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Moment that mattered: The death of Kim Jong-il

North Koreans cry after learning death of their leader Kim Jong Il on Monday, Dec. 19, 2011 in Pyongyang, North Korea. Kim died on Saturday, Dec. 17, North Korean state media announced Monday. (AP Photo/Kyodo News) JAPAN OUT, MANDATORY CREDIT, NO LICENSING IN CHINA, FRANCE, HONG KONG, JAPAN AND SOUTH KOREA

“When my wife and I discovered Kim Jong-il had died we bought ourselves a nice bottle of wine, cheered, and watched the breaking news on television. I am happy that Kim Jong-il no longer exists in this world. In fact, I feel fortunate that he died relatively early in his life, in his 60s.

Growing up in South Korea I had a unique view on Kim Jong-il. What a lot of people don’t know about South Korea is that until the late 1980s it was an oppressive, fascist dictator state (sponsored by the United States rather than Soviet Union) that was only a little bit better than North Korea. The easiest way for the South Korean dictatorship to justify its rule was to claim that a strongman state was necessary to stop the North Korean communists. South Korea was a picture of what McCarthyism would have been, had McCarthyism run its logical course.

As a child, I was taught in school that communists in North Korea were horned devils who were torturing our innocent North Korean brethren. My elementary school textbook carried a lurid story about communist spies killing a young South Korean boy by ripping his mouth with a bayonet, because the boy said he hated communists. The implication was that if the North conquered the South, the same could happen to everyone in the classroom.

In my family there are a number of democratisation activists who protested against the South Korean dictatorship during the 1980s. Shortly before I went to middle school my favourite uncles were arrested for organising protests. They ended up in prison for a few years, where they were routinely beaten and tortured. That’s when I realised that my country had been lying to me. So as an adolescent, I went through a radical, communism-praising phase. Fortunately, I grew out of that phase.

“No South Korean media outlet seriously wondered whether those tears were real”

When I saw the images of masses of weeping people I thought two things: those North Koreans are obviously faking it, and Westerners will eat it up nonetheless. No South Korean media outlet seriously wondered whether those tears were real. But CNN and the BBC played that angle a lot as if to drive the point that the entire North Korean population was insane.

To me this is just stupid. In North Korea we have perhaps the most appalling state in the 21st century. The regime’s treatment of its own people ranks among the worst crimes against humanity since the end of World War II. North Korea has nuclear weapons that it may attempt to sell to terrorist groups. The whole world, and certainly the intellectual leaders of the Western World, need to focus more on North Korea than, say, Iran or Syria, because North Korea is far more offensive and far more dangerous. But, apart for a handful of experts, the opinion-makers of the West do not seem to recognize even the most obvious signals from the images from North Korea.

In a twisted way, I welcome Kim Jong-un because he appears to be clueless. To me, there is only one viable North Korea endgame – the regime collapses and the two Koreas reunite. Because he is young and inexperienced, Kim Jong-Un is quite helpful for inducing that collapse. Ordinary North Koreans are scoffing at young Kim’s supposed leadership. There are rumblings of anti-government movements in North Korea already. Because of his inexperience Kim Jong-un has overplayed his hand several times already – he implemented disastrous currency reform, has now imposed a totally unenforceable ban on using foreign currency, and is terrorising his people as much as his father.

If there is one lesson that we can take away from the Arab Spring, it is that a regime collapses apparently suddenly, unpredictably, and uncontrollably. But we all know that there are a series of small things that add up and push the events beyond their tipping point. In most cases, those small things are only visible upon close inspection. The death of Kim Jong-il is one of those small things.

It may sound strange that I characterise his death as small but when it comes to North-South relations, I would say the fact that South Korea developed both a world-class electronics industry and pop culture is more significant. Because of its electronics industry, Koreans have gone through several generations of DVD players already. Those used DVD players are sold to China and eventually find their way into North Korea. With those DVD players, North Koreans watch smuggled South Korean TV shows and movies and admire South Koreans’ lavish homes, shiny cars and beautiful clothes. The North Koreans who defect into South Korea (more than 20,000 of them so far) invariably speak of how watching South Korean TV shows inspired them to escape.

No matter what the triggering event may be, the important thing is that the pressure on the regime is building, day by day. It is only a matter of time before it crumbles.”

TK is the author of

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