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The Democratization of North Korea — An Unavoidable Task of Our Time

January 16, 2012

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The following appeared on pages 8-9 as the Publisher’s Column in the January 2012 issue of NK Vision magazine.

In your life, you have to let both those you love and those you hate go. You should accept this as fate, for no human being is immortal. The death of a loved one is of course full of sorrow, but even if the person who died was once hated during his lifetime, it would be morally appropriate to wish him a peaceful rest.

However, this cannot be the case for Kim Jong Il, who died on December 17th, 2011. He was not a mere ordinary person, but was a most brutal dictator in history who not only shook the fate of 23 million North Koreans in his hands, but also caused a huge number of casualties and economic loss in South Korea by ordering numerous terrorist activities such as the Rangoon Bombing, bombing of a Korean Air Lines aircraft, several military provocations in the Yellow Sea, sinking of the naval ship Cheonan, bombardment of Yeonpyeong, and countless other provocations. Also, he was an aggressor who threatened the peace in surrounding countries by developing nuclear weapons and testing missiles. I very much regret that this notoriously bad man died without being properly punished for his misdeeds.

Building the Worst Hereditary Dictatorship

North Korea was founded by communists led by Kim Il Sung on September 9th, 1948. Kim Il Sung inflicted severe sufferings on the North Korean people by establishing a communist regime and strengthening his dictatorship, but it was Kim Jong Il who should be held responsible for: building the worst hereditary dictatorship in the world, one which is not comparable to that of any other communist country; imprisoning hundreds of thousands of North Koreans in political prison camps to let them suffer under conditions fit for beasts; making millions of North Koreans die from malnutrition; making numerous North Koreans wander in foreign countries; reducing people to a foolish state, in which they become unable to tell what’s right and wrong, through brainwashing and fear; and turning the entire nation into a gulag. Therefore, although Kim Jong Il is now dead, we should bring him to the court of history and let him face history’s stern judgment in order to set straight our nation’s (sense of) justice and heighten the conscience of mankind.

The worst of dictators Kim Jong Il is dead, and North Korea is to be led by young Kim Jong Un, a not-even-30-year-old man who was appointed as successor by his father. Some people forecast that North Korea will rapidly collapse from the inside because the succession process was done too hastily and Kim Jong Un is not very experienced. But as we have seen at Kim Jong Il’s funeral and memorial service, the third generation succession is now stabilizing, at least as it appears to those on the outside. And considering that Kim Jong Il had extraordinary talent at seizing and managing power, it is very likely that he prepared various means that would help a smooth transition of power after his death. In China, which is the largest patron of North Korea, all nine members of the Communist Party’s Politburo Standing Committee paid mourning visits to the North Korean Embassy in Beijing and backed the succession in North Korea. In this respect, it is hard to see that North Korea will fall into serious turbulence in the near future.


As we can well see in the world of sports and art, there are many cases where young people achieve magnificent accomplishments. See, for example, figure skater Yuna Kim. However, years of experience are very important in the world of politics. In that regard, it remains to be seen whether Kim Jong Un will coordinate and control high- and mid-level officials well or distribute the positions properly among young, middle aged, and older workers. Young people easily fall into the trap of adventure and impulse, and it is also not certain if officials in their sixties and seventies who were loyal to Kim Jong Il will remain loyal to Kim Jong Un given the higher standing the older generation holds over the younger generations in a Confucian society. In the mid- to long-term, the Kim Jong Un regime will likely be unstable (유동, literally “fluid” – ed.), and it is highly likely that he will face huge obstacles.

Furthermore, North Korean society has gone through massive changes since the death of Kim Il Sung in 1994. Markets became much more active, and information exchanged there spread at a much faster rates and in much larger amounts. The reputation of the party and the nation gradually collapsed, and eventually hit bottom with the currency reform in November 2009. Although the trumpet sound of the strong and prosperous state rings loudly, the regime now cannot turn people’s hearts back to its side without substantially improving their quality of life. Therefore, we cannot exclude the possibility of a democratization movement inside North Korea.

High Possibility of a Drastic Change Within 3-5 Years

Since the possibility of a drastic change within 3-5 years is very high, regardless of the short term stabilization of the Kim Jong Un regime, we should thoroughly prepare for this change. A rapid change in North Korea will have immense impact on the South Korean economy and national security, so most South Koreans tend to hope to maintain the status quo in North Korea. Going along with this attitude, some North Korea experts, scholars, politicians, and political groups speak incessantly of an early stabilization of the Kim Jong Un regime and promote a return to the Sunshine Policy.

But if the democratization of North Korea is inevitable, the most fundamental solution would be to focus our efforts on rescuing our North Korean brothers and sisters who have been suffering for more than 60 years. How would it be possible to cure a growing cancer with medicine for blisters or without going through any serious operations? The prospect for a bright future is merely an illusion if there is no commitment and no pain is endured. What lies before us are the noble tasks of rescuing our fellow North Koreans, who moan with agony under dictatorship and human rights abuses, and opposing the unacceptable third generation succession.

Therefore, this year’s two big elections will be an important turning point where we will choose between democratizing North Korea and compromising with the hereditary dictatorship and between expanding democracy beyond South Korea to democratize the whole of the peninsula and retrogressing to a fake democracy (in South Korea) in which people become slaves of populism and pro-North Koreanism. We are now standing at the moment of truth where each and every one of us shall decide whether to lay the foundations of Korean reunification, or to fall into the labyrinth of reaction against history by allying with the feudal dynasty of isolation and human rights violations.

There was a famous advertisement copy that went: “A moment’s decision changes 10 years of the future.” And just like that, our choice in the two elections will change 10 years, or rather 100 years, of the future.

Han Ki Hong is a graduate of Yonsei University with a degree in psychology. He has served as the publisher and editor of Zeitgeist and publisher and CEO of the Daily NK. Since 2000 he has been the president of NKnet.

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