Kim Jong-Il, the tyrant that ruled over North Korea has finally died at the age of 69. He likely died from a heart attack or stroke, although the North Korean propaganda machine has claimed that he died from “overwork.” Under his leadership, North Korea continued to be a concentration camp writ on a nightmare scale. While Jong-Il dined on expensive Japanese sushi (imported directly from Japan through his personal chef) and drank French cognac, millions of North Koreans died of starvation and disease. On every measure of societal development, North Korea comes dead last, thanks to a regime that is the living embodiment of paranoia, xenophobia, and totalitarianism.
What is most frightening about the situation in North Korea is not that it’s so bad, it’s that it could be even worse. The Kim regime placed thousands of artillery pieces in the hills surrounding the Korean DMZ, and possesses chemical, biological, and crude nuclear weapons. The North Koreans have the means to devastate much of Seoul with a barrage of artillery, or even launch attacks against targets in Japan with medium-range missiles. The Kim regime may appear insane, but appearances are decieving: if anything, the Kim regime were coldly calculating, deftly weaving Korean legends and Marxist claptrap into a net that has kept 25 million people enmeshed in a living nightmare.
The scenes of North Koreans crying over the death of their persecutor mirrors the scenes of 1994 when Kim Il Sung died-—there too was a massive show of grief, staged or not. And what is even scarier to contemplate than these scenes being staged is that the Kim regime has so completely brainwashed the people of North Korea that the grief is real.
As terrible as the situation in North Korea is, it is made even more terrible by the fact that there is no acceptable endgame to this situation. Even if the regime were to collapse, it would be a humanitarian nightmare for the region and for the world. China has no interest in absorbing 25 million starving North Koreans. As much as the United States may wish to see a unified and democratic Korean Peninsula, that would be a project that could take decades, and the South Korean government may not be so willing to accept the cost of trying to lift the North out of its medieval state.
Heir to a Madman
But a collapse is all too possible. Kim Jong-Un has been designated by the Kim regime as the “Great Successor,” but he is not even 30, has never served in the military, and has only been groomed for leadership for a year. In contrast, the transition from Kim Il Sung to Kim Jong-Il occurred only after Kim Jong-Il had 25 years of experience in taking on leadership tasks. The North Korean military is the only power in the country that could do anything to stop the Kim regime, and it’s not certain whether senior military officials are willing to be led by a 20-something with no military experience and little credibility.
Little is known about Kim Jong-Un, including his actual birthday, his background, his education, his outlook on affairs, or how he might choose to lead the DPRK. What we do know is that he was educated in Europe where his classmates observed a shy boy with a love for basketball. He was not interested in engaging in diatribes against the United States, but drew portraits of Michael Jordan and collected pictures of himself with NBA stars. What this means for his outlook on the world is unknown. But what is known does not paint a picture of someone who has the leadership abilities or cunning of his father or grandfather.
It may well be that Kim Jong-Un is little more than a placeholder—rumors are that the heir apparent to the madman’s throne is hardly up to the task. It may well be that his aunt, Kim Kyong-Hui may be secretly running things behind the scenes. There are a million rumors, and because North Korea is so secretive and isolated from the rest of the world, it’s impossible to know what is really going on.
No Good Options
The problem with North Korea is the same that it has ever been: there are simply no good outcomes at this point. If the Kim regime continues under the leadership of Kim Jong-Un, then the North Korean people will remain mired in a living nightmare for years more. If Kim Jong-Un falls, then the only power that could keep the country from sliding into anarchy is the military, and they could very well end up provoking World War III if given the chance. And if both fall, then there is nothing left in the country to hold it together. North Korea would fall into anarchy, and the human costs would be beyond comprehension. Not since World War II would the world have seen such a refugee crisis.
The best that anyone can do is prepare for the day when the regime finally collapses, and hope for the best. That is not a sound policy, but that’s the only remaining option left. The chances that Kim Jong-Un will set North Korea on a path of openness and moderation are slim to none, and even if he were to try, it’s not at all certain that the military would support him in that endeavor.
The fact is that we would like to think of the leadership of North Korea is being insane, but the reality is that it is sociopathic, but not crazy. Kim Jong-Il was a rational actor playing a rational game—bloody, intransigent, and evil, but rational all the same. Both he and his father knew that North Korea could not compete except by playing great powers against each other, which was accomplished by seemingly irrational actions like threatening war and shelling South Korean targets. So long as the DPRK could threaten the world, it could extract concessions that it would never have gotten by playing nice.
We simply do not know if Kim Jong-Un is smart enough to keep playing this game, or there’s some member of his inner circle that can. What is scarier than a coldly rational and insane-seeming North Korea is an irrational North Korea willing to risk it all on a dangerous whim. One of the best options may be that North Korea becomes a de facto Chinese protectorate, with Beijing keeping the country in line. As distasteful as that option may be, it is better than having an unstable North Korea with both an ongoing humanitarian crisis and plenty of weapons of mass destruction that could fall into terrorist hands.
Kim Jong-Il is dead, and roasting in a hell that he richly deserves. What we must hope for is that he doesn’t take the entire Korean peninsula down with him.