A North Korean navy truck carries a Pukkuksong submarine-launched ballistic missile during a military parade marking the 105th birth anniversary of Kim Il Sung in Pyongyang on April 15, 2017. Kim Jong Un missed the celebration this year. Photo: Reuters / Damir Sagolj

Kim Jong Un hasn’t been seen in public since April 11. While it is not unprecedented for the leader to vanish from time to time, he has missed several key dates on North Korea’s calendar including the all-important April 15 “Day of the Sun” holiday, which celebrates the birth of his grandfather, Kim Il Sung, who founded the state.

Rumors quickly began to spread and now there is a mass of conflicting information over whether or not Kim Jong Un is recuperating after a surgery or is perhaps even dead.

With each new Kim or each time the leader has been discovered to be ill, speculation begins over the next transition of power and how (or if) the two Koreas might be unified. This necessitates a lot of discussion over military and nuclear issues.

But what often gets lost in those discussions is the question of what happens once the regime finally does come to an end. How will the people themselves transition to a new life after living with three generations of a deeply entrenched personality cult?

The personality cult surrounding the Kim family can trace its roots to at least 1949 and has since grown into the most expansive in modern history – surpassing even the cults of Josef Stalin and Mao Zedong. The cult’s longevity is a key factor to consider when talking about life after Kim.

Stalin, Mao, Tito, and all the rest simply ruled for perhaps a generation. Their deaths were followed by major reforms, and their cults minimized or dismantled. 

North Korea, on the other hand, has had more than 70 years of adulation and mass indoctrination. The country is dotted with more than 11,000 monuments. Factories and universities have “research institutes” dedicated to the thought of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il. And scores of “revolutionary history” museums help to reinforce the cult and the primacy of the Kim family.

People who could remember a time before the Kims have largely died out as the country’s ideological development has encouraged the sentiment found in this song lyric, without you [Kim], there is no us.

While the depth of genuine devotion to the Kim family has waned over the generations, the people’s worldview is still very much entangled with the life and times of the ruling family. 

How threats to continuance of the cult are treated and countered will depend on the situation surrounding the final demise of the regime.

If the regime’s end occurs because of outside forces, there will likely be opposition to dismantling the cult. If it follows popular unrest, we may see statues being gleefully torn down by local denizens as we saw in post-Saddam Iraq. And then there is a universe’s worth of possibilities in between.

Must end someday

But what can be said with certainty is that at some point in the future, the Kim regime will end. Societies and dynasties all come, evolve, and go.

And whether this one ends with the current Kim III or with Kim XXIII in the distant future, addressing the gulf between North and South and between the DPRK and the rest of the world is going to be important.

Putting an end to the cult will require a dual process. The most important part of that process will be figuring out how to de-Kimize the population after seven decades. 

The second part will be figuring out how to handle the physical elements of the cult: those thousands of monuments, millions of portraits, the slogans carved deep into the faces of granite outcrops, and even the Kim family mausoleum and the bodies inside. 

Confronting the cult will be more difficult among the older generations who will have pre-famine memories of Kim Il Sung and of easier days when their basic necessities were met by the state.

But even among the youngest generation who will have spent their lives in a quasi-capitalist world, defectors who make it to South Korea struggle with a truly market-based economy and routinely lag behind in education. Defectors also often suffer from depression and fail to adjust to the individualistic world outside their closed nation.

North Korea’s system of public education places an emphasis on learning Kim Il Sung-Kim Jong Il thought and students must memorize the Kims’ “revolutionary exploits” for hours each week. This comes at the expense of a genuine and full education.

Society’s unity of thought and action is key to the survival of any authoritarian system, and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) has been extremely successful at engineering it. The Mass Games, where 100,000 mostly amateur performers are drilled into putting on one of the most exclusive shows in the world, would only be possible in a country where the individual has been subsumed by the collective. 

Each town has a Juche Study Hall where people are not only indoctrinated with the latest party orders or Kim speech, but are also forced to confess to how they have failed to live up to the Juche ideal that is supposedly exemplified by the lives of the three Kims.

Juche can be loosely translated as a combination of Korean-ness and national self-reliance. Cosa nostra or “our thing” is a similar formulation by the Sicilian Mafia, a criminal enterprise to which the North Korean regime is often compared.

The result of this is the deprogramming of the individual and the creation of strong community units that are built around the supremacy of the state, which itself has legitimacy only through the Kim bloodline.

Leaving that world and entering the self-directed modern world will be trying for even the most disillusioned North Korean. Adequately addressing the psychological, emotional, and educational needs of 25 million people will be of the utmost importance to successful reunification. 

Going back to the physical representations of the cult, care will need to be taken regarding just how quickly and thoroughly the land is “cleansed” of Kim reminders. Kim Il Sung’s memory is held in genuine esteem. Bulldozing his birthplace would not likely engender trust and respect from the people.

Nevertheless, once the full extent of the country’s concentration-camp system is revealed, we may see a radicalized faction of people willing to destroy every vestige of the past 70 years. 

At the same time, once some distance grows between the realities of living under Kim and the realities of living after Kim, some nostalgia may develop. This has been seen in both China and the states of the former USSR. Yes, Mao and Stalin killed and oppressed millions, but they also saved their respective nations from threats both real and imagined. 

Kim Il Sung is the “respected general” who really did have a role to play (however small) in liberating Korea from Japanese occupation, and he managed to rebuild the North after the Korean War. Kim Jong Il somehow kept the country from collapsing as famine raged. And Kim Jong Un has been able to fulfill the long-awaited promise of turning the DPRK into a nuclear state.

We can make objective judgments over what Kim’s North Korea means, but we can’t be confident of our judgments about what Kim’s North Korea means to the people who live there. The complexities of this very human problem will require close coordination with the North Korean people and will likely require the people themselves to lead the process in many ways.

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Jacob Bogle

Jacob Bogle is a US-based North Korea analyst who runs the open-source intelligence blog AccessDPRK.