With the passing of Kim Jong-il and the hand-over of power to his son, Kim Jong-un, many have questioned whether this rather dimwitted new leader will be able to grasp the reins with the strength of his predecessor. Surely some kind of military coup d'etat is in the works and the lack of media attention has left this writer distraught and enraged. But in order to foresee the possible future of North Korea, one must know the basics of its history.
In 1910, Korea (yes, it was once a unified nation for quite some time) was colonized by Japan following the Japan-Korea Annexation Treaty. This occupation ended over 1,000 years of sovereignty, raping the culture and historical traditions in a variety of brutal forms. Many cultural artifacts of the time were either destroyed or can now be found in a number of Japanese museums. Koreans were forced to learn Japanese at the dispense of their national language, as were many Chinese citizens. Shame and depression spread like a plague, as honor is a fundamental principle not only for the people, but for the nation itself (as is the case with most Asian nations). Millions of Koreans were put into labor camps and most never made it out, including women and children. This went on for almost 40 years. Then came World War II and the axis of evil.
Mussolini was the first to go, being disposed as leader when Italy bowed out in 1943. In the spring of 1945, after Hitler's suicide and the massive bombing of Berlin, Germany followed suit. But Japan raged on, fueled by the honor that eventually lead to their downfall. Two atomic bombs later and Japan, tail between its legs, admitted surrender.
After the war was over, many allies took it into their own hands to clean up the mess that much of Europe had become. This lead to the Marshall Plan and the eventual reclaiming of conquered countries. Japan lost it's hold over Korea, but disputes between the U.S. and Russia led to a compromise which divided the country between the U.S. democratically-backed South, and the Russian Communist-backed North. It didn't take very long for a young rebel named Kim il-Sung to rise to the top of North Korean politics, running on a self-promoted philosophy called Juche* philosophy.
In 1950, North Korea invaded the South in an attempt to "unite" the country under the Communist regime while millions of lives--both military and civilian--were destroyed on both sides. Once again, the United States stepped up to the plate; this time, to halt the spread of Communism, another form of the fascism faced during World War II. Eventually, the North Koreans were pushed back behind the infamous 38th parallel, once again suffering the shame that haunted their forefathers. Although the North had suffered a massive defeat, no peace treaty has ever been signed. Instead, both parties have been locked into an indefinite, on again off again, cease-fire. That leads us to the DMZ or Demilitarized Zone.
A once extremely dangerous place has become a literal stare-down contest between both countries. Each side closely monitors the other like some deranged parody of a Spaghetti Western. Guards are forced to stand for many hours at a time, simply staring into the eyes of a another soldier whose great-grandfathers might have been good friends. The slightest flinch or blinking of the eyes can show a weakness that either side will use to their advantage. To see this demonstration brings about an emotional roller-coaster of laughter at the silliness of such a display, followed by extreme sadness that peace between these two countries is kept by a few guards, standing still, locked in an endless battle of will. Not a word is spoken between sides, though admirably, the South has tried.
Now for some basic facts on present day North Korea:
- Size: Roughly the same size as Mississippi
- Population: 23 million
- Capital: Pyongyang
- Media: Completely controlled by Supreme Leader. No outside
media allowed into the country.
- Internet: None
- Cellphones: Banned
- Common Knowledge: Most citizens don't know that we've
been to the moon.
- No Americans allowed as we've been held accountable for
Korea's division post WWII.
- Unless you are a high ranking official, you must secure a
permit to travel ANYWHERE.
- Cataracts is a serious epidemic due to poor nutrition and
little to no access to well-trained doctors.
- Famine kills almost 10% of the population.
- 40% of children under seven suffer from malnutrition.
- If any citizen breaks the law (even a minor offense such
as showing disapproval at the amount of rations given on a
certain day), their entire extended family may find
themselves in a prison camp and few make it out alive.
- Most escapes are made by way of China. Few make it through
the treacherous journey.
So now that the Supreme Leader is dead, the country is left in the hands of a black sheep, neither wanting the position nor having any of the qualities needed. Will the country still seek nuclear capabilities? Will it still sponsor terrorism around the globe? Will the military continue to follow the Juche philosophy that has destroyed the lives of millions--within the country and outside it? Or will it open its doors to outside media and tourists? Will it begin discussions with the rest of the world? Could there even be a chance of democratic unification?
My prediction: Military coup d'etat. Kim Jong-un is not a
leader. Either he'll play the puppet or he'll find himself
fleeing for his life.
My hope: Unification, if only for the films. South Korea is
putting out some amazing stuff. Oh and for the people as well of
course. That goes without saying.
*Juche philosophy is the brain-child of Kim il-Sung. It's central thesis is that of self-reliance and providing for its people without imports or assets from other countries. North Korea is one of the most secretive countries in the world because of this. It's also the central reason much of the population is starving while the few high-ranking members enjoy a life of excess and gilded treasures. Kim Jong-il himself loved Hennessey, films, and cars, all things his own countrymen are either barred from having or simply can't afford. What a country...