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6 June 2018updated 06 Aug 2021 5:18am

Keeping up with the Kims: North Korea’s communist monarchy

What do its three generations of leaders tell us about this brutal dictatorship and its prospects of a nuclear deal with Trump’s America? 

By Gavin Jacobson

A new dynasty is never founded without a struggle,” wrote Émile Zola in The Fortune of the Rougons (1871). “Blood makes good manure.” He was referring to the House of Bonaparte, which ruled France on and off for nearly 40 years between 1799 and 1870. But the idea that conflict and death constitute the essence of family rule applies equally to those who have reigned over North Korea since the country’s founding in 1948. Ascending to power soon after the end of imperial occupation and the Second World War, the Kims have flourished both in the blood of others, and of each other.

In December 2013, two years after he came to power, Kim Jong-un had his uncle, Jang Song-thaek, executed by firing squad. Then in February 2017 he allegedly had his half-brother, Kim Jong-nam, assassinated in Malaysia. These killings added to North Korea’s image as the supreme Oriental ur-threat – an impoverished garrison state with nuclear weapons, led by a succession of madmen as devious as they were dangerous. In the words of one scholar, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea is “as close to totalitarianism as a humanly operated society could come”.

Much writing and thinking about North Korea is composed in this alarmist key, and for good reason. Five months after the assassination of Kim Jong-nam, the regime launched an intercontinental ballistic missile powerful enough to strike the United States. Shortly after, it detonated a nuclear weapon 17 times more powerful than the bomb dropped on Hiroshima in 1945. Donald Trump warned of responding with “fire and fury”, and tweeted that “military solutions are now fully in place, locked and loaded, should North Korea act unwisely”. North Korea threatened to fire missiles towards the American territory of Guam. The prospect of nuclear war between two nations, led by a badly drawn fascist on the one hand and a modern-day Caligula on the other, became disturbingly real.

But since April, when Kim Jong-un stepped through the truce village of Panmunjom and embraced the South Korean president Moon Jae-in to become the first North Korean leader to cross the demilitarised zone, inter-Korea relations, and relations with the United States, have often reached breathtaking, even surreal, heights of fellowship. (Kim’s burst of diplomatic activity is quite remarkable given that his most prominent foreign contact over the last few years has been Dennis Rodman.) The inter-Korea summit, in which Kim and Moon declared “a new era of peace”, opens the way for a potential meeting between Trump and Kim in Singapore – at the time of writing, this is due to take place on 12 June. Although both sides have indulged in bluffs and threats, it’s worth asking how we got to this (tentatively) historic moment? And can a re-examination of the Kim family tell us anything about what to expect from North Korea in the months and years ahead?

North Korea is a relic of the Cold War, a fossil nation that, in the words of journalist Richard Lloyd Parry, resides in a condition of “political undeath”. But it is wrong to think of it as a country whose actions defy reason. No regime survives for 70 years, isolated and in dire financial straits, without a hardened backbone of logic supporting it.

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The view from Pyongyang is of panoramic threat. Across the 38th parallel, the latitude that divides North and South Korea, US-backed South Korean forces have jet fighters and cutting-edge military hardware; to the north, China squeezes its economy; while to the east, in Japan, lie more American warships, stealth bombers and troops. The Kims’ activities, while abhorrent, are explicable given this apparent ring of fire.

Similar regimes, such as that of the former Soviet Union, have been overthrown and forgotten, and since the 1990s people have forecast the collapse of North Korea. Yet it endures, partly owing to the superior efficacy and ruthlessness of its prison-like state. But as the historian Bruce Cumings has rightly insisted, the “North Korean problem” is above all about history. This is not just because it is the result of events that began in the 20th century, it is also a consequence of the West’s wilful unconcern, in Cumings’s words, with “the Korean people having suffered beyond measure and beyond… imagination”.

