The emergence of Asia’s own Gulag

Tags: Op-ed
The emergence of Asia’s own Gulag
STALIN’S SHADOW: This undated picture released from North Korea’s official Korean Central News Agency shows its leader Kim Jong-Un (C) visiting the August 25 Fisheries Station under Korean Peoples’ Army 313 Unit
North Korea is arguably the world’s most secluded country. There is simply no other country that can be compared with it. When the world has to deal with an authoritarian regime like in Syria, it can refer to experiences with other dictatorships in the Arab world. When dealing with Fidel Castro’s Cuba, other Latin American caudillos come to mind. North Korea is truly unique. Last week’s events, when the country’s second most important man faced the execution squad reminded the world drastically that North Korea exists in a different age. In front of the baffling events in Pyongyang, the outside world is left with rather futile speculations about the future. This is not very comforting as North Korea disposes both rockets and small atomic devices, and is capable of causing turmoil in northeast Asia, a region that is of considerable importance to the world economy.

To define the political system in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), so the official name of the country, is a rather difficult undertaking. First of all, there is a historically strong Confucian influence which Korea shares with neighbouring China. Secondly, there is dynastic rule. At present, the country is led by Kim Jong-un (or Kim the Third), the grandson of the founder of North Korea, Kim Il- sung. Officially the regime describes itself as socialist and, as recent events have demonstrated once again, it continues to operate in the most rigid Stalinist fashion. Finally, there is something unreal, even something unhinged about the DPRK which one might rightly perceive as akin to a cult, a sect.

Until today we know very little about the 30-something man, Kim Jong-un, who rose to the top of the DPRK after the death of his father, Kim Jong-il in December 2011. We don’t know his exact birth date and there is no official information about his education and upbringing. There are rumours that he spent some years of his early schooling in the Swiss capital Berne. Fact is that for a long time, his father did not consider him as his successor. That role was destined to go to his older half-brother, Kim Jong-nam. The change happened when the elder Kim fell into disrepute with some escapades. Today, Kim Jong-nam lives in exile in Macao.

Transitions in dictatorships are a notoriously difficult and dangerous process, as there is a total lack of legitimacy. Power falls to the one who emerges as the most brutal force. In the case of Kim Jong-il, the father of the present ruler, this was a protracted procedure. However, the ascent of Kim Jong-un seems to have been remarkably fast. The young man has climbed to positions for which his father had been forced to wait for years. This can be seen both as a sign of strength or of weakness of the regime. The fallout of the most recent power struggle might in the weeks and months to come, shed some light on the true status of the regime in Pyongyang.

The DPRK is as exemplary a one-man dictatorship as one can perceive. Nevertheless, there are different forces that make up the basis of this dictatorship. There is the party, then there is the army and, of course, there is the secret service apparatus. While all three are united in their goal to oppress any sign of dissent and to maintain the absolute power of the regime, there are differing interests. Every now and then, one might observe signs of differences. North Korea is an extremely poor country and, therefore, the struggle for control over the scarce resources is particularly fierce. It is indicative that some observers put the steep fall of Jang Sung Thaek, Kim Jong-un’s uncle and presumable mentor for his induction into power, to his differences with the army. It is no secret that also under pressure from Beijing, the regime in Pyongyang has undertaken some timid economic reforms that are not popular with the army’s top brass who fears a loss of control and, most importantly, valuable financial resources.

It is still early to know whether the fall and execution of Jang Sung Thaek is a sign of strength or weakness of the young dictator. The news about the dismissal and execution of Jang became headline news. On the one hand, the regime demonstrated that nobody, not even the second highest person in the country, is safe from arbitrary prosecution. On the other hand, there remains the question how such a traitor could stay undetected within the innermost circle of power. For the time being, the wife of Jang, who is Kim Jong-un’s aunt and a daughter of the founder of the Republic, Kim Il-sung, remains at the core of the North Korean leadership. Whether family ties will keep her there is an open question. Equally, there will be question marks how the young leader will cope without the advice of his mentor. For the time being, the army has sworn loyalty to him. No doubt, the future will continue to bring us more surprising and gruesome news out of the world’s last Stalinist Gulag.

(The writer is the Far East correspondent of Swiss daily Neue Zurcher Zeitung)

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