Whether or not Kim Jong-un, the North Korean dictator, is dead or alive, what North Korea desperately needs is a leader who will transform this pariah State. But is he dead?
What we know and don’t know
The rumours about Kim Jong-un’s health first gained traction when, on April 15, he failed to materialise for the 108th birthday anniversary celebration of his grandfather, Kim Il-sung – whose body is preserved, like Lenin and Mao, for public veneration, in a mausoleum in Pyongyang .
Tae Yong-ho, who was the second in command at the North Korean Embassy in Ealing (once home to the comedian Sid James), says Kim’s unexplained absence was unprecedented and will have set alarm bells ringing throughout the country.
Tae’s opinion is to be valued. In 2016 he became the highest level official to defect. He was recently elected for the Gangnam district to the National Assembly of South Korea. But, like the rest of us, Tae is only able to speculate about Kim’s disappearance.
Conflicting stories suggest that Kim has had major heart surgery; that he is in a vegetative state; that he has Coronavirus; that, in a coma, he has been moved to Wonsan, on the eastern side of the Peninsula; that Chinese doctors have been sent to attend him; that 200,000 troops from the Chinese Red army have been put on high alert at border locations.
And it could be that Kim Jong Un is simply remaining out of sight through fear of catching the Coronavirus. Although only 36, he is a heavy drinker and smoker and significantly overweight. He has recently been pictured with a cane and limping.
Other media suggest that Pyongyang has concealed the extent and scale of Coronavirus deaths, but this is impossible to verify because of the complete absence of a free press and suppression of information.
For weeks North Korea has been denying that it has any cases at all (while building a huge new hospital for the use of Pyongyang’s elites). Another defector, Kim Myong, claims that the number of fatalities “very likely exceeds imagination.”
He argues that Pyongyang began peddling the fiction that North Korea was immune from Covid-19 in an attempt to avoid embarrassing Xi Jinping’s Chinese Communist Party – an ally so close that their proximity is described as being like lip and teeth.
The two Communist armies fought alongside one another during the Korean War (1950-53) when almost 3 million people lost their lives.
“A state without parallel”
During four visits to North Korea, I saw a country still fighting that war and trapped in an ideology which has brought nothing but repression and distress to its long suffering beleaguered people – 2 million of whom died in an appalling famine.
Since 1948 a succession of Kims – Kim Il-sung, Kim Jong-il and Kim Jong-un – have terrorised, enslaved, and impoverished their own people while living lives of luxury and using scarce resources to develop nuclear missiles aimed at blackmailing the international community.
In 2014 a UN Commission of Inquiry, chaired by the Australian jurist, Michael Kirby conclude that North Korea’s egregious violations of human rights make it “a state without parallel”. It highlighted the incarceration of an estimated 100,000 North Koreans in gulags, including secret Christians and dissidents whose situation he said was comparable to the Holocaust.
The Commission reported that the leadership had collaborated in crimes against humanity which included “extermination, murder, enslavement, torture, imprisonment, rape, forced abortions and other sexual violence, persecution on political, religious, racial and gender grounds, the forcible transfer of populations, the enforced disappearance of persons and the inhumane act of knowingly causing prolonged starvation.”
I can confirm the truth of what he said about the state of Christians. One woman who escaped prison told me she had been forced to eat dung and treated like an animal; another said that “not a single day passed without some form of torture”.
Despite a handful of Potemkin churches to provide the illusion and façade of State-permitted religion, this has long been a country without the sacraments: a 70-year lockdown. Yet at one time, Pyongyang was once known as “the Jerusalem of the Far East”. Now, secret Bibles, secret believers, and phenomenal reserves of courage, sustain an estimated 80,000 Christian community.
The reasons why this appalling regime has survived is that it thinks nothing of using the methods of Stalin’s hitman, Lavrentiy Beria, to dispose of potential opposition, including other members of the Kim family.
In 2017 it was alleged that, on the orders of Pyongyang, Kim’s uncle Kim Yong-nam was assassinated in Malaysia’s Kuala Lumpur international airport.
Needless to say, the international community has failed to hold the Kim dictatorship to account for any of its crimes – and even the UN sanctions imposed because of its nuclear tests are now being broken with impunity by North Korea’s Chinese Communist Party allies.
Back in 2014, before the death of Kim Jong-il, there were some small signs that North Korea might emulate the economic reforms of China’s reformer, Deng Xiaoping. But just as Xi Jinping has turned the clock back in Beijing, Kim Jong-un has done the same in Pyongyang.
Now there is speculation that Kim’s sister, Kim Yo-jong, might succeed him.
In a deeply patriarchal society, some of the elites would have difficulty in accepting a woman – in this “revolutionary society” I never once met a single woman entrusted with any position of power – but the elites would have even greater difficulty in accepting someone from outside the Kim dynasty.
Kim Jong Il had a half-brother, Kim Pyong-il, who has returned to Pyongyang after years as a diplomat in Europe. Perhaps he would be made Regent.
The fundamental question
The speculation has triggered a more fundamental question: can North Korea finally throw off the shackles of totalitarian dictatorship and transform a country disfigured by starvation, malnutrition, acute poverty, persecution, repression and total control?
Can it finally take the road out of dictatorship to democracy and prosperity – which has served its neighbour, south of the 38th parallel, so well?
The first steps out of totalitarianism will require a leader who is willing to seek peaceful solutions and bring his country out of decades of self-isolation. He or she would need to be able to deliver an immediate symbolic achievement – and the US would be key in delivering this. For instance, the US could unilaterally announce the formal end of the 70-year-old war (replacing the Armistice signed on July 27 1953), and offer a formal Treaty committing the US never to deploy US service personnel above the 38the parallel, in return for denuclearisation.
This would bring the cessation of sanctions and, accompanied by an international “Marshall Aid Programme”, could enable the fast-tracking of resources to breathe new life into an ailing economy and broken infrastructure.
A new leader should also re-open the border with South Korea and encourage organic gradual reunification – starting with family reunification, joint cultural and sporting events, and then the creation of inter-Korea institutions, joint citizenship, and a Truth and Reconciliation Commission to begin the process of forgiveness and healing.
While he was Secretary General of the United Nations, the South Korean diplomat Ban Ki-moon said: “You must be ambitious in what you aim, and, equally, in how hard you work to reach your goal.” Perhaps he should be tempted out of retirement to put that principle into practice in his homeland.