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North Korea exists in a permanent state of remembrance about its experiences of imperialism and war. The Kims’ power and personality cult flows from the immediacy of that past, with the peninsula still in a technical state of war, and from the fact that they have made their own family epic – one not just of cruelty and despotism, but also of struggle and sacrifice – into that of the nation as a whole.

The Great Leader: Kim Il-sung

On 1 March 1919, three months before the signing of the Treaty of Versailles in Paris, tens of thousands of demonstrators took to the streets across Korea. Owing to its geography, a mountainous peninsula surrounded on three sides by China, Japan and barbarian tribes (later by the Russian empire), the land had always been exposed to the imperial hunger of its neighbours. Since 1910, the peninsula had been ruled as a colony of the Japanese empire, the first nine years of which, known as the “dark period,” were characterised by militarism, repression and cultural erasure. Despite the historic mixing of ancient peoples who had settled on the peninsula – Japanese, Chinese, Manchu, and other East and Central Asian ethnicities – under the Joseon dynasty (1392-1910), Koreans had created a distinct sense of themselves as an ethnically homogeneous group that was proudly nationalistic.

In the final months of the First World War Woodrow Wilson’s soaring proclamations about the right to self-determination gave hope to colonised subjects around the world. In the spring of 1919, this Wilsonian promise of national redemption was converted into mass movements against imperialism in China, Egypt, India and Korea. In Pyongyang, a six-year old boy whose family were among the protestors recalled how he had “shouted for independence standing on tiptoe squeezed in between the adults”. It was this hatred of Japan, and desire for Korean independence, that first lit the patriotic conscience of the young Kim Il-sung.

Born Kim Song-ju in 1912, Kim belonged to a moderately affluent family – his father was a leading Christian activist and teacher. When he was seven, they moved across the border into Manchuria, where Kim spent most of his childhood. Having graduated from high school, he could have pursued careers in business or education. But in the early 1930s, Kim joined the communist guerrilla movement that fought the Japanese invasion of Manchuria (it was around this time that he adopted the nom de guerre, Kim Il-sung).

The official North Korean narrative downplays Kim’s foreign connections, including his decade-long membership of the Chinese Communist Party, as well as the fact that his guerrilla unit was predominately Chinese. But Kim served entirely under Soviet and Chinese commands until the end of the Second World War. State propaganda has also nauseatingly mythologised his days as an anti-colonial fighter, granting him supernatural powers, such as turning pine cones into bullets and grains of sand into rice. Still, historians agree that Kim Il-sung was a committed patriot who fought relentlessly against the Japanese.

The anti-Japanese struggle constitutes the master myth in North Korea, where Kim is portrayed as the National Liberator and builder of an independent communist state (one propaganda slogan encourages citizens to “produce, study, and live the way the anti-Japanese guerrillas did!”) The legitimacy of the whole Kim family rests on their “bloodline” connection to the guerrilla war, which, since 1948, has been repurposed into a continuing struggle against America’s occupation of the South. Both Kim Jong-il and now Kim Jong-un inherited their great progenitor’s struggle against empire.

Fighting for a Korean homeland explains a great deal about Kim’s worldview. Unlike his ideological contemporaries in Europe, Kim thought of communism not only as a doctrine of social liberation, but saw it as Mao Zedong and Ho Chi Minh did – as the hyperloop to national rebirth and independence.

Life in the revolutionary underground also fuelled his authoritarian temperament, since collective decision-making in armed resistance often led to hesitancy, inaction and death. After the Japanese executed some of his comrades who were captured while debating tactics, Kim wrote that “ever since, I have shuddered at the mention of ultra-democracy… and never tolerated the slightest tendency towards it”. After the Allied victory in the Pacific in 1945, and the division of Korea into two regimes along the 38th parallel, Kim and other guerrilla leaders were put in charge of the North. Since then, its politics has been defined by being at war with either Japan or the United States.

