So, the biggest news in this part of the world of late was Kim Jong Il meeting his maker and the subsequent announcement that his son, Kim Jong Eun, was to step into his old man’s shoes. All in all, 2011 wasn’t a great year for despotic dictators and their minions. In the Middle East they got rid of their leaders in Libya, Egypt, and Tunisia, and there are still struggles going on in Yemen, Syria and Jordan. Some commentators have mused that what we are witnessing is nothing short of the birth of a new Middle East, but I would argue that a democratic and secular Middle East would be the real sign of a new beginning.
This news of KJI’s sudden (or maybe not so?) departure came about a week or so after me completing the first semester of my MA in Asian Studies at Sejong University, here in Seoul. One of the classes I took was a politics class focusing on North and South Korea between 1945 to the present day and I really enjoyed it. The professor who took the class was excellent and was himself involved first-hand in President Kim Young Sam’s administration and the lead up to him becoming elected in 1993.
Dr. Kim, as well as being highly academically qualified, was also of an age where he could recall the Japanese occupation of Korea (he was at elementary school I think he said…?), the Korean war, and all the subsequent turmoil and changes on the Korean peninsula since then. A lot of the classroom discourse was centered around current political ongoing’s in the region and it probably wouldn’t get any bigger than the death of the ‘Dear Leader’. Too bad it was a bit late for that final term paper.
From the tail end of last year, the scenes the world witnessed coming out of Pyongyang were nothing short of those blagged from a Luis Bunuel movie. In fact, the mass hysteria, the huge state funeral, every single detail seemingly choreographed to seduce the viewers into believing just how strong the cult of personality is.
The North were quick to appoint Kim Jr. into place as to avoid too much of a power struggle amongst (I’m sure one or two of the Generals in this photo) the ruling elite, and no doubt to give the impression of a smooth transition into the next era of totalitarian rule. One thing that I have certainly noticed over the post couple of weeks is just how much press coverage all this is getting and on such a regular basis.
First, we’re being told that the South can go take a run and jump (I’m paraphrasing of course…) and that the North wants nothing to do with the ‘puppet’ regime. Of course, we know this is complete bollocks as the North still depends on food aid from the South to feed their people but they’d rather not talk about that. When you can get beyond the posturing, the histrionics, and the fact that both countries will be under new leadership at some point this year (South Korea’s presidential elections are in December) then the hope is that both sides can get back to negotiating some sort of agreement. However, if the right-wing, conservative’s regain power in South Korea you can probably expect more of the same as we’ve seen in the past 4 years.
What’s caught my eye is the current interest in the new boy in town. We’ve had him installed as the Chief of the army, and now as the birthday boy, but you can bet your bottom dollar that there’ll be plenty of stories coming out in the coming months about foreign policy, nuclear plants and awesome haircuts. There are definitely interesting times ahead.
There are a lots of sites out there that are showing North Korea to the outside world for the first time. The photos from Inside North Korea are excellent. And this insight into what it’s like to teach in North Korea are more than likely to catch the eye. I don’t fancy it much on a Monday morning after a good weekend on the sauce.
It’ll be interesting to see how things pan out in the months and years ahead.