Kim Jong-il's Miserable Legacy

      December 29, 2011 13:50

      On Wednesday, when North Korean leader Kim Jong-il's funeral was held, the official Rodong Sinmun daily said Kim's greatest legacy was his nuclear weapons program. It said nuclear weapons enabled North Korea to "stand confidently" among the world's superpowers.

      Kim effectively ruled the North for 37 years since he was anointed in 1974 to succeed his father and was the leader for 17 years after Kim Il-sung's death in 1994. Even his own officials seem to have noticed that his only legacy worth mentioning was his nuclear weapons program.

      In 1974, when Kim began ruling over the North jointly with his father, the North and South Korean economies were roughly the same size. But last year, the per-capita income of South Korea was 19 times larger than the North's. The country's per-capita income, which stood at W800,000 in 1995, when Kim began ruling over North Korea by himself, is now estimated at W1.24 million (US$1=W1,156).That means the North's economy stagnated completely over the last 15 years.

      Millions of people starved to death during the first four years of Kim's rule starting in 1994, and hundreds of thousands fled their country in search of food and work. Many are still hiding out in China and Southeast Asia. When Korea achieved independence from Japanese colonial occupation in 1945, more than 80 percent of the industrial facilities were in what became North Korea. But during their 66-year rule, Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il systematically ran them into the ground and turned their country into one of the world's poorest and most backward.

      China began to open up its economy in 1978, and Vietnam followed suit in 1986. The former Soviet Union and Eastern European countries also walked down the path toward democracy and capitalism. But Kim Jong-il marched blithely in the opposite direction. He deleted the words Marxism, Leninism, communism and socialism from the North Korean Constitution and touted Kim Il-sung's "juche" ideology of self-reliance as the country's sole guiding principle in order to consolidate the dynastic succession.

      Since 2000, Kim Jong-il held summits with South Korean Presidents Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun, which led to the opening of tours to Mt. Kumgang and the Kaesong Industrial Complex. But he spent the money from those projects developing nuclear weapons and buying the loyalty of North Korean officials to maintain his grip on power. Kim Jong-il expressed awe and surprise after witnessing China’s economic reforms, but the impressions soon faded. Whenever he felt his rule threatened, Kim shut down the North's markets, which were the only means of survival for his people after food rations stopped. In his final years, Kim sold mining rights and even key ports to China in a desperate bid to raise cash.

      The Kim regime has brought starvation and repression to North Korea's 24 million people and sadness to the 50 million South Koreans as they helplessly watched their brethren starve to death.

      North Korea's state media were able to cite only the nuclear weapons program as Kim Jong-il's legacy. But leftwing historians in South Korea, who insist on teaching the modern history of South Korea from a democratic perspective, are doing a worse job than the North's state-run media when they glorify the North Korean regime. This has to stop; there is no possible rosy view that can be taken of North Korea. Historians' sole duty is to the truth.

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