In effect, North Korea became what one expert describes as a “guerrilla state”. What is often thought of as a conflict that began in 1950, when the North invaded the South, can be more accurately described as a civil war that started in 1932, and has never ended. Both sides based their political legitimacy on unifying the peninsula on their own terms, and by force. Before it departed South Korea in 1948, the US put into power a generation of officers, including the future strongman Park Chung-hee, who had dutifully, and violently, served Japan’s empire. By early 1950, they had pursued a campaign of state terror, killing and detaining up to 100,000 people associated with the left or communism.

The 38th parallel itself, drawn up in a backroom of the US War Department by Dean Rusk and John J McCloy, was left under the command of Kim Sok-won, who had spent the 1930s hunting Kim Il-sung and other guerrillas in Manchuria for the Japanese Kwantung Army. It was no surprise that once they had the means and international backing to do so, the two sides in Korea’s long colonial struggle – those in the South who had collaborated with the Japanese, and those in the North who had resisted them – would clash again.

As Richard Stokes, the minister of works in Clement Attlee’s government, recognised in 1950, it was America’s unilateral decision to divide Korea along the 38th parallel that led “to such a conflict as has in fact arisen”, adding:

In the American Civil War the Americans would never have tolerated for a single moment the setting up of an imaginary [sic] line between the forces of the North and South, and there can be no doubt as to what would have been their reaction if the British had intervened in force on behalf of the South. This parallel is a close one because in America the conflict was not merely between two groups of Americans, but between two conflicting economic systems as in the case of Korea.

The conflict was brutal, “a macabre tribute,” wrote George Barrett of the New York Times, “to the totality of modern war”. South Korean deaths numbered approximately 415,000, while North Korean casualties were around two million, about a million of whom were civilians, as the US carpet-bombed towns and cities into lunar-like wastelands of ash and dirt. According to the US Air Force, the destruction exceeded that of Germany during the Second World War, while pictures of the aerial assault could be mistaken for those taken after the obliterations of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The head of the Strategic Air Command, Curtis LeMay, told the Office of Air Force History in 1984 that “Over a period of three years or so, we killed off – what – 20 percent of the population.” Rusk, a supporter of the war and later secretary of state, said that the US had bombed “everything that moved in North Korea, every brick standing on top of another”.

In addition to the use of napalm and ordinance, many of the 63,000 British troops who served in the UN forces also recalled waging the kind of trench warfare reminiscent of the Western Front. Temperatures dropped to an Arctic -40 degrees Celsius, and most fought with the same Lee Enfield 303 rifles that their grandfathers had used in the First World War. Monica Felton, a member of the Labour Party, visited the front line in 1952, and published her account in What I Saw in Korea (1952), Korea: Bring the Boys Home (1952), and That’s Why I Went (1953), describing the apocalypse that had rained down on the peninsula – she was subsequently expelled from the party and threatened with prosecution for treason. By the time a cease-fire was signed in July 1953, over 1,000 British servicemen had died.

Kim emerged from the conflict with his personal power greatly enhanced, and his position as leader assured. Just as the war had an enormous socio-economic impact on the US, transforming it into a security state, with hundreds of permanent bases abroad and nearly a million people under arms, so it was also the point at which the North Korean regime turned itself into what official propaganda calls, “an impregnable fortress”. According to the historian Andrei Lankov, “North Korea became a society where the level of state control over… public and private life reached heights that would be almost unthinkable in any other country, including Stalin’s Russia.”

The Sino-Soviet split that took place at around the same time forced North Korea to reduce its dependency on foreign aid, while South Korea’s industrialisation disturbed the leadership, which redoubled its efforts to quarantine North Koreans from the enviable prosperity enjoyed by their neighbours. The country became a dungeon, as travel was restricted, radios fixed-tuned, foreign books banned and all mention of international aid scrubbed from the
history books.

Kim sought to complement this self-isolation with a philosophical doctrine. He first mentioned the concept of juche in 1955, but it wasn’t until the mid-1960s that it became the intellectual keystone of the regime. The term meant self-reliance and loyalty, but intellectually doesn’t amount to anything more than a series of shibboleths about “solving one’s problems for oneself”. The journalist Blaine Harden suggests that juche was left deliberately ambiguous and adaptable, an ideological instrument that could (unlike the radios) “be tuned and retuned over time to suit the Great Leader’s autocratic needs”.

