Ben Hills

Tokyo, Sunday: When Joseph Stalin died 41 years ago, The Daily Telegraph in Sydney splashed an illustration of a weeping crocodile across its front page, with the headline “STALIN DEAD – HOORAY”.

By all accounts, the 70 million people of the two Koreas should today be similarly cheering the demise of another Leninist dictator, the aged Kim Il Sung, who – if the accounts of his mendacious propaganda apparatus can be believed – died of a heart attack on Friday.

Stalin, Nicolae Ceausescu of Romania, Albania’s Enver Hoxha, East Germany’s Erich Honecker, China’s Li Peng – Mr Kim once knew them all, admired their regimes, emulated their techniques of terror, repression and State control which slowly squeezed the life out of his bastard republic’s economy.

Of these evil men who murdered so many millions of their countrymen and made the latter half of the 20th century such a misery for tens of millions more, only Li – the man who ordered the massacre in Tiananmen Square – is left.

And yet television cameras show tens of thousands of people kneeling in front of the 20 metre-tall bronze statue of Mr Kim which dominates life in his capital of Pyongyang, banging their foreheads on the ground, many dressed in mourning white and bearing bunches of gladioli, weeping with every appearance of uncontrollable sorrow at his passing.

Perhaps it is just that the portly, avuncular Mr Kim was the only leader they had known in the 50-odd years since the peninsula was arbitrarily divided along the 38th parallel to become two countries for the first time in its 1,000-year history as a nation. Four generations of North Koreans have known nothing other than occupation, war, and Kim Il Sung.

Perhaps it was the incessant propaganda, the Orwellian barrage of lies that filled every waking minute of their lives – the 35,000 statues of Mr Kim, the mountainsides scarred with slogans in his praise, the creation of a Mecca-like shrine at his supposed birthplace.

Perhaps it was the total isolation that gradually engulfed his country as first his foes – the Americans and their United Nations allies who defeated him after his madly misjudged invasion of the south in 1950 – and then his friends threw up their hands in despair at his lunatic policies.

His apparatus of repression was as impressive as anything Messrs Stalin and Ceausescu ever put in place. No-one can know for sure, but Asia Watch guesses that more than 200,000 people are languishing in Mr Kim’s concentration camps, and refugees across the Chinese border talk of starvation, food riots, and mass executions – including a dozen mutinous military officers said to have been burnt at the stake.

It would have been enough to convince Mr Kim’s grieving subjects that his passing should be cause for celebration if ever they had had a chance to look across the rusting barbed wire of the demilitarised zone (DMZ) which divides the peninsula, what the US troops refer to as “the Cold War’s last frontier”.

They would have been able to contrast the bustling boomtown streets of Seoul – where the per capita incomes of their southern relatives are now more than 20 times those of the north – with their own impoverished lives, exhorted to eat only one meal a day, struggling for bare subsistence. But, of course, this is not allowed. Possession of a radio capable of receiving anything other than State propaganda, even singing a South Korean pop song, can land you in prison.

For South Korea, the worst nightmare has come true with Mr Kim’s death. They have been hoping for years for a gradual integration of the two countries- through trade, investment, visits – to reduce the economic shock of reunion. The summit planned for July 25 was seen as the best chance yet of beginning this process.

Now a dramatic collapse of the regime – just like East Germany, Romania or Albania – is considered the likeliest scenario by South Korea’s planners. Kim Jong Il, groomed for more than 20 years to succeed his father, is said to be a highly unstable character, deeply unpopular with the military, and disliked by the public.

The diminutive bespectacled Dear Leader (his father was the Great Leader)is described by a US intelligence source as “a narcissistic 11-year-old in a 52-year-old body”.

The Americans believe he commanded North Korea’s international terrorism campaign, including the assassination of four members of South Korea’s Cabinet in Rangoon in 1983 and the 1987 bombing of a South Korean airliner, which killed 115.

Although Kim Jong Il appears to have taken control for the time being, there are deep rifts in his family that may block the dynastic succession -the first time any communist leader has tried to install his son in his place

Will this mean civil war? Millions of refugees pouring south across the border? A bill for $US200 million to $US300 million which would dwarf the cost of German reunification? That is the agenda that President Kim Young-sam’s crisis planners are working on in the Blue House right now.

For the rest of the world – and, in particular the Americans – the death of Mr Kim means that what the US President, Mr Bill Clinton, described during a visit just last year as “the scariest place on earth” has become considerably scarier.

Publishing Info

Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Pub date: Monday 11 July 1994
Edition: Late
Section: News and Features
Sub section: Page: 12
Word count: 1026
Keywords: North Korea