Bertil Lintner: On Kim Jong Il's passing

Bertil Lintner: On Kim Jong Il's passing

Footage of thousands of North Korean’s hysterically mourning the death of Kim Jong Il has now gone viral, suggesting that the passing of one of the world’s most notorious tyrants is set to change the landscape in the hermetic country. But, says author and journalist Bertil Lintner, who has studied in depth the idiosyncrasies of both the Burmese and North Korean state, his death will do little to trigger change in the country – North Korea is ruled by the military, and indeed its ties with Burma are set to continue along the same trajectory. 

Many bracket Burma and North Korea within the same ‘pariah’ status. Is this a useful reference point, or do the two countries tell very different stories?

They are very different. North Korea is a Confucian state, a militarized society with a highly disciplined population. And there is no dissent in North Korea. You are either part of the system, or leave the country. Burma, after all, is more pluralistic, socially, politically, and ethnically. It’s a different culture.

To what extent is each society a product of the erratic mindsets of one, or successive, rulers, and how will North Korea fair now Kim Jong Il is gone?

Kim Jong Il is gone but not the North Korean state and its powerful institutions. Kim Jong Un is there only because he’s the son of Kim Jong Il and, more importantly, the grandson of Kim Il Sung, “the Great Leader.” The young Kim will not have any power, he’ll be there as a puppet of the National Defence Commission, which rules the country. It’s more powerful than the government and the ruling Korean Workers’ Party.

Has anything on the same level as Kim Jong Il and his father’s personality cults ever existed in Burma?

No, not even when Ne Win was Burma’s dictator. Ne Win’s portraits were everywhere, in government offices, schools  and so on. But there was never a personality cult.

Will his death unnerve the Burmese government, given the close ties between the two?

Not likely as there is not a regime change in North Korea. The same generals who effectively ruled the country when Kim Jong Il was still alive will be there after his death as well.

How much direct input did Kim Jong Il have in North Korea-Burma affairs, and what impact will his demise have on the relationship?

Following the loss of North Korea’s traditional markets for missiles and WMD technology – Pakistan, Egypt, Libya and soon also perhaps Syria – Pyongyang has been seeking to strengthen relations with Burma, a country closer to home and where the government is not about to fall. This policy is likely to continue for the foreseeable future. Burma is also interested in acquiring North Korean weapons’ technology – which, by the way, was the main reason why Hillary Clinton went there recently. The United States is worried about this new “Axis of Evil” but believes that engagement with the Burmese regime is better than isolation when it comes to enticing it away from its close relationship with North Korea. China, of course, is another factor which has made the US change its Burma policy. Democracy and human rights are for public consumption only.

Dictatorships in their raw manifestation don’t last forever, as it appears the Burmese government is realising. Can you see Kim Jong Un taking North Korea down a different path?

No, as I said, Kim Jong Un will not have any power. He’s a figure-head “leader”. Apart from the National Defence Commission as an institution, there’s also Kim Jong Il’s sister (and Kim Jong Un’s aunt), Kim Kyong Hui who is immensely powerful. As is her husband, Kim Jong Il’s brother-in-law, Chang Song Taek, who is a powerful member of the National Defence Commission. He and Kim Kyong Hui are likely to run day-to-day affairs with Kim Jong Un just sitting there as a symbol for the power of the Kim Dynasty and to emphasise continuity, not change.

Will he have learnt anything from the popular upheavals around the world, or is the regime’s grip on the country too watertight for any uprising to be successful?

I cannot see the North Koreans rising up against the regime. It is a tightly controlled society where there is no room for dissent.

The west may look to exploit Kim Jong Il’s death as a means to push Kim Jong Un down another path, as it has done the new Burmese government. How should the US and EU approach North Korea now?

Kim Jong Il is a figurehead without any power. He will not be able to take North Korea anywhere. The military remains in the driving seat, with older family members in charge of day-to-day affairs and policy making.

What wider impact on the Asia-Pacific will the passing of one of the region’s great tyrants have?

Not much I’m afraid, as the same regime will still be there in Pyongyang. There’s no change in the basic power structure

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