Kim Jong-il’s Death, 1 Year On: a Politics of Legacy

Monday 17th December, 2012


Today, it is one year since Kim Jong-il’s death. Moving back in time, 18 years have passed since Kim Il-sung’s death. Although North Korea has witnessed the deaths of two dictators, nothing has changed for its people. This is a testament to the politics of legacy: North Korean politics revolves not around the living citizenry, but insists on preserving the legacy of the dead.

The politics of legacy demonstrates no concern for ordinary North Koreans. It exists only to legitimize the present leadership. The ruling elite do not care for policies that may improve the reality of North Korea. Instead, they pour all available resources towards the expression of a fantasy – that North Korea is paradise on earth.

Let’s take a look at 1994. When Kim Il-sung died, Kim Jong-il chose the portrait of ‘The Smiling Sun’ as the official commemorative portrait. He wished to project a symbolic message: this was a leader resting high above in paradise, not rotting away in the earth below them. Yet Kim Il-sung died a ‘Great Leader’ of a failed country – what greater death is there for a statesman’s memory than the utter ruin of his state?

Although Kim Il-sung should be reflecting on his career with regret, he remains a leader who smiles down at the paradise he has left behind. Although the populace is in misery, the leader is smiling. A deep fissure grows between reality and the regime’s portrayal of reality. Meanwhile, the smiling leader is embalmed and housed in a newly constructed memorial palace at Mt. Keumsu. Resources that should have gone towards development are poured into projects of legacy such as the eternal tower, memorials of Kim and other propaganda monuments. Kim Jong-il betrayed Kim Il-sung’s dream of a nation who could eat meat everyday; in fact, Kim Jong-il oversaw the starvation and death of one tenth of his subjects.

According to Kim Jong-il, the responsibility of their suffering lies with the outside world. Yet 18 years on from the death of Kim Il-sung, North Korea subsists on handouts – it is a Beggar State.

Even the North Korean calendar is based on the politics of legacy. Its Juche time begins on Kim Il-sung’s birthday, April 15th 1912. Other rules and customs are invented to fit. North Koreans are disconnected not only from the world, but from the flow of history itself. The Egyptian pharaohs took their wealth with them to the afterlife. But Kim Il-sung’s avaricious materialism continues despite his death. The politics of legacy instigated by Kim Jong-il existed not for the people, but for himself. Today, Kim Jong-un rules North Korea by virtue of having Kim blood. Just like his father, his rule is concerned not with the living, but the dead. He leads North Korea into a third generation of death.

The rocket launch confirms the legacy of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il in Kim Jong-un’s rule, and the continuity of the status quo. Yet ironically, it may be the toll of death for the status quo. The launch is perceived as an act of provocation, and provides the international community with a reason to focus on North Korea’s wrongs rather than to ignore them. More deadly than such external threats however, are the North Korean people. If disaster befalls them again, as did in the 90s, they will cease to be patient: they may have let the old Kim off the hook, but the young Kim does not engender the same respect. The sentiment towards Kim Jong-un is drastically different from that towards Kim Jong-il.

Time never flows to the past. Although Kim Jong-un wishes to return to the stability of his grandfather’s time, even continue his father’s legacy, that cannot happen. Ultimately, one reaps what one sows – Kim Jong-un, if he chooses to abide by the politics of legacy, will oversee a repeat of North Korea’s failures – and may not survive.

Jang Jin-sung

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