On a frosty winter’s day in December last year North Korean dictator Kim Jong-il breathed his last breath. Steely, yet teary-eyed reporters from the country’s official news agency told the world the 69-year-old had “passed away from great mental and physical strain”. Later reports would reveal that the Dear Leader was travelling to the country’s north on his armoured train when he reached the end of the line; a massive heart attack the cause of death.
But, Dr Leonid Petrov, a research associate in the ANU College of Asia and the Pacific, has a slightly different take on this version of events. The analyst, who has been watching North Korea closely for decades, says that Kim Jong-il, whose health had been on the rails for a while, suicided.
“Why did Kim Jong-il suddenly die in December just a few weeks before 2012,” Petrov asks. “It was because it was very convenient and almost the perfect time for him to die. He surely understood that and had carefully prepared the country for a smooth power transition. That’s why I think he committed suicide.
“2012 is a significant and pivotal year in North Korean history. It is the centennial anniversary of the birthday of the country’s first leader and Kim Jong-il’s father, Kim Il-sung. It is also the year when Kim Jong-il promised to take North Korea to self-proclaimed strength and prosperity. Obviously, North Korea is not very strong, except militarily. And it is very far away from prosperity.
“Clearly, Kim Jong-il did not deliver on his promise. He felt ashamed, he felt pity for his people and he felt he was getting weaker. He had already appointed his successor, his third son Kim Jong-un and he felt his job was done – he did not need to do anything else. So, Kim Jong-il takes cyanide and dies instantly of a heart attack without any pain.”
Petrov also points to the inconsistency in the story about the leader’s whereabouts at the time of his death as another reason why official reports cannot be trusted. According to him, Kim Jong-il’s armoured train never left Pyongyang.
“At the moment we still don’t know what exactly happened. North Korean propaganda says Kim Jong-il was visiting a province in the north of the country, inspecting military bases, but satellite images show that his armoured train never left Pyongyang during the week he died. So obviously he was in Pyongyang at the time of his death. He didn’t plan to go anywhere.”
Regardless of whether Kim Jong-il’s death was natural or not, Petrov is certain of one thing; his son is safe at the top and is in no immediate danger of flat lining anytime soon – even if there were recent reports of his assassination in China.
“No way are the assassination rumours true,” says Petrov. “If the rumours said that he was killed in North Korea, well maybe. But, assassinated in China? No. As soon as they said China I knew it was not true. He didn’t plan any trips to China, he didn’t cross the border. Every time the North Korean leader travels the security precautions are extraordinary. There is no way.
“What happened immediately after Kim Jong-il’s death was all planned out and very well-orchestrated. Kim Jong-un was immediately catapulted to the driving seat and was made chairman of his father’s funeral committee. He was out meeting the people, and playing the role of a populist, providing free fish to everyone, just like Jesus Christ when he fed fish to the poor. He also allowed the military to visit and pay homage to him and was seen crying in public. It was planned and scheduled and the immediate transition was very smooth.”
Despite his youth and relatively obscurity – at least in the West – Petrov adds that there is no doubt that Kim Jong-un is North Korea’s number one man.
“Kim Jong-un is young and seniority is respected in North Korea, which means that for the moment he has to follow the advice of his seniors – the older members of his family and senior military and party officials. In Korean history, regents were often appointed to help a young king fulfil his duties. Similarly, Kim Jong-un can’t make decisions by himself. However, this doesn’t mean that he’s a puppet, not at all.
“Kim Jong-un is the successor; he is of the imperial blood and he’s widely recognised as such. He’s eulogised and worshipped as the generalissimo by the military, as a member of the revolutionary dynasty by the members of the communist party and as the token of stability by the members of the Kim family. So everyone really has great hopes for him. And, now that he is in power I think that Kim Jong-un will stay in power for a very long time.”
Something else that will continue for a very long time is the tightly controlled nature of existence in North Korea. Beyond the pantomime of public grief and loss, the leadership succession represents a scratched record playing the same old sad tune of repression, poverty and isolation from the rest of the world for the North Korean people. The succession was not only an elaborately thought-out and smoothly executed transition from one generation of the ruling Kim family to the next; it was designed to maintain as much stability in the country as possible. Kim Jong-un, who according to Petrov “even looks like his grandfather Kim Il-sung”, is the past made present in order to lead North Korea into a future that looks depressingly familiar.
“The whole point of Kim Jong-un’s succession was to avoid any change in North Korea, because change, threatens the very existence of the North Korean state. If you look at what happened to the Soviet Union when Gorbachev started Perestroika (or opening up to the West), he couldn’t control the situation. He lost power and the country collapsed and disintegrated. North Korea would implode if they started playing with any sort of change or reform, economic or political.
“And so the elites in North Korea say ‘no thanks’ to any idea of change. The idea is to maintain stability and continue what Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il had been doing during the last half a century. Stability and continuity are the key issue.”
Ultimately, by stability and continuity, Petrov means dynastic endurance and the ongoing rule of the Kim family. “We should look at North Korea as a hereditary dynasty in a kingdom which is the personal property of the Kim dynasty,” he says. “This dynasty is supported by the army and the communist party, particularly the top level of the army and the party who lead comfortable lives with lots of freedoms and privileges. They have a lot to lose if a change of regime happens and there is a lot more to lose than in countries like Libya and Syria. There’s a lot more at stake; the national integrity of the country is at stake because just next door is a strong, prosperous, affluent South Korea, which will not forego the opportunity of absorbing North Korea in the case of some disturbance, chaos or economic collapse.
“The reason for North Korea actually existing is the survival of the regime and the survival of the Kim dynasty. It’s constantly announced to the people that without the supreme leader Kim there is no Fatherland-. Without the party we can’t survive. Without the army we’d be enslaved.
“So survival is what drives the existence of the state and justifies the control of the Kim family. And survival doesn’t have to mean prosperity. North Korea is a poor state and for the last 60 years, since the Korean War, the people have been living in very harsh conditions. But, as long as they have some food and some electricity and a little bit of freedom – to be able to move from one province to another to visit relatives or to trade – we can expect no major change.
“No major protests will occur either. There is simply no room for opposition. There are no alternative sources of information, there’s no space for thinking about freedom or revolution of any kind like the Arab Spring. So, everything will stay the same as long as the leadership decides to keep things the same. Kim Jong-un was chosen as a token of continuity and stability, so don’t expect change from him. As long as he decides to stay, to keep the country secluded, closed, poor, intimidated, it will continue as it always has.
“North Korea is a revolutionary state frozen in time and will remain frozen. The people are not exposed to any foreign influences, they have nothing to compare life to; they just have to trust in what their leaders tell them, and their leaders tell them don’t expect any change.
“It’s a very sad story.”
See the Korean version of this article here… 그 아버지에, 그 아들