue the Kim dynasty given the horrific state of affairs in the country. The importance of the Kim dynasty to the ruling ideology in North Korea cannot be understated. If the family goes then it is likely that the entire regime will have little to hold itself together. After all it was Kim Il-sung who fought the Japanese and oversaw the reconstruction of the country after the horrors of the Korean war, in which over 2 million were slaughtered. Even though the war was sparked after Kim Il-sung talked Stalin into backing an invasion of South Korea in 1950. But the Korean People's Army consisted of the same forces who had fought the Japanese and to this day the regime relies on this record of anti-colonial struggle.

As with figures such as Tito in Yugoslavia, Hoxha in Albania and Ceaușescu in Romania when Kim Il-sung died in 1994 commentators looked for signs of a coming collapse. It is likely that the military establishment tightened control of the population as Kim Jong-il consolidated his power. No doubt the privileged position of the military comes down to the interdependent relationship it enjoys with the Party. The military cannot rule nakedly and therefore requires some kind of justification and in turn the Kim clan fall back on the military for power. It is worth noting that the most recent amendments to the constitution have removed all references to communism and even Marxism-Leninism, instead old ideas of Juche (self-reliance) and Songun (military first) have become central. The old communist slogans have little appeal to the profoundly conservative establishment, no wonder then that the regime has become staunchly nationalist in character under Kim Jong-il.

As a consequence of the succession from father to son and now to grandson there has yet to be a process of de-Stalinization in North Korea. The personality cult around the family remains elaborate and in full swing as it was started by Kim Il-sung in the 1950s. But the Stalinist model became increasingly isolated as the Soviet Union underwent a brief period of liberalisation under Khrushchev. Then came the mutation of Maoism into a unique form of authoritarian capitalism and the collapse of really existing socialism in Eastern Europe. The mock Stalinism of Albania and Romania melted in the face of popular rage, as goulash communism ran dry in Hungary and the Berlin Wall came down in Germany. Tito’s death gave way to ethnic tensions which would eventually tear apart Yugoslavia in the most horrific manner. No one in the West saw it coming and the US took credit for it all, even though it came about as a result of internal tensions. The fallout left North Korea isolated and dependent on a now rationed flow of resources.

No doubt the power structure of North Korea and the scarcity of oil led to the food crisis of the 1990s. In Cuba the Soviet collapse prompted the decentralisation of agriculture, to prevent the shortage of fuel from creating a food shortage which could in turn create a famine. By contrast, North Korea opted to maintain the old structure of centralised control and even sought to intensify the Songun doctrine as the regime relied even more on the military establishment for its strength. The brutality of the regime apparently reached new heights. The intense militarism which came as Kim Jong-il took power exacerbated the famine, which came out of the centralised control of the state and the decline of ready access to oil. The military and scientific elites were given priority in the allocation of resources. In the consequent famine over 2 million people died as Kim Jong-il retained power and enjoyed a life of excessive indulgence.

The countryside became a source of great shame to the regime, which still seeks to conceal the disgraceful conditions from the outside world. The constraints on farming from a fuel shortage exacerbated by the Songun doctrine have left the countryside picked clean of vegetation as the military is given priority. The preference is to keep its tourists to the cities where the illusion of a workers’ paradise can be maintained. In the midst of the famine came rumours of cannibalism and the sight of people grazing on grass like cows. Since then there have been small openings for market forces in North Korea since the collapse of really existing socialism around the rest of the world. The relations with Russia and China descended into exploitative arrangements, with North Korean workers sold to chop wood in the Russian East as increasing numbers of Chinese entered the country to sell food and clothing. Most recently footage of women picking grass to sell has been smuggled out of the country.

The fears of a power struggle sparking violence on the Korean peninsula are not outlandish as North-South relations are at a low point. There was a power struggle in the 1990s between the old guard and the reformists who wanted to mimic the Chinese model of ‘capitalism with Asian values’. We don’t know the details of the tension, but it is clear that Kim Jong-il had taken over the Workers’ Party with his father elevated to Eternal President. It was clear that the few openings made for markets were the only concessions that would be made as the military establishment formed the base on which Kim Jong-il sat. The principle of Songun made it sure that the military was privileged over the rest of North Korean society. But it is likely that the regime has been preparing for this succession for a while. There have been purges throughout the year and it would likely be a method of securing the succession to Kim Jong-un. Any sign of an uprising against the regime remains to be seen, but when the collapse comes it won't be seen coming from afar.

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