The Death of Kim Jong-il

The world’s attention is once again focused on North Korea. This is not due to a new nuclear test, imperialist saber-rattling, or a military clash with South Korea along the world’s most militarized border. This time, the reason is potentially even more explosive: the death of Kim Jong-il.

Kim Jong IlThe North Korean dictator had been in-ill health since suffering a stroke in 2008. Serious preparations for a transition of power were begun shortly thereafter, a process that was to be completed in 2012. But on December 19, North Korean state media reported that Kim had died at 8:30 am on December 17, at the age of 69. The cause of death given was a heart attack suffered while traveling on a train, brought on by fatigue—for “working too hard for the North Korean people.” The delay in making the announcement would indicate that there are divisions within the regime on how to move forward. Given the experience of the past, this comes as no surprise.

When Kim Jong-il’s father, Kim-Il Sung, the founder of North Korea, died in 1994, there were three years of internal chaos and uncertainty as rival factions in the bureaucracy fought one another for control. This, despite the fact that Kim had been groomed by his father for 20 years to succeed him. However, a series of external factors compounded the transition. The collapse of the USSR in 1991 led to a steep economic decline and a period of nightmarish austerity in North Korea. This was followed by flooding of “biblical proportions” in 1995, which wiped out reserves of grain and destroyed vast swathes of arable land. Out of a population of 22 million, it is estimated that between 900,000 and 3.5 million may have perished in the famine of the early to mid-1990s.

A repetition had to be avoided at all costs. A smooth transition was to be prepared in advance. But things are never so straight forward, especially in a bureaucracy as monstrous as the North Korean. Afraid of allowing one of his sons to build up a power base against him before he was ready to step aside, Kim Jong-il held off on naming a successor for nearly two years after his stroke. It was only in September 2010 that his then-27-year-old son Kim Jong-un was designated as “The Great Successor.” However, Un has no military experience, despite being made a four-star general and Vice Chairman of the Central Military Commission of the Workers Party of Korea. In a country dominated by the military bureaucracy, will the army fall in line behind someone as untested as Un? Will Un be able to secure the reins of power without the regime imploding?

In the words of Mike Chinoy, of the U.S. China Institute, “How does somebody who's not yet 30 win the loyalty and respect and command authority over the entrenched party apparatus, the entrenched military bureaucracy, and the senior party officials who may have been in their positions for a long time?”

The geopolitical analysts at Straftor put forward the following possibility:

“Kim Jong-un’s uncle, Jang Song Thaek, will rule behind the scenes as Kim Jong-un trains on the job. Like the transition from Kim-Il Sung to Kim Jong-il, it is likely that North Korea will focus internally over the next few years as the country’s elite adjust to a new balance of power. In any transition, there are those who will gain and those who are likely to be disenfranchised, and this competition can lead to internal conflicts.”

Capitalist restoration?

Capitalism has succeeded in prying open nearly the entire world. In an epoch of economic crisis and dog-eat-dog competition, every possible inch of market real estate will be fought over like hungry jackals over a bone. North Korea, despite the many complications, is one of the “last frontiers” for capitalism, and all the big players in the region—the U.S., China, Japan, and South Korea—are scrambling to stake their claim if and when the regime falls apart. They all want “their” capitalism to get the upper hand.

Due to the extreme secrecy of the North Korean state, it is hard to form a clear picture of the situation in the country. It is difficult, for example, to know how deep the inroads of capitalism have gone. As explained in previous articles, the gradual restoration of capitalist property relations has been proceeding in “Hermit Kingdom” for some time—via China. A September 2010 article titled Chinese Capitalism Floods North Korea, published in the Duluth Tribune News, had this interesting commentary from a reporter on the ground:

“While domestic acceptance of a possible Kim Jong Un regency appears unclear, much more open is North Korea’s growing embrace of Chinese tutelage and investment. The Chinese Communist Party has been steadfast in its support of North Korean economic liberalization, not merely to avoid a North Korean collapse, but because China can make money in the process. Leaders in Beijing are continually dispatching trade and tourism delegations to the North, dumping tons of industrial waste in North Korea, and helping Chinese firms to snaffle up lucrative contracts in the mining industry. Having surveyed nearly the entirety of the 800+ mile length of the North Korean border with China over the past several years, I can state with confidence that no amount of American prodding is going to move China into the US camp in opposition to North Korea, or bring China to support vigorous sanctions against its neighbor. The Chinese model is gradually winning in North Korea, and a class of North Korean entrepreneurs has developed along the border. Moreover, China’s own local needs mean that developing the border region takes priority over punitive steps which might slow North Korea’s nuclear development.”

