So, it finally happened. Kim Jong Il, the Dear Leader, Marshal of a Mighty Republic and the Lodestar of the 20th Century, is dead. His demise was widely expected -- Marshal Kim has not looked healthy in recent years, and in 2008 he suffered a major stroke. But nonetheless his death has sent shockwaves around the world.
For most people outside North Korea, Kim Jong Il has always appeared a bizarre and menacing, if slightly comical, figure. He was fat, had a strange haircut, and was reputed to have worn platform shoes to mask his humble stature. His love for cognac and expensive cheese, as well as other luxuries was widely known (outside North Korea, of course) -- and looked especially bizarre for someone who presided over the worst famine in the last few decades. His policies as leader were often explained as irrational, driven by his inflated ego or perhaps ideological jealousy.
There is a kernel of truth to all of this, even though in some regards this popular picture is patently incorrect (the late marshal was anything but irrational). But what is left out is, above all, his masterful ability to survive.
When, in the late 1980s, Kim Jong Il began to gradually assume the top leader position in his impoverished country, few suspected that he would stay control to the end, dying of natural causes as the absolute ruler of his personal realm. Even when compared with other state socialist countries, North Korea appears and appeared to be very inefficient, strange, and plainly irrational.
Yet what has happened to the seemingly "rational" and "far-sighted" communist regimes of Eastern Europe? No doubt, the German Democratic Republic and the People's Republic of Poland provided their people with a far better standard of living, but did it help their former leaders? The East German strongman Erich Honecker suffered much humiliation and died in exile. Wojciech Jaruzelski, the Polish military ruler, was disposed and then stood trial. The fate of other supposedly "rational" communist leaders of East Europe was not much different.
Meanwhile, Kim Jong Il enjoyed a highly agreeable life until his recent demise. Is this not good enough reason to doubt the alleged irrationality of North Korea's political and economic policies? These policies did not bring prosperity to the ordinary people of North Korea, of course, but such was never their aim. Instead, they clearly have ensured the survival and success of a tiny hereditary elite, presided over by the Kim family itself. That was always the major goal: to stay in control, to survive against all odds, in highly adverse circumstances.
And in that, Kim Jong Il was a big, fat success. Consider his decision not to emulate Chinese reforms, which brought a disastrous famine in the mid-1990s. The famine killed between 500,000 and 1 million Koreans, but the regime held on to power. Kim Jong Il and his inner circle understood perfectly well that given North Korea's backwardness, Chinese-style reforms would be tantamount to political suicide.
The major problem was and remains the existence of a rival state -- filthy rich and free South Korea, whose population speaks the same language and is considered a part of the same nation. The average North Korean was not aware about this prosperity until recently, but the elite had no illusions: South Korea -- or, rather, its unprecedented economic success -- constituted a mortal threat to the existence of North Korean regime and survival of its ruling family.