Guerrilla state: US Marines take North Koreans prisoner during the Korean War, 1953

The Dear Leader: Kim Jong-il

In the 1970 edition of North Korea’s Dictionary of Political Terminology, hereditary succession was described as “a reactionary custom of exploitative societies… adopted… as a means to perpetuate dictatorial rule”. But in the 1972 edition of the dictionary, the entry failed to appear at all. As Bradley K Martin has written, this was the regime’s first hint that a close relative of Kim Il-sung’s might succeed him.

Korea had experienced millennia of royal inheritance, while hereditary succession was consistent with aspects of traditional Korean culture. Moreover, since the mid-1960s, North Korea has adopted a caste system (songbun) that resembles the estates of pre-revolutionary France. People are categorised as “loyal”, “wavering”, or “hostile”, a structure that simulates Confucian values of hierarchy, but which serves primarily as a tool of suppression. Since a person’s status is hereditary, any would-be dissidents know that, if caught, not only will they be punished, but their families will face persecution for generations. It is the application of Original Sin for the purposes of political control.

Kim Il-sung’s eldest son, Kim Jong-il, was heir apparent for 20 years before being announced as successor in 1980. After his father died in 1994, and following a three-year period of mourning, Kim 2.0 assumed power, making North Korea the world’s first communist monarchy. But unlike Kim Senior – a guerrilla leader, Marxist theoretician (albeit third-rate) and military commander – Kim Jong-il lacked the kind of credentials, or even physical presence, worthy of the god-king’s replacement. Propagandists thus constructed a blockbuster personality cult, changing Kim Jnr’s birthday from 1941 to 1942 to accord with his father’s birth year of 1912. His birth place was moved from Siberia, where Kim Il-sung and his first wife, Kim Jong-suk, were in hiding during the war, to the sacred Paektu Mountain, and the story of his youth was reworked to give him a heroic, providential sense of mission.

Remarkably little is known about Kim’s personal life, and with his penchant for Bond movies, booze and bad haircuts, the gaps and silences have been filled with ridicule. He wore elevator shoes, king-sized sunglasses, had an insatiable fondness for Japanese women, who were apparently flown in to Pyongyang for his pleasure, and travelled around the country to press the flesh with locals while Looking At Things (its official term was “on-the-spot guidance”). But as the former US Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, who visited Pyongyang in 2000, recalls in her memoirs, Kim was “an intelligent man” who was “isolated, not uninformed… I had to assume that [he] sincerely believed in the blarney he had been taught and saw himself as the protector and benefactor of his nation.”

The regime portrayed Kim as a “Parent Leader” who fussed over his people’s well-being. It is ironic, then, that he was responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands, possibly even millions, of his subjects. His rule was characterised by economic catastrophe, after a devastating famine killed up to three million people. But as the New Yorker writer Evan Osnos discovered on a recent trip to North Korea, the famine (along with the Korean War) is part of a cradle-to-grave message hammered into the collective psyche about the historic suffering and devastation borne by the people – the implication being that it could endure a nuclear attack.

The defining question of Kim Jong-il’s reign, however, didn’t concern nuclear war, but why North Korea refused to adopt Chinese-style reforms. Between 1960 and 2000, South Korea and Taiwan pioneered a technology of nation-building, where illiberal, undemocratic political systems oversaw unparalleled economic growth and urban modernisation. From the mid-1980s, communist regimes in China and Vietnam began to emulate these “developmental dictatorships”, concealing state capitalism under the cloak of Marxist respectability.

Over the last two decades, commentators have predicted that the Kim family would tread a similar path, balancing self-enrichment and political control with domestic stability and international acceptance. One explanation for the apparent lack of reform is that the leadership holds fast to Alexis de Tocqueville’s warning that “the most dangerous time for a bad government is usually when it begins to reform”. Tinkering with the machinery of state is fine. But substantive change is regarded as the route to dethronement, and probable death.

