Kim Jong-il is dead

Plan now for Korean unification.

Kim Jong-il, erratic playboy and hereditary divine monarch of North Korea, is dead. The successor to the throne is his third son Kim Jong-un, an unknown quantity not yet thirty.
Everybody in the region is very nervous – leave cancelled sort of nervous. The predictable collapse of this cruel despotism has been brought forward, though nobody can guess by how much.

As the resident RBC expert on Korea (qualifications: one ten-day holiday visiting my son Jonathan teaching there) I should have thoughts on the crisis but I´ll pass. North Korea has taken to heart the ¨mad negotiator¨ theory and the unpredictability of its policy is a feature not a bug. One of the payoffs is to keep the diplomatic and public focus on the succession of staged immediate crises and not on the long term. Korean experts don´t know what´s going to happen next, and I am certainly not going to guess.

So I´ll content myself with repeating my sound unsolicited advice of a year ago to South Korea and its friends: start planning urgently for the aftermath of the inevitable reunification. Many of the problems that are bound to crop up are qualitatively independent of the path there, whether this is violent or peaceful – though their scale may not be. They can and should be discussed openly, drawing on a lot of precedents elsewhere, starting but not ending with German reunification. How soon for instance can North Koreans be granted freedom of movement wihout creating a tidal wave of refugees to South Korean cities?

Open thread on the temporarily divided Korea.

Update: Matt Yglesias posts a great satellite image of East Asia at night. North Korean children can at least see the stars.

Author: James Wimberley

James Wimberley (b. 1946, an Englishman raised in the Channel Islands. three adult children) is a former career international bureaucrat with the Council of Europe in Strasbourg. His main achievements there were the Lisbon Convention on recognition of qualifications and the Kosovo law on school education. He retired in 2006 to a little white house in Andalucia, His first wife Patricia Morris died in 2009 after a long illness. He remarried in 2011. to the former Brazilian TV actress Lu Mendonça. The cat overlords are now three. I suppose I've been invited to join real scholars on the list because my skills, acquired in a decade of technical assistance work in eastern Europe, include being able to ask faux-naïf questions like the exotic Persians and Chinese of eighteenth-century philosophical fiction. So I'm quite comfortable in the role of country-cousin blogger with a European perspective. The other specialised skill I learnt was making toasts with a moral in the course of drunken Caucasian banquets. I'm open to expenses-paid offers to retell Noah the great Armenian and Columbus, the orange, and university reform in Georgia. James Wimberley's occasional publications on the web

13 thoughts on “Kim Jong-il is dead”

  1. By a strange coincidence, the night before the death was announced I finished reading Barbara Demick’s Nothing To Envy, about the horrible lives of ordinary people in North Korea (mostly in the 1990s, mostly in the northern city of Chongjin). I’d thought I’d had some idea how awful it was there, but I’d really had no notion just how horrible it could be. If you’ve just read the news and a few magazine articles, you probably don’t either. Just unimaginably bad.

  2. I know zip about this subject, but it had occurred to me that in a time of disruption — such as the death of a long-time dictator — sudden movement in that direction is a possibility. People have indeed been thinking about this; there is even a wikipedia page: South Korea’s government appears generally competent, so one would expect that this has received considerable attention, and will continue to do so.

    1. Not according to genuine expert Minxin Pei (see my earlier post).
      Korean culture is notoriously insular and nationalist, and IMHO the notion of learning from foreign experience (good and bad) is unlikely to be taken up without loud foreign pressure.

  3. 1. The example of North Korean poverty compared to South Korean wealth is the most obvious example that goes against the racism that you sometimes find with people claiming that differences between nations and races are only caused by genetics (except of course when their own race is not doing so well. Then of course there are many different reasons why people like them are not totally in control).

    2. anti-communist statesman + Stalinist dictator + Trotskyite professional received pronunciation = rule of three

    1. I guess I should make clear that I believe Kim Jong-il was obviously the worst of the bunch. This is not so much because anybody reading this site would doubt that, but more so that nobody can accuse me of unfairness to people who have died without being gangster-autocrats in their lives.

  4. Ding dong, and so forth. Almost makes me want to be a believer, so I could think he was roasting now.

    1. Come now, Brett! Careful with the judgments! Are you trying to tell us that you have never once callously caused the deaths of more than one million innocent human beings from famine and privation while feasting on caviar in your own luxurious private palace?

      1. They’re satellite light intensity images of North and South Korea taken 16 years apart. As you can see, if there’s been any change at all for NK during that period, it’s retrograde.

  5. The American obsession with dictator’s never ceases. It’ll never rival the grotesque cult of personality put in place in the DPRK, but the two have some parallels. Instead of worshiping dictators, we melodramatically demonize them. As Baal and Semitic deities were turned into demons, and indeed how the term demon derives from a word for demigod, we simply flip the coin of autocrat worship and make it obsessive hate. Worse, even as the number of dictators have dwindled we now turn even democratically elected leaders into honorary despots, so incessant is our need to hate some leader and some nation out in the hinterlands.

  6. James, your last sentence reminds me of an Oscar Wilde quote:

    We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars

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