The last week’s happenings above the demilitarised zone in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea have lead to a flurry of speculation about the future of the peninsula. Parades and mass rallies on Sunday marked the 65th anniversary of the foundation of the Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK).

This followed on from a week during which the party conference unsurprisingly re-elected Kim Jong Il as KPW general secretary, and more interestingly promoted his son, Kim Jong Un, to key posts including membership of the WPK Central Committee and vice-chairman of the Central Military Commission. The presumption is that this means a dynastic succession is in the works, and the question is what this might mean for a possible opening up of the hermetic nation.

The conventional wisdom in some quarters is that North Korea, in its poverty and isolation, is teetering on the verge of collapse and must reform or perish. Some have questioned whether even the WPK leadership, and their allies in China, could stomach another dynastic succession.

After visiting the country over the past week and seeing reactions to the party conference, I’m not so sure.

The world view of the people is on display everywhere. Contrary to the popular idea, North Koreans do not believe themselves to be the richest nation on earth; they are quite aware that they are doing it a lot tougher than their cousins in the South.

The blame, of course, rests outside the country. Just as the trials and shortages of Blitz-era London would have been easier to endure knowing Hitler was to blame, knowing that the US Imperialists are causing all your miseries gives rise to a sense of pride in your success at standing up to their tyranny. What other nation has successfully repelled the US for so long?

On the other hand, the reported cult of personality surrounding the Kims is real and all-pervasive. (Even the bowling alley I visited in Pyongyang had a bowling ball that Kim Il Sung once examined under glass in the entrance.) The North Koreans live in a world where superheroes exist, and are reminded of their exploits daily. In such a world, a third generation of specially gifted leadership would not seem such a stretch.

An open revolt by the populace is inconceivable; and if there are any signs of real discontent in the Korean People’s Army, they have not been shared with Western analysts.

The rapid elevation of Kim Jong Un from an unknown to the third generation of “great generals” and heir apparent to the stewardship of the nation is very possible in a nation where the media is so tightly controlled and orders can be given to every work unit to read out a chosen piece of news. There has been no history of leadership speculation to build on; details, or the very existence of Kim’s other sons, are unknown to most North Koreans. (I couldn’t confirm reports from last year that Kim Jong Un had been designated the “Brilliant Comrade” in state media — nobody seemed to have heard of this).

Although hardly more photogenic than his father, Jong Un’s appearance alongside the leader at the parades yesterday will cement his place in the shining Kim constellation.

As for the imminent collapse, while hardly a consumer paradise, things in North Korea are a lot better than they have been in the very recent memories of most of its citizens. While recent flooding may bode ill for this year’s harvest and exacerbate the economic hardships, the people are used to doing it tough. It’s the status quo in a nation that emphasises self reliance above all else.

The year 2012 marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of Kim Il Sung and thus year “Juche 100” in the country’s calendar. This has been designated the year Korea will become a “powerful and prosperous nation” by the leadership.

Could this be an excuse to declare the experiment a success and open up to the rest of the world? Given how radically the system and the Korean world view would have to alter, I would bet on a different outcome.

Peter Fray

Fetch your first 12 weeks for $12

Here at Crikey, we saw a mighty surge in subscribers throughout 2020. Your support has been nothing short of amazing — we couldn’t have got through this year like no other without you, our readers.

If you haven’t joined us yet, fetch your first 12 weeks for $12 and start 2021 with the journalism you need to navigate whatever lies ahead.

Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey