Weep Not for Kim Jong Il

He had a good life.

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.

Kim Jong Il understood that relaxation of state control, and the resultant spread of information about the outside world (unavoidable in the case of China-style "reform and openness") would soon destabilize the impoverished North Korean state as North Koreans discovered the truth about their own sorry condition. He understood that in North Korea, reforms would not lead to China-like economic boom, but to East German-style political collapse. He also understood that he and his family would probably perish in such a social disaster. Hence he was determined to prevent it, and he was successful in this.

How did Kim do it? Domestically, he stubbornly avoided any social or economic relaxation and did what he could to maintain the information blockade, to keep commoners ignorant about the outside world.

Admittedly, those efforts were not a complete success. The old Stalinist economy collapsed anyway, so by the late 1990s most North Koreans made their living through black-market activities of various kinds. Social controls were relaxed as well -- thanks in part to rampant corruption (officials began to turn a blind eye to all kinds of suspicious activities if this neglect would be rewarded by a bribe). Last but not least, the introduction of the new digital technologies -- above all, DVD players -- made the information blockade much more difficult to maintain. Today, millions of North Koreans are watching smuggled South Korean videos, and thus learn about South Korean prosperity.

Nonetheless, the government did what it could to keep social changes under control. No doubt, North Koreans are now engaged in private economic activities on a hitherto unknown scale. They can travel across the country without police permits (permits are still theoretically required, but a small bribe usually suffices if there are problems with the paperwork). They seem to be less fearful of the regime, but nonetheless, the zero-tolerance policy in dealing with political dissent has been a cornerstone of Kim Jong Il's domestic policy. Kim Jong Il made sure that there were no dissidents in the country -- that no North Korean would dare to speak ill of the Kim family or the country's political system.

Internationally, Kim Jong Il was a master of aid-maximizing diplomacy. Like his father, he knew how to exploit the rivalries, idiosyncrasies, and fears of the great powers (whether they be the Chinese, the Soviets, or later the United States). The younger Kim's major tool was the nuclear program, which made it possible for his tiny country to squeeze a remarkable amount of aid from the international community without giving too much in return. It is clearly a remarkable achievement that for the last 15 years, North Korea has managed to receive annually 800,000 tons of food free of charge, from foreign donor countries. It is even more remarkable that most of this aid has come from the United States, South Korea and Japan -- countries that are officially described by the North Korean media as mortal enemies of Pyongyang.

So the Dear Leader is dead. Perhaps his major strategic goal was to die a natural death in the comfort of his palace (or as seems to have happened, his palatial private train). He succeeded in this endeavour, and this was no small achievement, which required much skill, ruthlessness, and intelligence. It also required a great deal of indifference to the suffering of his people. Kim Jong Il, in spite of his strange haircut, possessed all of the above-mentioned qualities.

South Korean Unification Ministry via Getty Images


An Advent Calendar of Optimism

In a year of turbulent change, there are, in fact, a few ways to look at recent developments and still be hopeful.

It's the season of secular expressions of joy and wrapping paper (as my Mother likes to call it). In my house, we have put up our Chanukkah Bush and decorated it with twinkling blue and white lights, tiny dreidels, and otherwise religion-free ornaments reflecting an admittedly superficial but nonetheless upbeat desire to whoop it up along with everyone else. As is the case every year, high atop the tree we have placed a metallic green frog which symbolizes ... well, amphibians for one thing. And on our mantel we have hung our artisanal stockings, made, it seems, from bits and pieces of designer clothing, in the hopes that the Chanukkah Chicken will soon fill them with gift cards. He will do this, oddly enough, on Christmas Eve, at which time there will be much wassailing, or, as was the case last night during our tree decorating ceremonies, there will be drinking of Sierra Nevada Pale Ale while listening to the Smiths. Merry Morrissey everybody!

In this spirit of confused, non-denominational good cheer, it is appropriate that we take a moment to set aside our usual pessimism and worries and seek out that which is best and most hopeful in the world. It's out there, you know. You can see it in the eyes of young children and in the long lines of people waiting at gas station cash registers to buy their pre-Xmas Powerball tickets. But you can also find that sense of optimism in your newspapers and in your Twitter feed. This old world's not doing so badly. People live longer, eat better, are better educated, and have higher standards of living than ever before. There are no world wars. The threat of global thermonuclear catastrophe is much less than it was when I was growing up and we were all being taught how to huddle under our desks in anticipation of being incinerated. (Thanks for that, "Greatest Generation.")

Indeed, in every dark headline that normally would have you popping antacids like they were candy, there is a silver lining. In fact, there are so many ways to look at recent developments with optimism that we could fashion out of them our own Foreign Policy advent calendar: 25 stories which, when you open the little door and look inside them, contain at least one tiny, sparkling, glimmer of hope.

Adrean Rothkopf

So, let's try it (in no particular order): 

The Koreas -- Ding dong Jong Il is dead. Not that I wish the poor guy ill. Especially since he's already dead. I'm sure he was a great husband to his several wives and a fun-loving dad to his children. But he also brought unspeakable misery to his people and made the world a considerably more dangerous place. So his departure is not a bad start. And, if his son is really as unprepared as he seems, and China really wants to avoid chaos on its borders and economic upheaval in the region that could be destabilizing across the PRC, the Chinese may help orchestrate gradual reforms in the North. If that works, it would make North Korea more peaceful. And, who knows, with a little luck the whole house of cards could come down. With Korean reunification, the South's economic miracle could spread north and we could have another major economy brewing in northeast Asia.

Bad Year for Bad Guys -- In the same vein, we can wring our hands about the departure of all those devils we knew or, just for a moment, we can observe that getting rid of so many terrorists and despots in one year is a good thing. We don't know for sure ... and there sure have been worrisome signs from Egypt to North Korea ... but given how bad some of these characters were, the odds would suggest that some of them are likely to be replaced by people or situations that represent an improvement. We could have something more democratic evolving in the Arab world. We could be weakening entrenched, corrupt elites. We could be seeing positive changes. And, at Christmas time, let's just hope for a moment that we are.

Sasha Mordovets/Getty Images

Chinese Political Reform -- We've got a leadership change coming in Beijing, and usually that means a burst of conservatism. But in today's China we're seeing something new -- open jockeying among political leaders that amounts to something like a campaign for public support, more ferment on the Internet, more expressions of outrage at government mismanagement, experiments in local democracy, and even a city left without central leadership for a bit. It's not yet a revolution ... but is it too early to start hoping we are seeing something like a democratic evolution in China, slow though it may be?

The Emergence of Arab Democracy -- Again, we're a long way from Jeffersonian ideals taking root in the local souks, but it goes without saying that there has never been a year like 2011 in the Arab world. Fed by the changes ushered in by pioneers like those at Al Jazeera and the onset of social networking in the region, fueled by the corruption and cluelessness of aging, repressive regimes, a new social contract is being written in the Mideast. Ironically -- or perhaps inevitably -- it's not being fueled by America's efforts to impose democracy on Iraq (a country headed in the wrong direction right now, it seems). Rather this homegrown version of representative government may produce completely new phenomena -- like Islamist democracy. We in the West may find it hard to deal with ... and local elites may find it even tougher to swallow ... but it's not our call. If we believe in principles of self-determination, we need to support them even when it's not easy to do. And if we do ... well, 2011 may ultimately live up to the hope it triggered.

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Eurozone Strengthening -- It is understandable if you feel this is a bit of a stretch. Seldom in the many centuries of really bad European leadership have we seen a group of political smurfs as small and hapless as the current crew with their hands on the tiller ... or, rather, around the throat ... of the European economy. But here's the upside: If the European Union survives, it will only do so because it has strengthened itself institutionally, reframed the European Central Bank's mandate, embraced sounder fiscal policies, created real fiscal enforcement mechanisms, and bought into the indivisibility of the union. So, for the European Union, this could definitely be one of those "that which does not kill us makes us stronger" moments.

U.S. Economy -- Among all the optimistic scenarios here, this is one of the more likely ones. Despite our own contingent of Washington-based smurfs doing almost everything possible to screw things up, America may be saved by the rest of the world. Even in the best-case scenario, the European Union is heading for a slowdown. Emerging markets are, too. Where does the world's cash go? To the U.S. safe haven. And our numbers are creeping up; even the housing market seems to have found a bottom. The dollar has got to strengthen, and investors have already seen that America is stronger than its political system -- we can survive our "leadership." So, things may just be turning around for us here. (And imagine what would happen if, for some reason, D.C. had just a moment of clarity, embraced Simpson-Bowles, eliminated all the Bush tax cuts, harnessed new American energy resources, reformed immigration to welcome the world's best and brightest to our shores again, and invested more in people and infrastructure than military supremacy. The economy and America's standing would grow like a rocket!

Wow. Too much Eggnog. Must slow down.

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U.S. Election -- This one looks likely too. Slow-and-steady Mitt wins the GOP contest, giving the Republicans their best shot at victory. He and Obama engage in serious debates on substantive choices America faces. The extremists are on the sidelines and the focus is on fixing our economy. No matter who wins, all Americans win.

