Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

After the Great Leader, the Dear Son?

Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

After the Great Leader, the Dear Son?

Article excerpt

North Koreans revered Kim Il Sung as an old guerrilla fighter, a master of strategy. Always a step ahead of his enemies, he would suddenly appear to confound and crush his opponents. His death last week was his last surprise attack.

Kim Il Sung is dead and no one knows what to make of it. Few Americans ever learned about North Korea or made friends with its people. Most who tried were denied entrance to Kim's "paradise on earth." Western analysts dismissed him as a "Stalinist dictator."

Because the death of a tyrant is an opportunity for progress, by this line of reasoning, his death should be considered a positive development for Korea and for American interests in East Asia. But the exact opposite is true.

Whatever one may think of the late president of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, his untimely departure could create a whole new set of problems for Korea and the world.

Only a wise and measured response may avoid another major setback in the Clinton administration's hope to defuse the threat of a potentially nuclear North Korea.

The key is a better understanding of who Kim Il Sung was to the people of North Korea and who his son, Kim Jong Il, hopes to be in their eyes. In Pyongyang, citizens weep openly before the towering statue of the man they reverentially called their great leader.

To dismiss these spontaneous expressions of grief as the workings of a bizarre personality cult is to miss a chance to learn about the bonds that made Kim one of the most loved and most hated men of this century.

His hold on the North Koreans, so incomprehensible to outsiders, was rooted in rural village culture. Traditional society in Korea has always been cemented by a matrix of personal relationships, kinship loyalties and the Confucian cult of the family.

North Korea, with a relatively homogeneous population of 22 million, acts like a village. What happens when the village headman dies? He leaves behind a society without a center. Because the headman provides spiritual and political leadership and because his authority is personal and moral, his death leaves a gaping hole that needs time and effort to mend.

Only after a new leader emerges does the community completely regain its sense of identity and purpose.

If confronted by a serious challenge from the outside during this critical period of transition, the community may begin to pull apart. Because social conventions are not generally written down in this kind of society, the absence of a strong personality at the center is far more disruptive than in societies where tradition is codified into laws.

Succession from village headman to village headman is a delicate procedure that can take far more time and social energy than in societies with clear legal traditions.

The outcome can never be taken for granted because the successor must be accepted by his people as having unquestionable moral authority to rule them - what Confucius called the mandate of heaven. …

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