Look Back In Nostalgia

Question: When do the ruins of the Korean war start to look like the Good Old Days? Answer: when you are a mourner at Kim Jong-Il’s funeral.

Public Radio International thinks propaganda efforts to link the Great Successor — Kim Jong-Un to his grandfather Kim Il-sung rather than Papa Kim Jong-il are an attempt to ground him in the nostalgia for the past rather than the grim reality of the present. Escaped North Koreans living in the South believe “many North Koreans still have great respect for Kim Il-sung. Kim Jong-il is a different story.”


“People blame Kim Jong-il for why North Korea is in such bad shape, and the government knows it,.” Hyun said. “That’s why during this mourning period they’ve given out more food and staples, and kept markets open. They’re treating the people a lot better than normal.” …

Hyun and other refugees say the trick now is for Pyongyang to make new leader Kim Jong-un seem less like his father and more like his grandfather.

Lee said based on the images she’s seen from the funeral, that’s exactly what the North is trying to do.

“I’ve seen pictures of Kim Jong-un from a few years ago. He was slim then. I think he put on a lot of weight to look more like his grandfather. He even wears the same type of suit and has the same haircut,” Lee said.

For some years after the Korean War, North Korea’s standard of living remained fairly close to that of the South.  Only in the 1970s did they begin to diverge drastically.  By the 1990s,  Southern incomes were four times that of the North. Then Kim Il-sung died and things really went downhill. As the Washington Post put it:

in 1994, after Kim Jong Il took over, the economy started shrinking noticeably, per capita incomes fell, and the country became dependent on emergency U.N. food aid to stave off famines that had already killed as many as 3 million people. North Korea became, as Eberstadt puts it, “the world’s first and only industrialized economy to lose the capacity to feed itself.”


From Bad to Worse

The problem, as the Strategy Page puts it, was that everything that the Dear Leader touched turned to dross.  Recently, the 100,000 housing units he built for the Party faithful to placate key constituencies were so badly built that people feared being given a new unit. “Hundreds of students drafted to help in the construction were killed or mutilated by work accidents.”

Pyongyang proved unable to even accept spoon-feeding by the Chinese, who offered to let its huge construction industry show Pyongyang how to do it for nothing. But letting the Chinese demonstrate competence would embarrass incompetent North Korean bureaucrats and reduce their power. The result was that they refused the offer and kept on building their houses of cards.

Things have gotten so bad in North Korea that many people look back on the days after the Korean War — the heyday of Kim Il-sung — as the “good old days”.  For all of his faults the old dictator probably held enough power to keep the rapacious elements of the Party at bay, or at least, limit the rackets to himself. When he died the apparatchiks moved in on the Korean carcass like hungry wolves and have been at it ever since.

The Japanese newspaper Asahi Shimbun describes the housing catastrophe. The housing target was reduced from 100,000 to 20,000 and finally to 2,800 units along Mansudae Street. A new power plant was also planned, but its completion is in doubt due to safety concerns. The Asahi Shimbun said that the North’s compulsion to compete in the propaganda war with the South often diverted men and material to Potemkin projects. When South Korea effortlessly spent billions to host the Olympics, the North used up what resources it had to sponsor a pathetic rival event, the 13th World Festival of Youth and Students.


Ominously, DVDs have leaked in over the Chinese border showing life in China and South Korea, causing the Northerners to boggle at the prosperity. Another danger signal was that North Koreans began to imitate the dress habits of South Korean, a sign that they were viewing bootleg programs. The combination of rising expectations and falling incomes was an explosive combination. The Strategy Page says the secret police are cracking down on rumor mills which say that Kim Jong-il was poisoned in order to keep the lid on the catastrophic results of the housing and power debacles, suggesting the men behind the throne decided to act before the storm burst.

The hope among some members of the public is that Kim Jong-Un can successfully take on the clique his father built and tear it down. The Strategy Page writes, “there is some scant hope that Kim Jong Un and his handlers will push for a Chinese solution and get away with it.”

A lot of North Koreans are just going through the motions when it comes to public mourning. Privately, there is great fear and uncertainty about the new government. The heir, Kim Jong Un, is in his 20s and it’s unclear if he has the ability to hold things together. Apparently he is controlled by his aunt (the younger sister of Kim Jong Il) and uncle (Jang Song Taek, a powerful official, who has long been advising Kim Jong Un and his father). It’s still unclear what the new leadership will do to solve the many crises facing North Korea. Famine and lack of fuel and jobs are just the most pressing matters, there are many more problems. Kim Jong Un’s uncle has been in trouble in the past for his pro-reform attitudes. He has also gotten into trouble for openly saying that the economic situation in North Korea was very difficult to deal with. But now Jang is at the very top. If ever there was a chance to enact some real economic reform next year would be the time to do it. But with that reform will come cultural change, and North Koreans will eventually demand less dictatorship and more democracy. That unrest may take years to develop, while famine and massive unemployment are here now.


But the men who are the proximate causes of the North Korean disaster literally surround the new princeling. The Chosun Ilbo newspaper  shows the members of the inner circle  walking beside the Dear Leader’s hearse. They are Jang Song-taek, Kim Ki-nam, Choe Tae-bok, Ri Yong-ho, Kim Yong-chun, Kim Jong-gak, and U Dong-chuk. Hailing from either the senior ranks of the Party or the Military, these men have grown up in the system and have profited handsomely from it. They are the men whose rackets and mismanagement have created the shoddy housing, famine and economic failure that weigh down the North.

It is unlikely they will let go. But as ever, hope springs eternal and the desperate North Koreans Hope that Change will come to the Korean peninsula.  But can Kim Jong-un be at once the creature of the regime and the hoped-for beginning to its end? One can’t blame the famine-stricken North Koreans from clinging to the possibility.

Yet fanciful as it sounds, international diplomats are in the same case: they are in a mode of wait-and-see. “Neighboring countries including South Korea will inevitably have to revise their strategies toward North Korea depending on whether the new leadership in Pyongyang will hold on to power and how the impoverished state will respond to challenges at home and abroad.”

The first litmus test of whether the new North Korean leadership will take power will likely be the third round of talks between North Korea and the U.S. that was originally scheduled for Dec. 22 but postponed due to Kim Jong Il`s death. Considering that Pyongyang-Washington nuclear negotiations resumed a month after Kim Il Sung`s demise in 1994, experts say the postponed talks will likely be held in January. It cannot be ruled out, however, that Pyongyang makes a sudden about-face on the nuclear issue if hard-liners have a stronger voice.

Due to the unpredictability, hectic diplomatic efforts surrounding the situation on the Korean Peninsula are being made behind closed doors. Lim Sung-nam, Seoul`s chief nuclear negotiator, departed for Washington Wednesday for a meeting with U.S. special envoy to North Korea Glyn Davies.


In their own way the “international community” is acting as passively as the crowds which were bused in to line the funeral route.

The evil that men do lives after them;
The good is oft interréd with their bones;
So let it be with Kim.
O judgment! Thou art fled to brutish beasts,
And men have lost their reason. Bear with me;
My heart is in the coffin there with Old Ronery,
And I must pause till it collapse on me.

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