A telling tale of two Koreas

by Gwynne Dyer

What has been happening in North Korea recently is straight out of the “Hereditary Dictatorship for Dummies” handbook. Kim Jong Un, the pudgy young heir to the leadership of one of the world’s last communist states, is removing powerful people who were loyal to his father and replacing them with men (it’s always men) who owe their advancement only to him.

Vice Marshal Ri Yong Ho, the chief of the North Korean Army until late last week, was not disloyal to the new boss. On the contrary, Ri’s support was vital in ensuring a smooth transition after the death of Kim Jong Il, the old boss, and he gave it unstintingly. But in the end the vice marshal didn’t owe everything to Kim Jong Un, so he had to go.

In his place, Kim has promoted a man nobody had ever heard of before. His name is Hyon Yong Chol, but you don’t have to remember it unless you really want to. The point is that Hyon will have annoyed a lot of other generals in the army because he has been promoted over their heads, and so he is absolutely dependent on the good will of the young master.

Meanwhile, the propaganda that is intended to promote Kim to the rank of god-king pours forth. When he visited an air force training unit, the North Korean news agency reported, he “guided the flight training of pilots.” At a concert, he “gave precious teachings for the performing activities of the Korean People’s Army Military Band.” It turns out that he is an expert in pretty well everything.

And just to be sure, Kim had himself promoted to marshal this week, so now he outranks everybody else in the armed forces. At least he hasn’t had all his brothers and half-brothers killed in order to rule out any challenges from within the family, like the Ottoman sultans used to do after they ascended the throne. So there is progress, you see.

Things are done very differently in South Korea. There the presidents are chosen by the free vote of all the people (or at least all the ones who bother to vote). But the candidate most likely to win the presidential elections this December is the daughter of the dictator who ruled the country with an iron hand for two decades, until he was finally assassinated in 1979.

There are, to be sure, some striking differences between Park Geun Hye, who will probably be South Korea’s first female president, and the callow youth who is scrambling to put his stamp on North Korea.

Park has earned her candidacy by a lifetime of public service, including a decade at the head of Yeungnam University and 14 years in politics, during which she earned the nickname “Queen of Elections” for her skill in delivering the vote to her party even in the most adverse circumstances. At 60, she is more than twice Kim’s age, and she has seen and done a lot.

On the other hand, it is very unlikely that she would have had this stellar career if she had grown up as the daughter of an army sergeant on a succession of bleak army posts. Growing up in the presidential palace, and serving as South Korea’s first lady for five years while still in her early 20s, after her mother was assassinated in 1974, was bound to produce a different outcome. It also helps with the name recognition that every politician needs.

If elected, Park may be a very successful president. She may have the determination and the clout to take on the big industries that dominate South Korean society and deliver more security and social justice to those at the bottom. She may even manage to create an opening with North Korea if she finds a willing partner in Pyongyang.

Kim is a completely closed book. Nobody beyond his own family has the slightest idea what he thinks and intends, and maybe even they don’t. Maybe he doesn’t even know himself yet.

But unlike his father and grandfather, he has seen something of the world (he was educated partly in Switzerland), and it may have given him ideas.

The point is not that either of these people is necessarily a bad choice as president. It’s that both countries (but especially the North) are fishing in a very shallow pool. There are probably thousands of people in each country who would make better leaders, but they lack the connections and they will never be considered for the job. In fact, the same thing is true everywhere.

Would Hillary Clinton be the U.S. secretary of state if her husband had not been the president? Would George W. Bush ever have been considered as a possible president if his dad had not been a moderately successful one? For that matter, would Aung San Suu Kyi, runner-up to Nelson Mandela in the Global Sainthood Stakes, ever have become the voice of Burmese democracy if her father had not been the (autocratic) hero of the independence movement?

Can anything be done about this? Probably not, but it is a pity.

Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.