Israel-Palestine -- The true test of any exercise in optimism is whether we can find hope in this perennial problem area. But what if Hamas really does renounce violence? What if the collapse of Assad weakens Iran's influence with the Palestinians? What if the Palestinians seem to focus more on governance? What if Bibi recognizes that his window of election-induced support in the United States ends soon and America's involvement in the region is dwindling and his demographic threats at home are growing and the regional landscape is changing in unfavorable ways, spurring him to cut a deal sooner rather than later? Or, better yet, what if he gets forced out of office by someone more reasonable? Change for the better is possible here too.

Egypt-Turkey -- This could be an axis of power that supplants the Saudis as the leading "moderate" alternative in the region. It could offset the Iranian influence, especially if it plays a constructive role in engineering the final ouster of Assad. It could promote democracy and economic growth. And, despite all fears to the contrary, it is worth remembering that Turkey and Egypt were the region's big powers that actually found a way to work with Israel. The drift recently has been in the other direction, but at least that history is encouraging. Certainly, leaving it to the Saudis hasn't worked and letting the Iranians have their way would be a calamity (unless they get the political change the people of Iran so richly deserve). So ... the exploration of this axis may also be an area to watch with at least a soupcon of optimism.

Ilia Yefimovich/Getty Images

BRIC Economies -- Yes, China may have a trade deficit next year and the manufacturing numbers are down. Yes, Brazil is seeing growth flatline.  Yes, Turkey and India and other emerging markets are suffering similar fates. But, on the upside, inflation isn't really the threat it once was. The Chinese have been very good at managing to avoid hard landings so far, and the Brazilians have done well this year to engineer their way out of some real threats. The true test of the long-term promise of these big emerging economies comes not in how they perform when markets are up but in how they handle stress. And so far they're doing pretty well ... acting considerably more decisively and effectively, we might add, than their colleagues in old Europe, the United States, or Japan.

Iran’s Nuclear Program-- It looks like the Iranians are moving forward with the nuclear plans. But it also looks like the world has found ways to use good old-fashioned hard power alongside the soft to try and pressure them to stop -- without actually declaring war and dropping a Bush/Cheney-esque shock-and-awe extravaganza on them. And the application of soft power seems to be hitting the Iranian currency and economy with greater force every day. The Iranians seem to be inviting the international community back in for another inspection visit, and they may now realize that all these changes in the region may not be as good for them as they originally thought -- with the looming loss of an ally in Syria, the potential for democracy elsewhere to whet appetites among Iranians, and the emergence of new countervailing axes. Ahmadinejad may even be on thin ice with some of his bosses. Perhaps all of this won't lead them to accelerate the program, but rather to use it as a negotiating tool. (OK, please pass the spiked hot apple cider. Even I am having trouble believing myself at this point.)

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Iraq and Afghanistan -- Hmmm. Let's see. The future in both these places looks better because ... because ... well, it looks better because the United States is out of one and leaving the other. And the farther away we get, the less the chaos we leave behind will matter to us ... and, I suspect, the whole world. Bad for the people in country? Sure. Likely to be a constant source of worry for us? Quite possibly. But we're searching for shreds of optimism here and getting the heck out of these two messes is its own reward.

Pakistan -- (Humming a cheerful seasonal carol to myself while I think of an optimistic take on what might happen next in Pakistan.) Well, how's this: The nukes have thus far stayed safe and they may continue to do so. India and Pakistan have made some progress in the past year, including on a trade deal. The democratically elected government has managed to at least stay in power despite being constantly undermined by the military and the ISI. The world is paying attention and recognizes how important stability in Pakistan is. There are huge numbers of talented, hard-working Pakistanis who could build the country's economy if only there were a little more investment in areas like infrastructure. Pakistan may not go backwards. It may not collapse. It may not make mischief in Afghanistan and India. How's that for optimism?

Rise of India -- The world's largest democracy is facing economic challenges and a very public battle over government corruption at the moment. But it is also a vibrant, committed democracy. It is also (far too slowly) opening its economy in a two step forward, one and a half step backward fashion. It is playing a more engaged and constructive role as a leading global power. Indeed, its rise over the next several years is likely to be every bit as important geopolitically as China's, and the model it employs in that rise is likely to be much more palatable to the prevailing tastes within the world's most developed economies.

ate Geraghty/The Sydney Morning Herald/Fairfax Media via Getty Images

Japan -- Right before Fukushima, Japan seemed poised to begin a slow recovery. Now, with the brunt of that shock behind it, the country seems to be stirring again. Watch for the big old capitalist economies of the early 1990s -- the United States and Japan -- to lead the world out of the current economic crisis (at least in my super-optimistic scenario, here).

