No right-thinking person would want to live in North Korea, or The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea to call it by its official name. Aside from the general advice to avoid any country with the word “Democratic” in its name, North Korea is a poor nation, gripped by famine and an overbearing authoritarian government. They are politically isolated and potentially unstable. Most of this is largely due to the personal influence of their recently deceased supreme leader, Kim Jong-il.
Kim Jong-il led one of world’s few remaining Stalinist states and the world’s only hereditary Communist authority. He became leader following the death of his father Kim Il-sung in 1994, who lead the nation since he was installed as the head of state following the Soviet invasion in 1945. The Kim’s created a vast personality cult surrounding themselves and their accomplishments. It is worthy of note that Kim Il-sung is still technically the Korean head of state as he was made Eternal President of the Republic after his death. Kim Jong-il was the de facto leader as he was the General Secretary of the Workers' Party of Korea, Chairman of the National Defence Commission and the Supreme Commander of the Korean People's Army.
During the 17 years of Kim Jong-il’s leadership, North Korea faced political isolation and came close to wars with South Korea, Russia and Japan on several occasions. When Communism collapsed in Russia, North Korea lost its main trade partner and economic hardship sent in. Their isolation from their neighbours and poor management by their central government has led to economic ruin and a famine reported to have claimed the lives of over 2 million North Korean citizens.
Kim Jong-il’s rule also been characterised by Stalinist totalitarianism. Rumours abound about state repression in ordinary North Koreans’ lives. Allegedly citizens are required to sing songs of praise for their leaders and homes come fitted with radios which broadcast state propaganda. Radios which not only cannot be turned off, but which it is illegal to tamper with.
Pursuit of nuclear weapons and missiles capable of reaching Japan and the United States has led to a breakdown in relations between North Korea and the rest of the international community. Despite this, Kim Jong-il made some efforts to repair damaged relationships, meeting the South Korean President in 2000 and taking meetings with Russian and American representatives. He also requested aid from the international community in dealing with the famine.
Those close to Kim Jong-il have described him as having a passion for Marxist-Leninism and a strict belief that North Korean society should follow this economic philosophy. Despite this, his personal life epitomises the worst excesses of capitalism. While he dined on fresh lobster and other exotic foods his citizens starved. While he owned private cars, planes and jets, the people of North Korea lacked essential services. While he enjoyed his collection of Hollywood films his government restricted all access to foreign media.
Kim Jong-il’s death can also be situated in the wider context of the end of Maoism and Marxist-Leninism, with private businesses bombing in China and their government moving ever closer to floating their currency on the international market. It also fits into the narrative of the end of authoritarian, centralised government, with 2011 seeing people all over the world rising up against their overbearing rulers. The age of big government might not be over, but the age of the all-encompassing government is.
The legacy of ruin and hardship left behind following the fall of the Titans of Communism is a reminder to those on the left that although our ideology should be informed by Marxism, we need to grow beyond the confines of this restrictive and incomplete philosophy. The left requires a new mode of thinking, focused on decentralised self-organising networks rather than the all-powerful state.
Kim Jong-il’s death leaves North Korea’s future in an uncertain state - even his son, Kim Jong-un’s succession is not certain. The world watches with bated breath to see how the famously unpredictable regime will respond. It is the hope of this blogger than the North Korean people will see an improvement in their political freedoms and material circumstances. Kim Jong-il has failed to deliver the abundance promised in theory by Marxist-Leninism and as a result is responsible for creating a society whose citizens are impoverished, hungry and repressed. Changing is sweeping across the world and we hope that in some way it can benefit the people of North Korea, who have suffered for so long at the hands of their supreme rulers.