Instead of leading his country further into 1984-style dystopia, Kim Jong Un could blaze the trail to North Korean liberalization.
The death of Kim Jong Il, the dictator who ruled North Korea since his father’s death in 1994, leaves a power vacuum at the top of the opaque, erratic, nuclear-armed nation, which is still technically at war with South Korea and the United States after all these years.
From Tokyo to Beijing to Seoul (not to mention Moscow and Washington), all eyes are on Kim Jong Un, the third son of Kim Jong Il and the country’s heir apparent. Kim Jong Un has been groomed to take the reins since his father’s 2008 stroke, and foreign observers say his place at the top of a committee to plan his father’s funeral (and the public endorsement of the country’s only political force, the Workers Party) signals that Kim Jong Un will be the new strongman in North Korea.
But does he have to be? By all accounts, Kim Jong Un is in a tough spot. North Korea is an economic disaster, reliant on food donations from the world it has spurned in order to feed its own people. The failures of Kim Jong Il's regime point the way for his son: Instead of acting like his dead father, Kim Jong Un should take his cues from the historical giant who died the same day, Vaclav Havel, and find a way to leave totalitarianism behind—if only for his own good.
Sure, being a dictator may have its perks—cognac and cigars, pornography, giant human mosaics—but the internal power struggle, constant pressure from foreign countries, and the difficulty of existing as an isolated nation in a globalized era all add up to the fact that lifelong autocracy is a hard slog. Assuming Kim Jong Un is motivated by self-interest, there’s another route he could go: Instead of being the dictator who leads his country further into the closest real life equivalent to 1984’s dystopia, he could be the father of Korean unification—or at least blaze the trail to North Korean liberalization.
It wouldn’t be easy for Kim Jong Un to take this route, given that those who benefit from North Korea’s status quo might oppose any efforts at rapprochement with the rest of the world, but you have to imagine that at least some of them can see the writing on the wall, too. And Kim Jong Un has the advantage of the all-encompassing mythos that the country’s propagandists have created around his family for decades. (Rumor has it that the country’s official textbooks maintain that Kim Jong Il neither urinated or defecated, for starters.) There’s power in that kind of narrative.
Havel's story offers useful lessons to the son about transitioning away from dictatorship. Initially, Havel didn’t have much power. He entered politics as a playwright and an intellectual, but his ability to articulate the political zeitgeist gave him enormous credibility and a role in ejecting Soviet communists from his native Czechoslovakia. If Kim Jong Un used his massive public presence to shift North Korea into friendlier relations with the rest of the world, it would be a major benefit to his legacy and his people.
There are other examples for Kim Jong Un to follow. Mikhail Gorbachev in Russia and F.W. de Klerk in South Africa both crumbled gracefully and were rewarded by history; King Juan Carlos of Spain managed his country’s transition from fascism to democracy, and today lives very nicely as a constitutional monarch. Contrast that with the experience of, say, Moammar Gaddafi.
Of course, North Korea is not Libya or Egypt, or even the former USSR, with dissidents and an active opposition. And sadly, it appears that Kim Jung Un is something of a hardliner, eager to continue his father's unworkable ideology. While we fear that North Korea’s new leader will double down on international antagonism to shore up his own position at home, there’s always an outside chance that this transition could bring real change. As Havel reminds us, sometimes it only takes one well-placed person to pull down an entire broken system.