Of kings and Kims
Given the media's love of pomp and circumstance - and hereditary monarchy - there is no little hypocrisy in its mocking of North Korea, argues Eddie Ford
Following the death of he 69-year-old Kim Jong-il on December 17 2011, the western press has taken great delight in mocking the Stalinist theatrics surrounding the Dear Leader’s funeral and the official anointment of his son, the 28-year-old Kim Jong-un, as the Great Successor: ie, replacement tyrant. He is the grandson of the Great Leader, Kim Il-sung - the “eternal president” - who died in 1994 and whose Complete works currently stand at 99 volumes; not to mention the eight-volume autobiography, With the century, and the revolutionary opera, The flower girl.
There is a lot to mock, of course, given the extreme personality cult which bestows near divine status upon North Korean leaders in a bizarre hybrid of Confucian state worship and a particularly degenerate form of Stalinism. In this vein, the official North Korean news agency, KCNA, reported various miracles that attended the death of Kim Jong-il. Ice ruptured with an “unprecedented loud crack” at Chon Lake in Mount Paeku, where previously Jong-il’s birth had being greeted by a double rainbow and the formation of a new star in the firmament. If that was not enough, Kim Jong-il’s name glowed in the rock face with letters of fire at sunset, the message saying: “Holy mountain of revolution, Kim Jong-il”. Nature paid homage to the Dear Leader as well, so we are informed that on a freezing midnight a Manchurian crane flew down to one of his many statues and remained there in what appeared to be a state of grief - “Even the crane seemed to mourn the demise of Kim Jong-il, born of heaven, after flying down there at dead of cold night, unable to forget him”.
As for the new leader, he too has been officially described as a “great person born of heaven”, as well as “the eternally immovable mental mainstay of the Korean people”, the “people’s spiritual pillar and the lighthouse of hope”, and so on. The state press also reminds us that “the Korean people now pledge themselves to remain true to the leadership” of Kim Jong-un, who was quickly promoted to the position of “supreme commander” of the armed forces. Rodong Sinmun, the newspaper of the Workers’ Party of Korea additionally reports that Kim Jong-un is now the acting chairman and vice-chairman the Central Military Commission of the Workers’ Party of Korea - the country’s most powerful decision-making body. Furthermore, he is also the acting general secretary of the party.
For quite a period, Kim Jong-un’s eldest half-brother, Kim Jong-nam, had been the favourite to succeed - as would be the Confucian-Stalinist primogenitary norm in North Korea. Unfortunately for Jong-nam though, he seriously blotted his copy-book in 2001 when he was caught attempting to enter Japan on a fake passport in order to visit Tokyo Disneyland - and now lives in de facto exile in Macao, where he is said to be a regular visitor to the Chinese territory’s casinos.
We gather that Kim Jong-un studied computer science and physics and that, according to Kim Jong-il’s former personal chef, Kenji Fujimoto, he is “exactly like his father” - possessing “superb physical gifts, is a big drinker and never admits defeat”. Ideal qualifications for the job, obviously.
Apparently, for the time being Kim Jong-un will be advised by a small group of “senior revolutionaries”, including his aunt, Kim Kyong-hui, and uncle, Jang Song-thaek, until the country marks the centenary of Kim Il-sung’s birth in April - so expect a lavish ‘jubilee’ celebration and impressive rows of tanks. Slightly ironically for such a gerontocratic society, Kim Jung-un is the youngest head of state in the world.
Though madness on one level, these miraculous stories promoted by the official media do serve a clear political purpose - to stress the line of continuity between the old leader and the new leader, and the general harmony that exists amongst the state elite. The Stalinist tyrant is dead - long live the Stalinist tyrant. In other words, business as usual. That is something that the outside world wants to hear as well, for all its mockery and noises of disapproval.
The Dear Leader’s death reminds us that North Korea was not totally isolated. Cuba declared three days of official mourning for the despot - flags at half mast - while Nicaragua and Venezuela sent governmental condolences, The KCNA website proudly carried messages of commiserations from the emir of Qatar, the former president of Moldova and the “great king and great queen of Cambodia”. More loyal still, Didymus Mutasa, the secretary of administration for Robert Mugabe’s Zanu-PF party, told Zimbabwe’s Voice of the People radio that Kim Jung-il was a “lovely man” and “our great friend” - someone “we are not ashamed of being associated with”.
Then there was the actual funeral, to which the western media devoted acres of bemused coverage. Thus we had highly televisual scenes of mass grief and mourning that looked on occasions like mass hysteria, though it was extremely difficult from this distance to work out how much of it was choreographed. Overly cynical western journalists have suggested that the grief on display was entirely faked, but that seems unlikely.
Naturally, Kim Jung-un led the mourning, which lasted for 11 days and culminated in a state funeral and processions through the capital on December 28-29. Wearing a long black coat, he walked in front of the hearse carrying his father’s casket wrapped in a red flag. Mourning stations were opened in locations across the country.
The government in Seoul did not send an official delegation to the funeral. Indeed, it imposed a strict travel ban on ordinary citizens. But it did authorise a select group of people to attend. Among them was Lee Hee-ho, the wife of the former South Korean president, Kim Dae-jung, whose so-called “sunshine policy” of engagement in the late 1990s eventually gave way to frostier relations under the current president, Lee Myung-bak - a nod to the fact that that the north sent representatives to her husband’s funeral in 2009. Accompanying her from Seoul was Hyun Jeong-eun, the chairwoman of the Hyundai group, a major investor in the north. It was assumed by some commentators that she used the funeral as an opportunity to discuss North Korea’s seizure of Hyundai assets earlier in the year.