Russian Democracy -- The term "Russian democracy" as envisioned by Vladimir Putin is an oxymoron. But following the most recent round of dubious elections, the people of Russia started challenging Putinism in the streets. It's early days and experts predict the protests won't amount to anything, but the crowds have been big and vocal and it is almost certain that the little karate-chopping oligarch-in-chief is not feeling quite so sure of himself as he has recently. And that may well be a sign that further changes could be coming in 2012.

Energy -- When we talk about "energy revolutions" in the press, we typically mean transformational technologies. But what is happening in the world is something different. We're seeing subtler moves toward what might be called "revolutionary outcomes." Massive new hydrocarbon finds are announced almost every day ... including transformational discoveries in and near the United States. New technologies are triggering a new era of enhanced efficiency and consumer empowerment. Coming up with lighter cars that use collision avoidance to eliminate the need for heavy steel and more efficient engines may result in gas-hybrid technologies that have dramatic impacts long before electric or hydrogen vehicles can get there. U.S. dependence on Mideast oil is falling. Domestic supplies and neighboring suppliers like Brazil are changing the balance. New demand will give other countries like China and India a greater stake in keeping the peace in the Middle East. Oil in Africa could help pay for growth. This too could all go wrong if we ignore issues like climate as we have ... but for now, there is much that is both good and surprising happening in the world economy's largest sector.

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Global Security -- Big wars seem unlikely. Big powers are turning their attention to growing their own economies. International laws and mechanisms are weak but working better. There's no reason to expect the 21st Century to be more of a bloody mess than the one that came before was.

Quality of Life -- As mentioned at the top, with a few sad exceptions aside, people are living longer, healthier, and more prosperous lives. Educational, cultural, and political tools are much more ubiquitous thanks to the rapid spread of information technologies. The poorest have cell phones, and more and more cell phones are tiny computers. There has never been a better moment to be alive on the planet than now ... and all indications are that things will only get better (especially if we live through an era of bio, neuro and nanoscience-driven medical breakthroughs, as is predicted for the decades ahead ... and if we get our arms around climate issues, for which, at the very least, hope was kept alive in Durban).

The Media -- To Newt Gingrich, the media are a scourge. But we are living in a golden age of new ways to deliver information, of ways to make it interactive, of empowering citizen-reporters and citizen-whistleblowers everywhere. We get live, real-time news that offers a wider range of choices, from the truly global to the ultra local, in whatever format the viewer wants. New business models are starting to save newspapers and other formerly "print" media. Electorates can hardly help but be more informed. Average people can hardly help but be more aware or entertained.

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Activism -- I went to college in the 1970s just hoping that our time to seize campus buildings and face off with riot police was around the corner. I wanted revolution like they had in the 1960s (or 1840s). Instead, I got Reaganism and Bret Easton Ellis (shoot me, now). But in 2011, from Tahrir Square to Zuccotti Park, we had activism, demonstrations, placards, chants, and courageous people who were fed up with a corrupt system and wanted change. What's more, in many places it worked and in others it is still changing the conversation. Politics doesn't just happen in the voting booth. It has to happen constantly and, sometimes, it has to cry out for attention when the system seems to have been hardened against change and designed to serve only elites. With some luck 2011 is only the beginning ... because there is a lot of work left to be done.

Mexico -- The drug cartels are threatening the country's hard-won gains of the past several decades. But an election is coming ... and the Mexican people have already (if briefly) flexed their muscles, seeming to suggest they actually want a candidate who has read a book or two. The United States and the Obama Administration want to help, recognizing Mexico's stability is a top foreign-policy concern for the country. A bit of U.S. recovery will help ... and Mexico is not just the states in which the cartels are running rampant. There is a lot of promising growth in the market for those who are willing to look for it.

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U.S.-Cuba -- I once called the Cuban embargo the Edsel of U.S. foreign policy. That was unfair both to the Edsel (the policy has been a much bigger failure) and to the Cuban embargo (it has survived as a disaster much longer than did the Edsel). But sooner or later this ridiculous policy will end and, given the age of all those who even remember its origins, my money is on sooner. Whether they die before their ideas do is moot at this point. The end is near.

Venezuela -- It is just a matter of time on this front as well. And while every year is a good one because it brings us closer to Hugo Chavez's departure, 2011 seemed to hasten the exit even more than might have been hoped.

The U.S. Congress -- OK, I came up with 24. Cut me a little slack. I have nothing good to say about these guys. Anyone who votes for an incumbent in 2012 hates America.

So there you go. Never let it be said I am not a one-man Festival of Lights.

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