What would it be like to be told at age 27 that for the next four decades you were going to have to kill, starve and oppress millions of people if you wanted to stay alive? A strange question you may think, and yet not an unreasonable one. It is after all, precisely what happened to Kim Jong-un, the son of Kim Jong-il and now leader of the world’s most oppressive state.
I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, thanks to a clip I saw last week of a celebration on North Korean TV. The cameras were inside a huge hall, filled with rows of identically dressed apparatchiks who were clapping in unison. On stage, ancient generals and desiccated party figures stared directly ahead, stiff as mummies. Above them were huge images of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il - dead yes, but incredibly happy. And then, Kim Jong-un appeared. A general approximately three apples high and wearing a hat the size of a satellite dish held his chair as the fat and sullen “brilliant comrade” sat down.
It was what happened next that caught my attention. Kim Jong-il always gave the impression that he was delighted with himself as far as diabolical dwarves go. He was confident, cheerful… perhaps he actually enjoyed all that terror and violence. But as for Kim Jong-un, well, his body language tells a different story. As the zombies applauded, he sat slouched forward in his chair, leafing idly through some papers. He looked this way, that way, clearly wishing he was somewhere else. The question is: where? In one of his father’s pleasure palaces, surrounded by the cream of North Korea’s young females… or in an entirely different reality altogether, one where he is not the son of Kim Jong-il?
And thus I feel sympathy for Kim Jong-un. When I look at him on TV I see not only boredom, but also confusion, anxiety, and fear. Initially he looked stunned to be standing before crowds of thousands of weeping people. You could see him thinking: What’s going on? Is this all mine? How do I work it? What happens if I mess up?
Indeed, it was rather unfair of his father to drop this awesome responsibility upon him so suddenly, as Kim Jong-il himself was able to spend decades practicing his evil. He started with little murders, orchestrating car crashes for members of the party hierarchy who opposed the principle of hereditary succession, for instance. Thus by the time the 1990s came round, he had built up the experience required to sentence millions to death by starvation.
But the country Kim Jong-un has inherited is a much bigger disaster area than the country Kim Jong-il inherited from his father, so he will have to leap to mega violence very early on in his career. And while Kim Jong-il’s former sushi chef Kenji Fujimoto may say that the new leader is as ruthless as his father ("he knows how to be angry and how to praise. He has the ability to lead people... also he loves basketball, roller-blading, snowboarding and skiing... I watched him play golf once and he reminded me of a top Japanese professional.") it takes more than mere ruthlessness and mad hoop skillz to survive as a totalitarian despot. You need to be cunning, a master of divide and rule, adept at generating fear and paranoia in your inner circle. There will always be somebody eager to kill you, to seize all that power, should you show signs of weakness.
Also, if I were Kim Jong-un I would be seriously contemplating the history of political dynasties. He is the third in line, following two world class monsters. And how often does that kind of talent, or indeed any talent, pass to the third generation without a diminution? Never.
Don’t take it from me. Kim Jong-un’s big (half) brother Kim Jong-nam agrees. In an interview with a Japanese journalist he confessed: “Jong-un might look like our grandfather (Kim Il-sung), but I’m worried how he can satisfy his people.”
In fact, Kim Jong-nam claims that Kim Jong-il was aware of the risks of passing power to the third generation, but members of his inner circle insisted on it. And this is very possible. For decades, North Koreans were told that Kim Jong-il was born on Mt. Baekdu, a sacred place in all Korean folklore, and that not only did a double rainbow appear in celebration, but a new star appeared in the heavens also. The Kim family are quasi-divine. How could the North Korean nomenklatura do otherwise than put one of the sons in charge?
And thus when I watch Kim Jong-un and the amassed generals behind him on TV, it seems clear that they too are trapped, all of them. Their gilded cages float atop an ocean of blood so deep and wide that the waves push them up against the roof of the sky, where the air is perilously thin. And if anyone dares to open the door and step outside, he will surely drown.
And thus if he is not yet evil, Kim Jong-un must fast become evil if he is to survive.
Originally published 4/5/2012