January 13, 2012 13:44
It has been almost a month since North Korean leader Kim Jong-il's death, and there has been a considerable amount of controversy whether the sorrow expressed by the North Korean public was genuine or not. Those who claim that the dramatic expressions of grief were genuine say that they were the result of brain washing, state propaganda and demagoguery. Those who doubt their sincerity say that most North Koreans must be aware of the true state of the country under Kim’s iron-fisted rule: some North Koreans may be saddened by his death, but the vast majority are probably not.
North Koreans also wailed and wept when former leader Kim Il-sung died 17 years ago. But back then more of them were probably truly sad than when Kim Jong-il died. But Kim Jong-il deified his father following his death and made people mourn his passage to gain a firmer grip on power, proclaiming a three-year mourning period and staying behind the scenes as he strengthened and legitimized his rule. But this time, the process has been sped up, and North Korea's propaganda apparatus is already busy hailing Kim Jong-un and endowing him with various honorific accolades.
There is a strong possibility that this is happening because the North's power elite is seeking to maintain control by using Kim Jong-un, rather than because it is simply seeking to cement his status.
Why are North Korea's elite and ordinary people playing along with this myth and idol worship? Perhaps the most plausible reason is that they are being forced. In other words, failure to do so would lead to punishment. North Korea's elite naturally finds it necessary to play along to ensure its privileges, and the masses probably have no choice even though they do not like what the regime is doing. This phenomenon is portrayed in George Orwell's 1945 novel "Animal Farm" based on the regimes in Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union under Stalin. The book is about a pig named Napoleon who uses hunting dogs as tools of suppression and is aided by henchmen to create fictitious enemies and elevate himself to the status of a hero, even though he has no achievements to call his own, so that he can rule over other animals.
Totalitarian regimes demand conformity and unquestioning loyalty from their people and seek to use them as symbols of their authority. They suppress individualism and personal independence to control the masses. There are countless examples of people resisting authoritarian rule, but not in North Korea. Those people fight against all odds to protect precious values like freedom and peace although they know they can be persecuted, imprisoned, placed under house arrest and in mental asylums or even executed.
Alexander Solzhenitsyn and Andrei Sakharov of the former Soviet Union were examples of such individuals, while Czechoslovakia had Vaclav Havel, and in China writer Shu Chingchun and Peking University professor Xiong Shili were killed during the Cultural Revolution. And in South Korea there were poet Kim Ji-ha and pro-democracy activist Kim Keun-tae. They all sacrificed their comfortable lives to fight against authoritarian leaders because they could not bear the suppression of freedom and the distortion of truth by dictators.
North Korea is the most repressive of the totalitarian regimes of individual thoughts and actions. But even in such a closed and repressive society, the question is how much longer the deification of leaders and the collusion among the power elite will continue.
In South Korea, which has seen democracy firmly take root, the deification of Kim Jong-un in the North seems eerie and also a source of considerable anxiety. The open South and the closed North make an odd pairing that has given rise to plenty of academic research. With North Koreans trapped in such a repressive regime, the South must hope that the leadership cult will not become seen as the truth in the North, and seek to bring about reforms there without causing the country to implode. The South Korean people and government must take an objective and patient approach to North Korea.
By former foreign minister Han Sung-joo
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