Goodbye, Earthlings

North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-il is dead and almost no one can figure out what to say about that.  He was in power 17 years, succeeding his father (and North Korea’s founder) Kim Il-sung in 1994, and his list of achievements is spectacularly short: he made North Korea a nuclear power.  If you want to pad out that list you can say that the mere survival of a state as idiosyncratic and archaic as this one is an achievement.  But the man himself was so strange and reclusive that when he visited South Korea in June 2000 it occasioned the wits at the Economist to devise one of their greatest ever covers: a photo of a particularly spaced-out Kim Jong-il under the headline “Greetings, Earthlings.”  Surely, no other leader in the shameful pantheon of bizarre early-21st century autocrats — which includes such rogues as Gaddafi, Mugabe, and Assad, among others — would have merited this kind of headline, which is as at once hysterically funny and totally belittling.  But North Korea is so isolated that there is a certain unreality to the consequences of Kim’s rule, making it easier to have regarded him as a pompadoured figure of fun.

Even now, I have few clear associations with North Korea: synchronized public demonstrations, self-inflicted famines, black market weapons programs, that famous photo of the Korean peninsula at night, the reputed average height differential between North and South Koreans as a proxy for general health and well being.  That the hermit kingdom still exists owes less to Kim Jong-il’s benevolent guidance than to the continuing indulgence of the mainland Chinese government, though even they reportedly find the Kim clan a nuisance these days.  The latest member of the clan to take over is this round-cheeked innocent, Kim Jong-un, who was elevated a few years ago when no more suitable heir could be found.  He was given a succession of unmerited military promotions to try to make a commander of him; we’ll see what comes of that.  Something similar happened with Bashar al-Assad in Syria, who was just an ophthalmologist in London in the late-1990s when his dictator-father Hafez al-Assad installed him as successor and, with time, Bashar has proven himself impressively murderous.  In every dictatorship, the regime is larger than one man and in both Syria and North Korea it is the military that will determine the future.

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Here is something I have always wondered about North Korea: technical expertise quickly grows obsolete unless replenished, so how does North Korea retain the skills and knowledge to maintain a sophisticated weapons program when it exists at a remove from the rest of the planet?  No doubt, the answer to that question would reveal a subterranean network of enablers as nefarious as that of AQ Khan.

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The Lede blog at the New York Times pulls together a few videos from North Korean state television announcing the death of Kim Jong-il and the scenes of women wailing unconvincingly are painful to watch for anyone who read Barbara Demick’s book Nothing to Envy, in which North Korean refugees testify to the enormous pressure they felt to manifest sadness at the loss of Kim Jong-il’s father in 1994.
 


 

And this one, which like so much in North Korea reads almost like a parody of dictatorship:

 


 

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The New York Times also has a slyly chosen slideshow of Kim Jong-il photos that is a work checking out in full, though some of the best are below.  Almost all the images were issued by the Korean Central News Agency and one wonders whether they were in on the joke.  Click images to enlarge and scroll right or left to view as a slideshow:

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