In 1859, at age 75, the longest-serving Marine Corps Commandant, Brig. Gen. Archibald Henderson, died in office—the last 39 of his 53 year military career spent residing in the Commandant’s quarters in Washington, D.C.
Legend has it, after so long, Henderson—forgetting the home belonged to the U.S. government—bequeathed it to his family. Obviously, lacking legal title, his bequest was not honored.
While rightful ownership of property belonging to the American people precluded Henderson from misappropriating it as a family entitlement, sadly, rightful ownership by the North Korean people has not precluded their leadership from misappropriating an entire country.
After 62 years of doing so, it appears this family entitlement is being extended to yet another generation.
“Ownership” of a country is a norm in countries ruled by royalty—with the family line of succession used to maintain continuous control. Although family succession is a much tougher sell in countries where royalty does not exist, people seem to have accepted it in Syria and may soon be faced with doing so in Egypt.
When North Korea’s only leader—Kim Il Sung—died in 1994—replaced by his son—it represented communism’s first hereditary transfer of power. This was extraordinary as familial succession in a Communist government is anathema to the way such a system functions. For decades, Communist states such as the former Soviet Union and China handled succession issues within a one-party system in which officials jockeyed for position. Thus, when the Leonid Brezhnevs and the Mao Tse Tungs finally passed away, a “leader in waiting” emerged from the leadership pack—similarly going on to serve for life. (More recently, China has placed a term limit on how long the head of state serves.)
But the system was one in which party members competed, making it difficult, if not impossible, for a DNA-linked successor. An effort by Romanian Communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu to groom his son for succession was derailed by a revolution and his execution. An effort by Cuba’s Fidel Castro to groom his brother is encountering success.
But what conditions in North Korea have given rise to a Kim family dynasty?
When World War II ended, the Korean peninsula was divided along the 38th Parallel with the Soviet Union controlling the North and U.S. the South. By 1948, when they failed to implement a joint trusteeship over Korea, North and South Korea were founded. To lead the North, the Soviets turned to Kim Il Sung—a Korean serving in the Soviet army, who had been in exile from Korea for 26 years.
As one Soviet official later wrote, Kim Il Sung essentially was “created from zero.” He was pitched as a hero who had joined the resistance against Japan as a young boy, created a battle-ready army at 19 and single-handedly drove the Japanese out.
The Soviets designed a cult personality for Kim Il Sung, which he nurtured, for nearly a half century. By 1949, President Kim Il Sung—firmly entrenched as the Communist dictator, using the moniker “Great Leader,” began building statues of himself to cultivate this image. To his people, he became a deity. Four years after his death in 1994, the constitution would retire the title of president, designating him as “Eternal Leader.”
In 1980, Kim Il Sung determined the time was right to groom his people for a successor. The selection of his son was probably motivated more out of a belief in obtaining “blood insurance” against a coup rather than out of love. Regardless, the son—Kim Jong Il—began receiving an array of official titles marking his rise in power.
Normally, rumblings could be expected among the hierarchy of the Worker’s Party of North Korea (WPNK). But, unlike other Communist systems where the military was subservient to the Party, Kim Il Sung put the army and the WPNK on equal footing. WPNK members found this intimidating and, therefore, came to accept—albeit unenthusiastically—the son’s position as “Crown Prince.”
Another condition making North Korea ideal for a hereditary power transfer is the complete isolation of the country from the rest of the world—giving rise to its title as the “Hermit Kingdom.” Such isolation has made North Korea the equivalent of a laboratory experiment in mind control of its citizens who have virtually no exposure to the outside. They are led to believe what they have is preferable to what others have.
Like the father, a similar cult persona was created for the son. While the North Korean state news media dubbed him “Fearless Leader,” perhaps sensing too much grandeur, the father approved the title “Dear Leader.”
After succeeding his father in 1994, the succession issue for Kim Jong Il was not addressed until 2008 when he began experiencing health problems. Favoring the youngest of his three sons, Kim Jong Il selected Kim Jong Un, 28, to next lay claim to North Korea as the familial domain.
Kim Jong Un’s coronation as leader-in-waiting seems imminent for three reasons. First, Kim Il Song used the same process 30 years ago as a “coming out” party for his son. It is anticipated, therefore, Kim Jong Il will do the same—which is why party delegates are now in Pyongyang. Second, similar to what was done for Kim Jong Il who lacked any military experience prior to taking the reigns of power, Kim Jong Un was just awarded a senior army rank. Third, as both father and son were given monikers around which their cult personas were developed, so too has Kim Jong Un—now deemed “Brilliant Comrade.”
The measure of a society’s prosperity is reflected by the generational increase in the average citizen’s height and weight. Under the Kim family’s leadership, the trend has been a downward spiral. Sadly, things will not improve under a new Communist king.