Rating Kim Jong-il era
So, the Kim Jong-il era is over. How will it be remembered by Koreans? Perhaps, it will remain in their memory as times of instability and change. Marshal Kim Jong-il’s North Korea was very different from the North Korea which was created by his father, Generalissimo Kim Il-sung.
To simplify things a bit, one can say that prior to the late 1980s, North Korea was arguably the most Stalinist society the world had ever seen. The state owned virtually everything. All food and many consumption goods were distributed by the state. A small horde of enforcers and informers insured that everything would move in accordance with countless regulations. The career and income of the average North Korean was determined almost exclusively by his or her position in the elaborate state hierarchy.
Kim Jong-il’s North Korea was different. The public distribution system collapsed, and only a minority of the population still receive subsidised food rations. Everyone else has to buy food at the markets at the market price but the official salary is well below the subsistence level. So most North Koreans have no choice but to be engaged in some business or find employment in a still illegal, but fast-growing private sector. People can succeed if they are smart, ruthless and lucky but they can also starve to death and there is no one to help them.
What do North Koreans think of this change? Of course no one can answer this question with any certainty since public opinion polls are clearly impossible to conduct within the North. On top of that, even anecdotal evidence indicates that attitudes vary greatly, depending on place of residence, job and other such variables. However, having interviewed well over a hundred North Korean refugees over the last two years, the present author would probably dare to try to answer the question.
People who succeed under the new, de facto market economy, tend to prefer the current system. They remember the regimented life under Kim Il-sung as a nightmare ― especially if they came from underprivileged groups, whose members had no chance of social advancement under the old system. Youngsters are positive about the changes, too. These people take the current situation for granted and don’t feel much in the way of nostalgia for the recent past.
However, the older generation largely hold a different view. They frequently say that they would prefer to live in the times of Kim Il-sung in the 1960s and ‘70s. They are willing to admit that those times were not without serious shortcomings. They are not fond of the political indoctrination sessions and mutual criticism meetings which in those times took a couple of hours on an average working day (separate from the normal working day, meaning a longer day at work).
These people are not, furthermore, thrilled by the memory of memorising the lengthy and dull speeches of the “Great Leader” ― even though I am aware of one case where a chance encounter at such a memorisation session sparked what I would describe as one of the most beautiful and touching love stories I have ever heard.
Yet these obvious and openly admitted shortcomings of the old system are seen as secondary. Even political terror, which reached its height in the 1960s, is not seen as a major political problem by these people. In their eyes, the Kim Il-sung era had one major advantage: it was a time of stability, when one’s basic survival was guaranteed. Everybody knew that whatever might happen, his or her regular grain ration would be delivered twice a month. Most North Koreans see rationing as the embodiment of social justice, as a natural thing the state does and should do.
Partially related to this issue is the general attitude to the ``Sun of the Nation,” the Great Leader, Kim Il-sung himself. The founding father of the North Korean state is seldom criticised by refugees. They are more likely to express their regret about the ``untimely demise of the great man,” under whose rule, ``things would surely be better.”
Few serious historians would doubt that the current disastrous situation in the North is largely or even exclusively the unavoidable result of Kim Il-sung’s policies. However, this perception is not widely shared by the North Korean public, including refugees who are more inclined to be critical of the regime.
Therefore, the future might disappoint pro-democracy optimists, who might be wrong when they believe that a regime collapse (and such a collapse appears all but unavoidable in the long run) will completely wipe out the personality cult of the Kim family and especially the personality cult of its founding father. A significant number (perhaps a majority) of North Koreans admire him now and in some cases this admiration is likely to survive the unavoidable demise of the state that Kim Il-sung built.
Professor Andrei Lankov was born in St. Petersburg, Russia, and now teaches at Kookmin University in Seoul. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.