North Korea is a bit of an odd country and a lot of what's said about it is nonsense or difficult to understand without knowledge of their cultural context. There's little doubt that life there isn't exactly great for a lot of people and that their respect for human rights isn't high, but why do our news organisations spend so much time fretting about the country when we barely hear a word about similar states like Myanmar (Burma) or Indonesia?
|Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jong-Il|
For a while it worked pretty well and North Korea advanced quickly, to the point where they sent food aid to help the struggling South. Kim Il-Sung was seen as a hero and was increasingly portrayed as a great leader who had defeated the superpowers and reconstructed a country ravaged in a proxy war. Initially the hero worship was at least partially justified, but soon grew into a personality cult with increasingly outlandish achievements and abilities attributed to Kim Il-Sung who started to be referred to as the "Great Leader".
Things started to plateau in the mid 1960s and Kim tightened his political control of the country in the face of increasing opposition. Although China had been a fairly enthusiastic friend to North Korea, it was around this time that China began to feel that Kim and his country had little to offer and so scaled back their trade and political links.
In 1980, Kim announced that his son, Kim Jong-Il, would become his successor. It was a further 14 years before he died, so Kim junior was thoroughly groomed to take over and became well-established after being given a series of high ranking posts in the military, communist party and government. As he began to take over more and more leadership responsibility from his father, things really started to go wrong in North Korea. Mismanagement of land resources worsened the effects of a series of natural disasters in the 1990s and the collapse of the Soviet Union meant that there was no support from former Eastern Bloc countries leading to famine and mass starvation. Oops. Although the disasters ended, the country never really recovered and a subsequent series of floods in 2007 brought back food shortages so bad that North Korea had to formally request help from the Red Cross.
|Kim Jong-Nam possibly|
|Kim Jong-Chul allegedly|
|Kim Jong-Un aged 16 at school in Switzerland, supposedly|
It all went massively wrong when Kim Jong-Il died just a few days ago. Well, his death was announced, but it's more likely that he kicked the bucket a bit before that. The official story was that Kim died when travelling the country on his personal train, but satellite pictures reveal that the train hasn't moved in weeks. Chances are that it was felt necessary to have a death scenario that tied in with Kim's public image of tireless micro-management and that support for his successor be affirmed.
So what's going to happen in North Korea? Is Kim Jong-Un really going to be the leader or will it be his uncle actually running things with a possible view to letting the youngster assume command in the long term? Will North Korea soften its hardline stance and start to gradually reform in the way that China did thirty years ago? Will re-unification with South Korea ever be possible? Could the United States provoke North Korea into a military stand-off? I dunno.
And it's not just me. No one has the slightest clue what is happening in North Korea and they have no idea what's coming next. Although the news confidently reports that Kim Jong-Un is 28 years old, in reality we just don't know. It's thought that he was born sometime in 1983 or 1984, but no one knows for sure. No one had even seen a photograph of him until two years ago. Bear that in mind next time you see some pundit on a news programme confidently predicting what will happen over there.
About the only country with any kind of influence over North Korea is China. America has tried sanctions and threats, but has failed. Masses of US troops are still stationed on the border with South Korea (the ironically named Demilitarised Zone or DMZ). It's often mentioned that North Korea has nuclear missiles and that's true, but it only has a few and their missile systems haven't been terribly successful. One can't help but wonder if American wouldn't already have found a reason to have intervened militarily in North Korea if they didn't have nukes. On the day that Kim Jong-Il's death was announced, a missile test was conducted. It's not clear what the purpose of this was. It may have been to signal to the US that, just because the country's leadership was in flux, it didn't mean there weren't fingers on triggers just in case the Americans got any clever ideas. Or it may even have been to suggest that the military were capable of acting autonomously without explicit authorisation from Kim Jong-Un. Goodness only knows.
And that's why it's going to be very interesting to watch what's happening in North Korea over the coming months and years. No one knows anything about what's happening there right now and any suggestions about what's going to happen in the future are just guesses. One thing's certain though - it won't be boring.