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Worldbeaters: the contrived grandeur of North Korea's Kim family

North Korea

The dictator and his public: Kim Jong-un does the rounds. © KCNA/Xinhua/Alamy Live News

Plain crazy or crazy like a fox? The answer is that the Kims are probably both. Grandfather Kim Il-sung, who earned his spurs in the then-united Korea’s fight against Japanese invaders in the 1930s, was a man of ruthless political skill. After the Second World War, he eliminated all potential dissident voices in the Korean communist movement, especially those associated with South Korea, Russia and China. He bathed himself and his family in the ideology of Juche, a Korean variant of authoritarian Marxism-Leninism that privileges national self-reliance in politics, economics and self-defence above socialist values such as popular democracy or international solidarity. This fetish for a stand-alone-against-the-world self-reliance remains a key element of the Kim dynasty’s ideological arsenal.

The stakes are high for the Kims. Internal politics in the Hermit Kingdom resemble a combination of classic Stalinism (including regular purges of the overly ambitious or high profile) with the dynastic politics of a feudal European court, with various pretenders and their supporters vying to ascend to the throne. In February, the half-brother of current leader Kim Jong-un was murdered at an airport in Malaysia. Kim Jong-nam’s assassination shows how vicious these paranoid manoeuvrings can be. That it is all carried out using an arcane version of Marxist discourse should give pause for thought about the need to reinvent a popular language of the Left.

But if you are a Kim inclined to maintain family rule at all costs, you will discover that there is no shortage of plotters for regime change. The US, for example, was determined to drive back communism after the Second World War, not only from Europe but also from the Korean peninsula. Kim Il-sung fought a bloody civil war to keep the North communist, and was not without nationalist support. The remnants and echoes of this war still reverberate and shape the intransigent nature of the Kim dynasty.

With each generation, the bloodline thins and the Kims’ political skills seem to deteriorate. There is a fair distance between the grandfather who fought off the Japanese and the US and Kim Jong-un (now in his early thirties) who attended private Swiss boarding schools and is reportedly obsessed with computer games and US basketball. But inheriting a position at the pinnacle of an absolutist and brutal state is bound to provide some psychological continuity. In a study of the psychology of dictators (including Kim Jong-un’s father Kim Jong-il), Scientific American identified several anti-social personality traits including sadism, paranoia and narcissism. Kim Jong-un’s elimination of his uncle Jang Song-thaek for ‘treachery’ in December 2013 shows that the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.

With North Korea’s social structure ossifying into a wealthy elite and a desperately poor majority, the Kims have sound reasons for their security concerns, quite apart from the propensity of the US to engage in a policy of regime change to remove ‘undesirable’ governments from the global chess board. North Korea is now a nuclear power and the country’s nuclear obsession is the final guarantee of its militant self-reliance and the Kim dynasty’s security. It is unlikely that the Kims – supported by a bloated military and pervasive security police – will succumb to regime change any time soon. As unpalatable as it may be, the international community needs to find a way to make them feel more, not less, secure. The consequences of failure could be dire.

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