A fellow on Twitter loves to repeat his favorite tweet, again and again, week after week, month after month, year after year: “Today would be a good day for Donald J. Trump to release his tax returns.”
On that note, one could also tweet that it’s a fine day to remember how lucky the Chinese are that Mao Zedong’s son died fighting in the Korean War – and, therefore, there is no Mao dynasty. Deng Xiaoping (“To get rich is glorious”) was able to take over and shift the country’s course massively.
Next door, meanwhile, North Korea’s founding ruler Kim Il Sung’s son and grandson succeeded him. No one shifted the country’s course by more than a degree or two. People still don’t have enough to eat. A version of China’s 1966-76 Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution – Maoism’s supreme insanity – still rages on in North Korea after five decades.
In fact, April 15 is arguably the best day of the year for either of the above tweets. It’s the deadline for tax returns in the United States. And in North Korea, it’s the biggest holiday of the year, the Day of the Sun, when worshipful subjects commemorate the 1912 birthday of Great Leader Kim – who, among his other achievements, deserves recognition as the country’s Grand Egotistical Pooh-bah.
Kim Il Sung during his anti-Japanese guerrilla youth developed a preference for the company of people who acknowledged him as a great man. Of one guerrilla subordinate, he tellingly wrote in a memoir: “Just as Ko Po-bae followed and respected me unconditionally, so I trusted and loved him absolutely.”
Kim recalled thanking an old man for nursing him through a fever. “Don’t mention it,” he quoted the man as having replied. “God gave birth to you, General Kim, and you have been saved in this cabin by God’s will.” Kim claimed he then protested that this was laying it on a bit thick – but the old man merely chided him for being “too modest.”
Later, as the top leader, Kim enjoyed the adoring gaze of that vast majority of his people who, believing his official version of events, were totally unaware it was Kim who had planned and started the Korean War, which killed and maimed so many of them. Entertaining a group of military heroes during the war, Kim asked them coyly, “There is a song you sing at the front. Please sing that song.” The men obligingly sang the song – which, as Kim well knew, was “The Song of General Kim Il Sung.”
Eldest son Kim Jong Il, determined to succeed his father, worked himself into a position to serve as chief flatterer. It was he who reportedly dreamed up the idea of having delegates to a 1970 party congress wear lapel badges adorned with a likeness of the Respected and Beloved Leader.
Kim Jong Il achieved the hereditary succession he’d sought, and in turn was followed by his own third son, Kim Jong Un. They inherited not only the power but the exalted status: Any North Korean who valued his life would speak of the rulers only in superlatives. Criticize policies set by the Kims? No way.
Inevitable was the stultification of discourse, the lack of will to change that has paralyzed the family regime while preserving it as if in amber.
Each time a new Kim comes to power, outside optimists expect that he will modernize the economy and feed the people.
However, the younger Kims, knowing that their power is dynastic by its very nature, fear that serious movement away from policies they inherited from Kim Il Sung would undermine the legend that keeps them exalted.
The original Kim’s plan was not to beat South Korea at its own economic game. His plan, instead, was to take over South Korea politically and/or militarily and grab what the southerners’ superior system had built.
Dreamer or schemer?
As the economic gap between the two Koreas expands, new generations of South Korean and foreign optimists imagine that the Kims by now, at long last, must have given up their foolish dream of ruling all of the Korean Peninsula. One of those optimists – if he’s not an outright pro-North schemer, as some of his enemies suspect – is South Korea’s current president, leftist Moon Jae-in.
Moon keeps beating the drum for the Kims’ old policy of forming a confederation, even though, if he has eyes to see, he must know that confederation is the North’s chosen route for achieving control over a unified peninsula.
Today would be a good day for Moon to reflect on a new title that Kim Jong Un has recently awarded to himself: “Supreme Representative of all Korean People.”
Kim’s self-coronation as top dog on the peninsula is very much in the self-aggrandizing tradition established by his grandfather and continued by his father.
It’s also, as German economist and Pyongyang watcher Ruediger Frank argues in a newly published paper, “a confirmation of the North’s desire to accomplish Korean unification under its leadership.” The move, Frank concludes, “constitutes an open challenge to South Korea.”