At Kim Jong-Il's death in North Korea, some commentators now see an "opportunity to advance freedom and American interests. Writing on the site The Future of Capitalism, Ira Stoll criticized the Obama administration on the grounds that it is "simply calling for a preservation of the status quo" for the sake of "stability and calm."
The reality is that without resorting to military force, actually little will change in North Korea that might allow a significant opening to undermine the government there.
Many pundits were disturbed by a video from the capital of Pyongyang, depicting mass outpourings of grief on the part of North Koreans for their deceased ruler; many wondered if the whole spectacle might be staged. Similar questions were raised over photos of North Koreans collapsing to their knees in mourning.
Although the Soviet dissident, Natan Sharansky, writes of his mother instructing his family to appear publicly devastated over the death of Josef Stalin even though everyone was privately rejoicing , it seems unlikely that the regime had to stage any displays of distraught emotion over of the loss of the Supreme Leader. If one considers how North Korea has been able to achieve a degree of isolation the way Stalin's Russia or Saddam Hussein's Iraq never could, genuine sadness and lamentation seem completely understandable.
North Korea never witnessed any hint of an uprising, even during the terrible famine of the 1990s and the transition after the death of the "Eternal President" Kim Il-Sung in 1994. North Korea emerged from an environment of devastation after an aggressive war it waged in an attempt to conquer the entire Korean Peninsula (1950-1953, technically still ongoing as the armistice agreement was never signed), but even before the Korean War, the peninsula had been subjected to a brutal Japanese occupation that lasted 35 years (1910-1945).
The isolation and autocratic policies promoted by the North Korean regime ensured that the overwhelming majority of the population knows of no better quality of life, whether in North Korea itself or in the outside world. Why, then, should anyone be surprised that there is so much adulation among the North Korean masses for the Kim dynasty if that is all they have ever known?
By contrast, Iraqis, since the end of the Second World War, generally saw their standard of living increase despite discrimination against the Shi'a and Kurds, and despite the political instability that followed the overthrow of the monarchy in 1958. one considers how North Korea has been able to achieve a degree of isolation the way Saddam's Iraq never could.
After a spike in oil prices in the 1970s, improvement in the quality of life accelerated even further; Iraqis were therefore able to realize how Saddam Hussein, after his accession to power in 1979, had ruined the country -- both economically, where the impact is still felt today in the excessive Iraqi bureaucracy, and in terms of civil liberties -- by waging two futile wars of aggression and implementing a Stalinist program.
Hatred of Saddam -- a sentiment prevalent among the Iraqi population in general-- should not, however, automatically be equated with support for the Baathist regime system that had been in place since 1968 -- a mistaken view of circumstances that underlay the US post-war policy in Iraq: the US military assumed that all members of the upper echelons of the Baath Party and the ranks of the army were unrepentant supporters of Saddam and therefore had to be dismissed from employment.
As in George Orwell's novel "Nineteen-Eighty Four," the Party can be sure that the masses will not rise up: they do not know any better. Although dissidents exist in both Orwell's world and North Korea, it seems as though their heretical ideas have any significant degree of appeal to the populations at large.
Some analysts have speculated that elements of the North Korean elite might be disgruntled with Kim Jong-Il's successor Kim Jong-Un, who, at the age of 28, has reportedly spent much time studying abroad, and has therefore had even less opportunity to be cultivated as his father's heir than Kim Il-Sung provided for Kim Jong-Il. This argument, however, disregards how the elite functions in isolated, totalitarian states.
As Orwell observed, such an elite is acutely aware of the squalid reality behind the nation it governs, but at the same time advocates and parrots the state ideology: the elites likely fear that any attempt by the upper ranks of the military or the regime to undermine Kim Jong-Un would spell disaster for their own positions of power; they would either be purged as traitors or as being merely the façade of the Juche -- the name given to the official state ideology in North Korea – or the ideology of Juche would be exposed, turning the population against the regime as a whole. Juche means "self-reliance": in theory, it should mean economic self-reliance -- without foreign aid – and with a strong military to protect the country from foreign powers. In practice, though, North Korea receives heavy economic assistance from China, for example, and is one of the largest recipients of international food aid; yet the regime has been able to inculcate the idea among the populace that food sent in from the outside world is actually tribute to the greatness of the Kim dynasty and the North Korean government.
The real tragedy is that the death of Kim JongS-Il, a pleasing event in its own right, is unlikely to bring about any real improvement in the lives of the North Koreans. Observers such as Robert Willoughby, who think there is now a window for attaining "peace with North Korea," are indulging in a fantasy: Kim Jong-Un and the military that surrounds him cannot betray his father's and grandfather's legacy. North Korea may well drift on just the way it is for quite some time.
If there is any hope, it lies in keeping up the U.S. policy (since 2009- rather surprisingly) of suspending food aid to the regime, which is highly dependent on China for support, rather than re-initiating food aid as an incentive for talks on the country's nuclear program that have never produced results.
If China is made to continue facing on its own the burden of supporting the North Korean regime, China might come to feel in the long run that providing aid to North Korea is no longer worthwhile. An end to Chinese aid could in turn trigger a complete societal collapse in North Korea and an end to the regime there. Such a scenario might seem terrible, but the bottom line is that there are no ideal options when it comes to dealing with the problem of North Korea.
Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi is a student at Brasenose College, Oxford University, and an intern at the Middle East Forum.