One thing is certain: there are tremendous interests at stake, whatever the outcome of the transition may be. The ruling bureaucracy has everything to lose if the country implodes. There are surely those who wish to keep the status quo, in order to continue benefiting from the state-owned sector of the economy. Others are clearly interested in adopting the “Chinese road”—with direct help from the Chinese capitalists themselves. This is a process that appears to have been accelerating in the recent period.

Another layer may even be tempted by a rapprochement or even reunification with the South, hoping to become the beneficiaries of the selling-off of the state assets and the opening of the country to South Korean and American capital. For a period in the 2000s, relations between the North and South had thawed, as the “sunshine policy” was adopted by the capitalist South. Combined with food aid programs, President Roh Moo-hyun’s conciliatory policy was the “carrot” approach to bringing the North “in from the cold.” But the current President, Lee Myung-bak, has proceeded with a hard-line towards the North; the “stick” approach. Nonetheless, some North Korea observers see the recent renewal of discussions with the U.S. over the country’s nuclear program as an attempt to reach out to the West in order to lessen dependence on China, or at the very least, an attempt to gain leverage vis-à-vis the Chinese bureaucracy.

The role of the masses

It goes without saying that the regime in North Korea has nothing to do with genuine communism. It is a horrific, deformed caricature of the early years of the Soviet Union just after the 1917 revolution, which was the most democratic and representative government in the history of humanity. The Kim family’s dynasty picked up where Stalin left off, with a stifling, totalitarian bureaucracy, and the virtual enslavement of the mass of the population.

A political revolution by the workers of the North to overthrow the bureaucracy, in conjunction with a social revolution by the workers of the South, in order to combine resources and establish the basis for a socialist economy, is the only real solution. Unfortunately, that is not a likely scenario in the period that lies ahead. Decades of the most unbelievable internal propaganda and regimentation of daily life will have clearly had an effect.

Nonetheless, the heroic, revolutionary traditions of the Korean workers in both the North and the South are part of the region’s collective memory. In the aftermath of World War II, there was a tremendous revolutionary wave on the Korean peninsula. To cut across this, the country was partitioned in criminal fashion by U.S. imperialism and Russian Stalinism.

Despite the indoctrination, it still remains to be seen how the North Korean masses will respond to Kim Jong-il’s death, and above all to the transition. Reports have emerged that indicate that their instinct to struggle has not been completely snuffed out. Here is what AsiaNews reported in February of this year:

“The wave of protests that began in the Mideast appears to have reached even North Korea. For the first time in the history of the Stalinist regime, groups of ordinary citizens have protested in three cities demanding food and electricity, sources say. The event is exceptional and confirms the economic difficulties, especially concerning food supplies, people have to face under the Communist government.

“According to South Korea’s Chosun-Ilbo newspaper, citing a North Korean source, demonstrations broke out on 14 February, two days before Kim Jong-il’s birthday, in the cities of Jongju, Yongchon and Sonchon, not far from the border of China.

“The State Security Department (the all-powerful agency under Kim Jong-il’s direct control) investigated the incident but failed to identify the people who started the commotion when they met with a wall of silence.

“‘When such an incident took place in the past, people used to report their neighbours to the security forces, but now they're covering for each other,’ the source said.

“Korean sources told AsiaNews that this represents a crack in the prevailing mindset. ‘Different factors are at play. On the one hand, the country’s worsening economic situation is certainly one reason. The regime is in fact unable to feed most of its people. On the other, changes at the top are another as Kim Jong-un gets ready to succeed his father on the throne in Pyongyang.’

“The younger Kim is ‘feared by the population,’ the source said. ‘He is viewed as bloodthirsty and mad. Almost everyone thinks he was behind the military attacks against ROKS Cheonan and an island under South Korean control, which led to restrictions on humanitarian aid from the South. This has further worsened standards of living in the North. North Koreans are ready to do just about anything to stop the succession.’”