Overall then, there are no indications whatsoever that Kim Jung-il’s death has sent the country into crisis or increased north-south tensions. OK, sure, on January 4 KCNA ritualistically denounced Lee Myung-bak as a “pro-US fascist maniac” and a “chieftain of evils” because he placed his troops on ‘high alert’ after Kim Jong-il’s death and prohibited ordinary South Koreans from attending the funeral. In contrast to ordinary North Korean citizens, of course, who are free to travel where they like, when they like - in their dreams.
For us, the idea that the North Korean regime represents any form of Marxism - a theme repeated ad nauseam by the gleeful mainstream media - is just as fantastic as Pyongyang’s fairytales. In fact an examination of the regime’s own pronouncements reveal not a shred of Marxism or working class politics of any kind - fake ‘anti-imperialist’ rhetoric at best. Rather, the official state doctrine of juche - founded on the three key principles of “political independence”, economic “self-sustenance” and “self-reliance” in defence - is the polar opposite of genuine proletarian internationalism. And a straightforward lie, or self-deception, given that the country is totally reliant on external aid (mainly from the United States) just to survive in the miserable state it does today. It should not have to be said that the revolting deification of the Kims is the utter negation of the revolutionary, democratic and republican politics espoused by Marx, Engels, Lenin, etc.
But communists have other objections to the western portrayal of North Korea as the weirdest part of the world - ever. Such an idea only works if you have a very short historical attention span. Just look closer to home. For the most part, generations of schoolchildren have been told that Britain has a glorious and uninterrupted history going back to at least 1066. This history is dominated by an endless succession of hereditary monarchs - totally natural and normal, of course.
In fact, as every schoolchild ought to know, from medieval times onwards dynastic succession was portrayed as being divinely sanctioned. This became official doctrine with the Tudor and Stewart monarchs. Our present queen, Elizabeth II, is the defender of faith - although nowadays it is not considered apposite to refer to her god-sanctioned right to rule over us. Why is that any less weird than the nonsense about double rainbows and miracles over Mount Paektu?
And, hang on, what about the scenes of mass grief outside Buckingham Palace following the 1997 death of Diane Spencer in that Parisian tunnel? Those memorable images of people sobbing and bubbling over some aristocrat they never knew? If anything, the fact that the grief outside Buckingham Palace was most certainly spontaneous - not a show to prevent you being arrested by the secret police for ‘disloyalty’ - makes it even more disturbing. Similarly, the mass mourning for that appalling, gin-sozzled reactionary, the queen mum - how rational was that?
Now, strangely enough, the queen’s diamond jubilee is almost upon us - David Cameron used his new year address to inspire us with the “global drama” that will make 2012 the year in which “we go for it”, proud in “who we are” and “what we can achieve”. We will have to endure an endless - and mindless - parade of pomp and circumstance, the various media outlets competing as to who can be the most sycophantic towards the monarchy. Feel the dread coming on yet? Fear not, it is all worth it - we lucky subjects of the crown will get an extra bank holiday on June 5 - joy of joys - tagged onto the queen’s Official Birthday (how stupid is that?) on June 4. All of which will be meticulously planned and choreographed on a near North Korean-type scale - with the queen and other members of the royal family carried down the Thames on a special royal barge. You see, Britain is so different from North Korea.
And when the queen pops her gilded clogs I wouldn’t be surprised if there was a lavish state funeral, not to mention interminable days of official mourning. Not to show visible and evident signs of grief, preferably to the point of a nervous breakdown, will be interpreted, if not as an act of treachery, then definitely as most unBritish. A bit like not wearing a red poppy. We might even be told by wise people that she was one of the greatest people ever to have lived - just like Kim Il-sung and Kim Jung-il, come to think of it.
The only real difference between the British and North Korean monarchies is that Pyongyang is new to the game of absurd ritual and dynastic pomp - the Koreans are just parvenus. Johnny-come-latelies. Just look at the Kims, for whom the height of Stalinist bling is a Rolex watch or Ray-Ban sunglasses. How tawdry when compared to the real thing. By contrast, our dear queen does it properly, draping herself from head to toe in an ostentatious display of gold and diamonds. And in this time of austerity we are supposed to be all in this together - tell that to the homeless and unemployed.
No, I’m afraid the idea that Britain is distinctively normal, sensible and rational in comparison to North Korea just doesn’t cut it - the constitutional monarchy is weird.
The final hypocrisy is that, in reality, nobody in the ‘international community’ wants the North Korean regime to come to a sudden end. In fact the United States, China, Russia, Japan, South Korea - they are all busy shoring it up. It is not hard to discern the reason for this. A total collapse would be massively destabilising for the region, if not the world. Just think of the tidal wave of refugees from the north, and what the hell would you do with it if such an implosion actually happened? Reunification would create enormous problems - remember the acute digestion problems caused by the sudden end of East Germany?
Clearly, the North Korean regime is not just kept in power by those 1.1 million armed personnel or its two or three nuclear warheads - which if ever used would probably blow up in their silos or go off in the totally wrong direction. No, the regime continues to exist in large part thanks to the complicity of its neighbours and the USA itself, which will do nothing to destabilise the vile regime l