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Death in the DPRK

Death in the DPRK

2011 seems to be the year that the world has said goodbye to ruthless dictators and terrorists.  We have witnessed the deaths of Osama Bin Laden, Muammar al-Qaddafi, and now Kim Jong Il. They were all oppressive leaders who had no regard for their people or the sanctity of life, and all promoted international terrorist movements.

Granted two of the deaths came from military action and in areas where there exists a struggle for freedom and democracy. The death of the "Dear Leader" had nothing to do with North Korea’s quest for freedom and democracy.  He died of a heart attack – apparently of "fatigue." 

Fatigue from what?  From over indulgence, love of fine wine and cognac, extravagant dinners, a decadent lifestyle, and a corrupt ruling class that has enriched itself at the expense of its own people. This man’s lifestyle was grotesquely at odds with the suffering of his people.

We don’t see North Koreans flooding to the streets to express a desire for freedom, democracy and self determination.  We see instead the thousands of crying and wailing citizens expressing great sadness that Kim Jong Il was taken too soon. Having been to North Korea several times I am not surprised to see this public response. Keep in mind that from birth, North Koreans are taught to worship "The Great Leader," "The Dear Leader," and now "The Great Successor."  

Those who live in the capitol, Pyongyang, are among the most privileged and benefit from a life far better than those in the countryside. Ordinary North Koreans have no access to outside information, something which is almost unthinkable in today’s world but remains a chilling reality inside this secretive, paranoid and ruthless system. 

World leaders yesterday expressed concern and hope that the passing of Kim Jong Il may provide an opportunity for change. 

Would that it be true. Dan Blumenthal wrote yesterday that we should take no comfort in Kim Jong Un’s succession, and I couldn’t agree more.  Western leaders should send clear messages to the new regime that it will not tolerate aggression, the need to resume serious de-nuclearization talks, and push for North Korea’s opening up to the region and the outside world.

Nor is this the time to rush and offer humanitarian assistance to try and use food aid as leverage with the new regime. Yesterday the Secretary General of the United Nations, Ban Ki Moon, expressed his sympathy to the North Korean people and pledged continued assistance to the people of North Korea. Similarly the U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton expressed concern for the well-being of the North Korean population, saying that the United States stands ready to help the people of North Korea, urging Kim Jong Un to usher in a new era of peace.  

Just last week the Obama administration had a team negotiating the possible resumption of food assistance. It is still just as important today to reiterate that the U.S. will only resume these activities if it can ensure that the intended nutritional supplements will reach those most in need. This is not a new scenario for North Korea. The regime has continually struggled to feed its people since the famine of the mid 1990s, when over one million people died from starvation. Every time the DPRK lurches back into the international headlines, inevitable questions arise over who is in control and just what messages are being sent to the outside world. It is no different today with the death of Kim Jong Il, and we can be sure that the North Korean military and power elite are setting up a proxy battle within their system.

Will relative pragmatists interested in working with the international community gain strength? Or will hard-line ideologues focused on maintaining power though Kim Jong Un win out, and thus continue isolation and oppression at all costs? If 2011 was the year that raised these and similar questions, then let us hope that 2012 is the year in which we can find some answers.