Despite the obvious right-wing slant of the article, the facts reported in it are nonetheless of tremendous symptomatic interest. It is no accident the reported protests occurred near the Chinese border, where the strong arm of Pyongyang would have a weaker grip.

What now?

The “democratic” dictatorship of capital that rules in South Korea has long benefited from the “devil on the doorstep” of North Korea. Vast sums of money have been spent to militarize the country, union rights have been trampled on, and the entire country has been on a permanent war footing since the 1953 cease-fire that ended the hostilities of the Korean War—though the war technically continues. This was all justified by the threat from the North. Tens of thousands of U.S. troops remain stationed in the South to this day.

The feather in the cap of the corporate domination of the South is the free trade agreement recently signed with the U.S. But if the North collapses or is transitioned into some form of U.S-South Korean or Chinese satellite, how will they continue to justify the merciless exploitation and repression of the South Korean workers? The workers in the South have fought like tigers to resist the capitalists’ drive to turn the country into a mere maquila for U.S. and Korean multinationals.

So far, there are no signs of imminent military action by the North’s vast armies. This would seem to indicate that the military is “falling into line” behind Kim Jong-un—at least for the time being. But things can change quickly in such a situation. A desperate “lashing out” by the North Korean regime cannot be ruled out, though it is not the most likely scenario.

Top diplomats and leaders of the U.S., China, Japan, and South Korea have expressed their condolences and are reaching out to the North, jockeying for position. “The Great Hypocrite,” Hillary Clinton, had these sweet and gentle words for the people of the North after decades of U.S. sanctions and threats: “We are deeply concerned with the well-being of the North Korean people and our thoughts and prayers are with them during these difficult times.”

On one side of the peninsula, U.S., South Korean, and Japanese imperialism will be licking their chops despite the uncertainty of the days ahead. They can be patient. They have waited this long to get their hands on the North, they can wait a little longer. But they cannot be too patient: China is also waiting in the wings and already has its claws deep into the North. If reunited with the South along the lines of German reunification, the flood of workers to the South would be used to drive down wages and standards of living, and the former Northerners would find themselves second-class citizens or worse. The poison of “Northerner vs. Southerner” would be used in attempt to divide and conquer the working class. But eventually, the class interests would come to the fore—workers’ unity against the common exploiter is the only way forward!

On the other side of the divide, the Chinese capitalists and their colossal bureaucracy will be mobilizing their resources to avoid the implosion of an entire country right on their border, and to keep the situation tipped in their favor. North Korea is a vital buffer for China’s geo-political security. They simply cannot allow the North to be absorbed by the South; this would mean tens of thousands of U.S. troops right on their border. Mike Chinoy, of the U.S. China Institute offered this blunt assessment: “The Chinese have made it extremely clear that they are not going to let Korea go down the drain. They are going to do whatever they need to do to prop it up.”

The mainstream media reports that the people of the North are stricken with grief. This may well be the case. Decades of indoctrination will have left them disoriented without the “Dear Leader.” But the real situation is sure to be far more complex, especially as time goes on. In recent years, more and more North Koreans have gotten a glimpse of life on the outside. Many have fled to China in search of a better life. Some have made it to the South. An underground market—literally beneath the massive Kim Il-sung Square in Pyongyang—of pirated DVDs and other media from China and the South has penetrated the North.

In the final analysis, the sclerotic North Korean regime cannot develop the means of production. It is entirely dependent on outside aid in order to survive, above all from capitalist China. This aid brings with it a dynamic of its own. The illusion that they live in a “socialist paradise” has been dissipating since the massive famine of the 1990s. The slow, but steady encroachment of capitalism has also played its role, though it is impossible to say at this stage how far it has gone in undermining the state sector of the economy.

There remain many unknowns. But no matter how complex a situation may appear, the struggle between the classes is the motor force of history and will eventually find a way of asserting itself. The North Korean masses will likely be in a state of shock and apprehension over what is to come, but that will not last forever. The workers in the South will likewise be in a tense state of “wait and see,” which will also not last. In the final analysis, only events themselves will confirm how things play out on the Korean peninsula in the coming days, months, and years. We invite our readers to revisit the following historical background and analysis of the situation in Korea. As events unfold, we will continue to develop our understanding.

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