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John Passant

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December 2011



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Statement on the death of Kim Jong-il from our sister organisation, All Together

On the death of Chairman Kim Jong-il

North Korea’s state-run Korean Central Television (KCTV) yesterday announced the death of Kim Jong-il, Chairman of the National Defense Commission. Chairman Kim had ruled North Korea for 17 years since inheriting dictatorial powers from his late father, Kim Il-sung.

If his years as Kim Il-sung’s designated successor are to be counted, then Kim Jong-il had effectively been the most powerful man in the country for 37 years.

He never achieved his stated goal of building a powerful and prosperous nation, nor did he resolve the severe economic crisis and the tension with the US that has beset his country since the 1990s.

North Korea’s future is shrouded in uncertainty and instability. In announcing Kim Jong-il’s death, KCTV stressed the need to “faithfully uphold the enlightened guidance of our revered leader Kim Jong-un”.

But a rapid consolidation of Kim Jon-un’s rule as Kim Jong-il’s successor will be challenging. When Chairman Kim Jong-il succeeded his father he was over 50 years old, with over 20 years of successor-training under his belt.By contrast, Kim Jong-un (Kim Jong-il’s third son) is a 28 year-old who has been named his father’s designated successor barely a year ago.

What’s more, he’s inheriting a country that has been terribly weakened over the last couple of decades. The demise of Kim Jong-il and the centralized power that he embodied may spark an internal strife among North Korea’s ruling bureaucracy, leading to greater instability. And such instability, when coupled with specific circumstances such as a massive popular revolt in China, could produce an upheaval from below.

Possibility of heightened instability in Northeast Asia

North Korea’s neighbors – China, Japan, and South Korea – don’t want North Korea’s instability to have a ripple effect in East Asia. China, in particular, has been providing aid to North Korea in order to avert a massive inflow of North Korean refugees that might threaten China’s internal stability.

The continued existence of an ally in the context of strained relations with the US is also undoubtedly part of Beijing’s considerations.

The same holds true for the US.Washington does not want any instability it cannot control, especially when itcomes from below. Thus the common-sense notion that “Washington would seize this opportunity to stir up North Korea because it wants to sow instability there” is rather one-sided.

Back in 1994, when Kim Il-sung died, it was Washington’s preference for North Korea’s stability that led to the signing of the Agreed Framework three months later.

The Associated Press reported that the two sides reached an agreement on December 18 to halt uranium enrichment in exchange for food;according to the Hankyoreh newspaper, the agreement came after Chairman Kim’s death.

Of course, the neighboring states including the US are always ready to exploit North Korea’s instability as long as they believe they can control it.Washington and Beijing will each try to exploit the present period of power transition to persuade Pyungyang’s new ruling elite to lean over to its side.

In the event of an upheaval in North Korea, they may even send in military forces to impose their will on the fate of the country. This implies that North Korea’s instability can have a more serious ripple effect in the region than before, as the rise of China and Washington’s strategy to contain it are making the entire region more unstable.

The situation in South Korea

As news came out about Chairman Kim’s death, South Korea’s Lee Myung-bak government put the military and police on emergency alert, saying it was “closely monitoring the possibility of [North Korean] aggression.”

The South Korean Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Korea-US Combined Forces Command, while vowing to respond “calmly” without raising the level of its Watch Condition (WATCHCON), expanded their fleet of reconnaissance planes and are fueling up their fighter jets.

Nevertheless, it is an overreaction to incite fear of an imminent “military aggression” or “upheaval” on the part of North Korea. Such an exaggerated response could itself contribute to a heightening of tensions in the Korean peninsula by alarming the authorities in Pyungyang.

Recall that in 1994, that same overreaction on the part of Seoul was reciprocated by Pyungyang. Moreover, Lee Myung-bak is very likely hoping to capitalize on such an alarmist mood, which would help bury all sorts of catastrophic political scandals (such as the suspected involvement of the Presidential Blue House in a DDoS attack against the Election Commission’s website).

Those who have thrown themselves to the fight against the Korea-US Free Trade Agreement during the past two months should not let Lee Myung-bak use Kim Jong-il’s death as an opportunity to ride out the biggest crisis ever to befall his presidency.

Alternatively, we should also be mindful that the government may try to appease the populist politicians and their supporters in the opposition Democratic Party and the Unified Progressive Party by offering token words of condolences or by responding “calmly”– again, in the hope of riding out its own very worst crisis. The Korean government may also be tempted to use Kim’s death as an occasion to stage another bout of witch-hunt assisted by the National Security Law.

Genuinely left wing

We must oppose these right-wing attempts at fear-mongering, but neither should we pray for North Korea’s stability as liberals and populists do; nor should we mourn Kim Jong-il as some in the left do.

In particular, our attitude to Pyungyang’s rulers should not be dictated by the vantage point of interstate diplomacy, even if it’s one that emphasizes reconciliation and cooperation between the two Koreas.

The vantage point for true leftists ought to be that of the international working class movement and of human liberation.

For ordinary North Koreans, life under the Kim father and son’s long-lasting dictatorship has been marked by extreme poverty and the rule of terror (as exemplified by public executions and the gulag).

Chairman Kim Jong-il, in particular, prioritized the development of missiles and nuclear weapons even while a significant part of the North Korean working class were starving. The notion that class struggle, rather than weapons of mass destruction, is what drives anti-imperialist movements was quite alien to him.

Worse, a decade of fiscal austerity that followed the ‘July 1 measures’ in 2002 has intensified the misery and inequality suffered by ordinary North Koreans. The final insult came when Chairman Kim in his declining health embarked on a third-generation succession of power to his son.

To sum up, North Korea bears no resemblance whatsoever to the kind of socialism Marx advocated. Not a trace.

North Korea is not even seriously anti-imperialist, given how President Kim Il-sung in his final years and Kim Jong-il throughout his time in power sought to normalize relations with Washington.

Therefore, from a genuinely left-wing perspective advocating working class self-emancipation, there is no reason either to mourn Kim Jong-il or to wish for North Korea’s situation to stabilize.

Genuinely left-wing people ought to wish for the North Korean working class to fight for democracy and fundamental change in the turbulent times that lie ahead of them, and to lend them wholehearted support when that actually happens.  

December 20, 2011 Statement issued by the steering committee of All Together, South Korea

This statement is taken from John Molyneux’s facebook notes.



Comment from Dougal
Time December 25, 2011 at 5:29 am

A very useful statement, thanks John. Do you have a link for this translation, or is it your own? I couldn’ find any other sources – apart from the Korean at Left21 – online.

Comment from John
Time December 25, 2011 at 9:25 am

No. I lifted it from John Molyneux’s facebook (?) notes. I’ll put a link in to his notes on the page.

Comment from National Sex Offender
Time December 29, 2011 at 4:05 pm

Sorry to say this but the death of Kim Jong-il give the people of Korea the hope that peace will come on their country. According to them they want Kim Jong-il to be executed by the nation like Gadaffi, but still they are celebrating and hoping that the next leader will be more concern to its people.

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