A nation that waits to let glory be to the Son

Economic distress is creating pressure for change in North Korea, writes Richard Lloyd Parry. Kim's role remains a mystery
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The Independent Online
Sonbong, North Korea - "When you finally meet someone whom you've been brought up all your life to love and trust beyond all others," said Han Song Chun, "it's a proud and very moving moment. It was in 1994. I only shook hands with him and said hello, but he exceeded all my expectations. He was much more full of abundant love and charity, much more learned and brilliant, his voice was gentler and more melodious. In short, he was the Great Leader, Kim Jong Il."

If the man described by Mr Han, my guide in North Korea, sounds more like a living saint than one of the most feared rulers on earth, then this is no coincidence - the myths surrounding Kim Jong Il, and his late father, the original Great Leader, Kim Il Sung, always had more in common with religious fundamentalism than the Marxist personality cults of China or the Soviet Union. Stalin and Mao were Uncle and Father to their people, but to men like Mr Han, the rulers of North Korea - the late Kim Il Sung, the 54-year-old Kim Jong Il, and the Workers' Party which they have successively lead - are more like Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Just before the birth of the junior Kim, according to his official hagiography, a swallow descended from heaven to announce the coming of "a prodigious general, who will rule over all the world". Above his birthplace, a simple hut on the holy mountain of Paekdu, a double rainbow and a "Guiding Star" appeared. Just as an earlier Saviour, 2,000 years before, argued precociously with the elders in the temple, so little Kim Jong Il was, by his early teens, a leading exponent of North Korea's home grown doctrine of juche, or "self-reliance".

But, like many religions, there is a mystery at the heart of North Korea's leadership. There are niggling doubts about the degree of power wielded by Kim the Son. Since his father's sudden death in 1994, he has made few appearances. His public utterances amount to a single sentence delivered at a military rally years ago. Most tellingly, in the two years since his father's demise, he has still not taken on the paramount titles of state president and general secretary of the Workers' Party.

The question of leadership is exceptionally important for a regime which remains one of the most unpredictable in the world. North Korea combines a Cold War army (around 1 million troops massed on the border with its arch-enemy, South Korea) with a Third World economy in which industry and agriculture are declining so fast that it is barely able to feed its 22 million people. Hard information is so scarce that two opposite interpretations of the state of the North Korean leadership have arisen. The optimistic view finds good reasons for Kim Jong Il's reluctance to assume the full mantle of power. Confucian ethics and filial loyalty, it is pointed out, makes a hasty transferral of power unseemly. Kim is fully confirmed as leader of the armed forces, a position from which he can judge the best moment to claim his birthright. And in several areas North Korea has acted with a shrewdness indicating a strong guiding hand - particularly the free-trade zone, and the 1994 deal with US under which Pyongyang agreed to give up a suspected nuclear weapons programme in return for fuel oil and nuclear reactors.

The opposing view sees North Korean policy as no more than a desperate reaction to events which has served only to delay, rather than head off the inevitable reckoning. Initiatives such as the free-trade zone, and the admission of international aid workers to cope with the food crisis, are too little, too late and the submarine fiasco only underlines the lack of co-ordinated leadership, offering a welcome to the outside world with one hand and, with the other, stabbing it in the back.

"At best, I see Kim Jong Il as an arbiter between different factions in the party and the military," says Aidan Foster-Carter, of Leeds University's Korea Project. "At worst, he is just a figurehead." If some of them are in the army, then the consequences for North Korea and for the security of East Asia, could be grave.

"I believe that some kind of collapse must come, simply in the sense that the regime can't go on indefinitely as it is," says Mr Foster-Carter. "At some point economic distress must translate into political change, either in the form of grass roots rebellion, or from the centre." In religious terms, the question is whether North Korea must first suffer a painful death, in order to rise again.