We were sitting at lunch, in a kindergarten basement in Seoul, when the school bus driver came in and said one sentence in Korean before leaving, “Kim Jong-Il is dead.” I waited for the translation and then assessed my feelings. Obviously, they were anxious feelings of a possible uprising, and the natural anticipation of what will come next in a country that is one of a kind in today’s global economy. North Korea is one of the few countries completely controlled by one dictatorial family. African regimes are falling, Mid-East regimes are being toppled and now we wonder if this young, pudgy, rice cake of a man can preserve the same fear and discipline his father and grandfather were able to establish and maintain for the last 60 years.
The trouble is, brainwashing, without the Internet cleansers of truth or at least different opinions, is a powerful stain to remove. The North Korean people are so dedicated to the cult of their “dear leader” and his omnipotence, that this might just be a passing of the torch with no thought given to what their options are for the future. The population is not living well yet praising the leader for their comfort; they are living in squalor, poverty, starvation, isolation and essential slavery—and they still bow in submissive reverence before the ubiquitous framed pictures of father and son leaders.
One of the few documentaries ever to escape from the restrictive side of the Korean peninsula, showed North Koreans, cured from cataracts caused by malnutrition, instead of thanking the generous doctor who cured them for free, immediately bowing and thanking the “dear leader” promising to work harder in the salt mines for him. The South Koreans at work say they will merely keep quiet through the next few weeks. They are aware of the belligerent nature of their northern neighbors, and are not interested.
This is not Osama being hunted and killed hiding under bed-sheets in Pakistan; this is not Hitler committing suicide, lonely and confused in a bombed out basement; this is not Hussein choking at the end of a noose questioning his past actions. This is a man who probably died in a giant bed, with silk sheets, half empty bottles of expensive French cognac nearby, perhaps struggling with a deadly illness, but nevertheless having lived a life of opulence and regal extravagance.
Kim Jong-Il is dead, and his memory will live on in his doughy son. Kim Jong-Il will never be forgotten in the North. His picture will still hang beside his hero father, golden statues bearing his corpulent, dysfunctional mug will be erected all over Pyongyang, and his people will mourn him for the next three years (as law dictates). He will remain a worshipped figure until the brainwashing is bleached away by the harsh abrasives of hunger and the knowledge that there is another way.