So Lee Kuan Yew was a “close friend of the North Korea people” and “passed away to their sorrow.” That’s the way North Korean Prime Minister Pak Pong Ju phrased it in a condolence note.
Indeed there are points in common between Singapore and North Korea, starting with the obvious fact that both are ruled by hereditary authoritarian regimes. But even expatriate lawyer Gopalan Nair, blogging as “Singapore Dissident,” acknowledged last year that “Singapore is not North Korea.” (Nair meant that in a positive way: Over the long run, he argued, “it is not possible to govern a country like Singapore with brute force alone as can be done in North Korea.” With the death of the elder Lee, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong would “probably be kicked out,” he predicted.)
Perhaps Lee Kuan Yew really was a “close friend of the North Korean people,” whatever that’s worth. However, according to a leaked 2009 cable from the Singapore U.S. Embassy that was published in The Guardian, Lee believed that the North Korean leaders “have been isolated for so long that they have no friends.”
In a largely paraphrased summary of his remarks in a meeting with U.S. officials, Lee opined that the Pyongyang regime was peopled with “psychopathic types, with a ‘flabby old chap’ for a leader who prances around stadiums seeking adulation.” That “flabby old chap” would have been the late Dear Leader Kim Jong Il, who died in December 2011 – not to be confused with his son and successor, the Respected Marshal Kim Jong Un, a flabby young chap who prances around stadiums seeking adulation.
Lee’s distaste for the North Korean leadership did not translate into predictions of its early demise. The Singaporean elder statesman noted, the embassy cable added, “that he had learned from living through three and a half years of Japanese occupation in Singapore that people will obey authorities who can deny them food, clothing and medicine.”
Lee had addressed the Pyongyang regime’s staying power in a 2005 interview with Der Spiegel and observed that going nuclear was the Kims’ magic bullet: “The leaders in North Korea believe that their survival depends upon having a bomb – at least one nuclear bomb. Otherwise, sooner or later, they will collapse and the leaders will be put on trial like (former Yugoslavian president Slobodan) Milosevic for all the crimes that they have committed. And they have no intention of letting that happen.”
That didn’t mean that Lee thought the Kims could keep power forever. “In the long run I think they will implode,” he told the German magazine, “because their system cannot survive. They can see China, they can see Russia and Vietnam, all opening up. If they open up, their system of control of the people will break down. So they must go.”
With friends like that . . .
Bradley K. Martin is a veteran North Korea and Asia correspondent and the author of “Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader: North Korea and the Kim Dynasty“.
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