But what if North Korea is following the China model? China fought the US during the Korean War, before undergoing a “nuclear revolution” in the 1960s, as Mao came to appreciate the deterrence capability of weapons of mass destruction. It was only from the late 1970s, under Deng Xiaoping, that the Communist Party of China felt secure enough to liberalise the economy, and open the doors to foreign investment, while retaining control of the commanding heights. From this perspective, North Korea is following a similar trajectory, but currently languishes somewhere between the 1960s and 1970s. Under Kim Jong-un it might now be edging its way towards the present.

The Great Successor: Kim Jong-un

It was in 2009 that Kim Jong-il decided that his eldest sons were unsuited for leadership: Kim Jong-chul was too effeminate; Kim Jong-nam too interested in Disneyland. He therefore chose Kim Jong-un, his youngest, as heir. Like his father, Kim Jong-un may have been of divine blood, but he lacked a legendary backstory. He was probably born in 1984, but the date was rewound to 1982 in order to maintain the cosmic rhythm with his grandfather’s and father’s birth years. It was also said that while he was attending private school in Switzerland, the young Kim learned the secrets of Western power and technology, and had a genius for military tactics. He was, as Mark Bowden wrote in a 2015 Vanity Fair profile, portrayed as “battle-hardened, albeit soft around the edges”. Kim’s pudginess was actually intentional because it accentuated a likeness to his grandfather. By bulking up, cropping his hair, and adopting a wider gait, Kim exploited the country’s nostalgia for its founding architect.

Even inside North Korea few knew who Kim was before his shotgun coronation in 2011, and many experts predicted his immediate downfall. In a society that esteems the resolve and sagacity that comes with age, how could someone in his mid-twenties hope to retain power? Writing soon after the death of Kim Jong-il, the former director for Asian affairs at the US National Security Council, Victor Cha, anticipated the regime’s collapse “in the next few weeks”. Yet Kim displayed a familial ruthlessness, purging elder cadres from the party to consolidate his position as the “Great Successor”.

He upheld his father’s song chongch’i, or “military first”, approach to policy making, declaring in a speech that North Korea had “to make every effort to reinforce the People’s Armed Forces… The days are gone forever when our enemies could blackmail us with nuclear bombs.” He kept North Korea’s hellish network of labour camps, as well as the mass surveillance, public executions, enforced disappearances, and political assassinations. As the UN concluded in 2014, “The gravity, scale and nature of these [human rights] violations reveal a state that does not have any parallel in the contemporary world.”

But Kim also began to deviate from his father’s practices. Giving speeches was new – Kim Jong-il never let the people hear his voice – and so too was showing up at pop concerts that paraded Disney characters and scenes from Rocky IV. He is also seen accompanied by his wife, Ri Sol-ju, a former singer who has been promoted to First Lady (a title not used since 1974 when it was given to the second wife of Kim Il-sung). It is believed that the upgrade is to give Ri the equivalent status of Melania Trump and Kim Jung-sook, South Korea’s first lady, during any summits between the three nations. Another prominent woman is Kim’s younger sister, Kim Yo-jong, who is deputy chief of the Korean Workers’ Party propaganda department, and probably her brother’s most trusted confidant. She made a celebrity appearance at the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang in February, and joined Kim for the first round of talks with Moon. North Korean Kremlinologists see her as representing a generational shift that is taking place in the leadership and political culture of North Korea. Most recently, Kim has sacked three of the country’s top military officials who, it is believed, opposed his approach to foreign affairs.

Of greater significance is how Kim more readily acknowledges domestic problems (the sluggishness of the economy, for example) and failed prestige projects (such as the botched mission to launch a satellite into orbit in 2012). In March 2013, he announced his byungjin policy, which meant developing both nuclear weapons and the economy; promising the people both guns and butter. It’s too soon to say whether Kim is following the example of Deng Xiaoping, but now that he has declared success on the nuclear front, we might see a shift from the pursuit of nuclear power to that of national prosperity. One small indication of this is in Pyongyang, where anti-US propaganda posters have been replaced by images and slogans promoting economic development, science, and technology. Delegations from the Korean Workers’ Party Central Committee have also been in Beijing, visiting “China’s Silicon Valley”.

Xi Jinping was the first head of state Kim met after coming to power. The Xinhua news agency portrayed the visit as a tributary nation coming to pay homage to an emperor, in search of the secrets that ensure economic growth and political indomitability. But the meeting was perhaps more important to Xi, who saw developments on the Korean peninsula slipping out of Beijing’s control. By reaching out to Trump and Moon, Kim is effectively reducing China’s influence over North Korea, despite the fact that it accounts for 90 per cent of its trade, and provides the lion’s share of its energy and food supplies. The details of Kim’s meetings with Xi are unknown, but they signal Beijing’s decisiveness in shaping the future of North Korea, and how it is likely to urge the US not to push Pyongyang too hard or too fast, fearing that any sudden changes might trigger the collapse of a regime it would prefer to remain largely intact. It should not come as a surprise if Xi visits Pyongyang shortly after the Kim-Trump summit in June.

Economic reform is one reason for North Korea’s sudden diplomatic engagement with South Korea, China and the US. Moon Jae-in has been crucial in facilitating this. To entice Trump away from threats of war, and towards a more diplomatic line, he has emphasised – perhaps overstated – North Korea’s willingness to talk. That Trump is open to meeting with Kim is welcome news, and has disrupted a repeating cycle of strategic failure that has emanated from Washington, DC. For decades, the US tried to isolate and squeeze North Korea into submission, through sanctions, non-recognition, and regime change (in 1950). But this has had the reverse effect of securing the Kim regime. Bill Clinton’s administration had more success in the mid-1990s, when it held direct talks with Pyongyang, which led to an eight-year suspension of the North’s plutonium production. Then the Bush administration torpedoed the Framework Agreement and plunged relations to their nadir. Unlike his move to restore diplomatic relations with Havana, Obama’s chimerical policy of “strategic patience” was a pretentious way of saying that the US would simply ignore North Korea until a combination of economic sanctions and diplomatic loneliness would lead to the regime’s implosion – an anaemic, even craven approach that produced nothing of value.

Then again, Trump’s extemporaneous style of politics, his laziness, belligerence and desperation to succeed where Obama didn’t, could end negotiations before they’ve even started, and may even lead to something worse. Kim is a survivalist, and won’t go to Singapore to surrender his nuclear weapons but to deal. He isn’t just bargaining for sanctions relief, diplomatic recognition and economic investment. He is also looking to set the conditions in which the world will finally have to accept North Korea as a nuclear-armed power (a non-starter for the hawks in Washington).

The value of nuclear weapons to the regime can be measured by its furious reaction to Trump’s national security adviser, John Bolton, who said Libya’s decision to dismantle its WMD programme in 2004 was a model for US policy towards North Korea. It holds the fates of Libya and Iraq as examples of what happens when rogue states relinquish their nukes. As the director of US National Intelligence, Dan Coats, said in 2017, Kim “has watched… what has happened around the world relative to nations that possess nuclear capabilities and the leverage they have”, adding that the “lesson” he had learned from Libya was, “If you had nukes, never give them up. If you don’t have them, get them.”

Just as the US and China only normalised relations in 1979, seven years after Nixon’s visit to Mao, so a summit between Trump and Kim is the beginning, not the end. As John Milton wrote in Paradise Lost, “Long is the way and hard, that out of Hell leads up to light.” But whatever happens, the people of Korea, and the world, must hope that negotiations remain as fraternal as that unscripted moment in April, when, after meeting on the border for the first time, Moon Jae-in asked Kim when he might cross over to North Korea? “Do you want to step over now?” Kim replied, as they held hands and stepped side by side into the North.

This article appears in the 06 Jun 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The Nuclear Family