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The death of Kim Jong Il rids the world of perhaps the most brutal, reclusive and eccentric dictator of recent times. It plunges North Korea into a period of uncertainty and instability, and threatens yet more tension on the Korean Peninsula. And it is a fittingly symbolic end to the year which saw tyrants tumble.
Not since 1989 has the world seen so many dictators disappear from power in quick succession, yet in 2011, we witnessed the fall of Tunisia’s Ben-ali, Egypt’s Mubarak and Libya’s Gaddafi. We also saw the regimes in Syria and Bahrain rocked by popular uprisings which in the face of brutal suppression refused to surrender. Even in Burma, in very different circumstances, the man who ruled for almost twenty years apparently ‘retired’ and his successor embarked on a reform programme. Than Shwe’s retirement, and Thein Sein’s reforms, are still in their early phase and provoke as much caution as they do optimism, but the mere sight of Aung San Suu Kyi, whose name Than Shwe could barely bring himself to say, contesting a by-election and sitting in parliament is something few would have predicted. Within a few months, however, it is likely to become a reality.
It was a heart attack, we are told, that toppled Kim Jong Il, rather than a popular uprising, and it is unlikely that much will change in North Koreain the immediate term. But his death illustrates in a different way what all the other examples also show: that dictators are vulnerable, tyrants are fragile, and despots cannot last forever. So better to leave at a time of your choosing, rather than be forced from office by circumstances beyond your control.
North Korea and Burma are Asia’s two pariah states, ruled by two of the world’s cruelest regimes. Both are accused of crimes against humanity against their own people. Human rights activists including myself have advocated the establishment of a UN Commission of Inquiry to investigate such crimes in both countries. Both regimes are knee-deep in the drugs trade and the slave trade. Both have funds locked in offshore bank accounts.
Both are military-based regimes, with, respectively, the fourth largest army in the world and the second largest in Southeast Asia. North Korea is a nuclear power, and Burma is developing a nuclear programme with North Korea’s help.
The two regimes have run their economies into the ground, watched their people starve and manipulated international aid while the rulers live in obscene opulence. The video of Than Shwe’s daughter’s wedding, with gifts said to be worth $US50 million, would find its place in the absurdity stakes alongside the accounts of Kim Jong Il’s long train journeys accompanied by dozens of masseurs, cooks, food tasters and bottles of the finest cognac. Both regimes are sustained and protected by China.
These are the similarities, and there are others. However, there are also differences. While Than Shwe showed signs of developing a cult of personality before he left office, with his photograph displayed in government buildings and his decision to build a new capital, Naypyidaw, meaning ‘The Seat of Kings’, he never reached the same heights of near-deification that his counterpart in North Korea achieved. Even though his children have held positions in the regime, and his favoured grandson lives a gangster existence protected by his status, Than Shwe’s priority has been to protect, not promote, his family. There was no question of a Than Shwe dynasty ruling Burma, unlike North Korea.
Indeed, North Korea must be the only country in the world which claims to be communist and yet is ruled by a dynasty regarded as a deity. In its announcement of Kim Jong Il’s death, the North Korean state media showered him with epithets Than Shwe and his astrologers could only dream of: “genius of the revolution,” “supreme incarnation of the revolutionary moral obligation”, “great master of politics and illustrious commander born of Heaven”.
Perhaps the starkest difference between Burma and North Korea is in the political systems. In terms of physical brutality – torture, rape, forced labour, killings – there is not much to choose between them, and both regimes are rightly accused of violations of international human rights law. However, Kim Jong Il’s regime succeeded where Than Shwe’s failed, in one particular area: thought control. In North Korea, there is no opposition, organised or informal. There is no civil society. There are no dissidents. There is no Aung San Suu Kyi, no NLD, no 88 Generation. And if you visit North Korea, as I have done, you will discover it is impossible to find anyone who will dare to speak out, even privately. Everyone is watching everyone, all the time.
As a foreigner visiting North Korea, you can only talk to the people the regime wants you to meet. I travelled with two British Parliamentarians, Lord Alton and Baroness Cox, to meet the regime last year, to talk face to face, eye to eye, about human rights. On one or two occasions, we slipped our minders and went for a walk in the streets of Pyongyang. There was no way, however, we could have talked to the people we passed in the street about what they really think. And when we were taken to visit a school, a hospital and a university, we were told by the head teacher, the senior doctor and a professor that everything there was a gift from the Great Leader Kim Il Sung or the Dear Leader Kim Jong Il. A brand new Olympic-sized university swimming pool was the brainchild of the Dear Leader, we were told, and such was his amazing generosity that he personally provided swimming trunks to every student. His picture and that of his father stared down at us from every wall in every room, and their names were referenced every three or four sentences. When we were taken to a concert, film footage of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il inspecting farms and factories was shown on a screen behind the orchestra, followed by scenes of tanks rolling across, and then missiles firing. I thought I had stepped right into the pages of George Orwell’s 1984. Each time a missile fired on the screen, the entire audience burst into applause – except for the three of us.
In Burma, in contrast, I have never met anyone who has anything good to say about Than Shwe, even within the regime. A minority is willing to speak out publicly, and risk paying a high price for doing so, but many more will speak privately, in a quiet spot, a whisper, a private room. Not so in North Korea. Even the slightest misstep or word whispered out of turn can land you in one of the country’s notorious prison camps, or execution. More than 200,000 prisoners of conscience are in North Korea’s gulags – at least one hundred times the number of political prisoners in Burma. Moreover, unlike the political prisoners in Burma, few if any of these 200,000 have been jailed for active opposition to the regime. Typically they have been imprisoned because they looked at Kim Jong Il’s picture in the wrong way, were born into a family regarded as ‘hostile’ because of past connections to South Korea, or possessed a Bible. North Korea has a policy of punishment for three generations.
Kim Jong Il’s son, Kim Jong Un, is already described as the ‘Great Successor’. But his own power-base is weak, and it is unclear whether he will be in charge or whether there will be a power struggle. The future is hard to predict, but if the situation unravels, Kim Jong Un’s fate may not be entirely secure. North Koreans who had escaped from the country had been campaigning to bring Kim Jong Il to the International Criminal Court. He died before he could be tried. At just 28, Kim Jong Un may not be so lucky.
So the lesson for Burma’s regime? In the long-run, authoritarian rule does not pay off. Whether the people rise up or ill health and old age strike, dictators who remain dictators cannot guarantee their safety or that of their families. Dictators who have succumbed to the will of the people, and either bowed out while they still had time or presided over a negotiated transition, leave office with their lives and the well-being of their families intact. Think of South Africa’s de Klerk, the Soviet Union’s Gorbachev, Indonesia’s Suharto and Habibie. Kim Jong-il’s death, therefore, should be an encouragement to Thein Sein to continue on the path of reform he appears to have started on, and to make it a reality.
Kim Jong Il wins a place in the history books alongside Hitler and Stalin, as a mass murderer and international criminal. It is ironic that he died a day after Vaclav Havel, the man who led the struggle for freedom in Czechoslovakia and who described the North Korean tyrant as “the world’s worst totalitarian dictator, who is responsible for taking millions of human lives”. The question for Thein Sein is whether he wishes to be ranked in the same category, or alongside de Klerk, Gorbachev and Habibie, as a man who ended dictatorship and helped restore his country to democracy. It is in his interests to make the right choice.
Benedict Rogers is East Asia Team Leader at Christian Solidarity Worldwide, and author of ‘Than Shwe: Unmasking Burma’s Tyrant’ (Silkworm Books, 2010).