North Korea marks the birthday of its founder Kim Il Sung, worshiped at home as a virtual deity for laying the foundation for a five-decade-old dictatorship capable of threatening superpowers such as the U.S.
For Kim Young Hwan, a one-time pro-unification activist from South Korea who once revered the Great Leader, Kim became a tyrant who betrayed the country’s socialist dream. A fugitive when he boarded a North Korea submarine in 1991 for Pyongyang, Kim found a power-obsessed despot, rather than the highly intelligent revolutionary he expected.
“There was no socialism, but only a monarchy in North Korea,” Kim said at a lecture in Seoul last week. “It still is, with all resources funneled into keeping his grandson Kim Jong Un in power.”
Kim Il Sung developed the country’s guiding ideology of “juche” or self-reliance, that led to the development of the nuclear weapons that allows North Korea to punch above its geopolitical weight. Through a series of purges, Kim built a totalitarian dynasty where those who question the family’s hegemony risk imprisonment or death.
Kim’s 30-something grandson, who took power in 2011, has followed his grandfather’s example.
Kim consolidated his grip on power with a series of purges including the execution of his uncle Jang Song Thaek, who served as a deputy to his father Kim Jong Il. On Wednesday Kim Jong Un visited a Pyongyang palace where the bodies of his father and grandfather lie in state, one day after he drew pledges of loyalty from the Workers’ Party and the 1.2-million army, the official Korean Central News Agency said.
The Kim regime has proved resilient, surviving despite the military and political pressure brought to bear by the U.S. and South Korea and the collapse of the Soviet Union, the country’s one-time economic lifeline. Kim died in 1994 at the age of 82, just as repercussions from the collapse of the Communist bloc were morphing into a famine that eventually killed an estimated 1 million people.
Kim has also made good on his grandfather’s dream of building a credible nuclear threat to deter a U.S.-South Korean invasion. Kim conducted North Korea’s third nuclear test in 2013 and has threatened to attack the U.S. with nuclear missiles and unleash a river of fire on Seoul.
U.S. Northern Command Commander Admiral William Gortney last week said he believes that North Korea could now mount a nuclear bomb on its KN-08 intercontinental ballistic missile, capable of reaching the west coast of the U.S.
North Korea fired a pair of short-range missiles two days before U.S. Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter arrived in Seoul on April 9. Carter called the launches “a reminder of how tense things are on the Korean peninsula.”
Still, it may be information rather than military force that proves to be the regime’s undoing, said Bruce Bennett, a senior defense analyst at Rand Corporation.
“In many ways I view North Korea as a time bomb,” he said by e-mail. “It hopes to control the behavior of its people with heavy propaganda and denying external information, but information from outside North Korea is increasingly getting into the North.”
The ruling family has expanded prison camps to target dissenters and rendered political institutions powerless over the decades. While Kim’s infant daughter is too young to be groomed for future leadership, he has increasingly relied on his sister Kim Yo Jong since the purge of his uncle. Kim named her a deputy director in the Workers’ Party and she has accompanied him on trips to military bases.
Kim Young Hwan, who has turned into a human rights critic of North Korea since his voyage to Pyongyang, says the Kims’ control makes a mockery of the idea of the country as a socialist paradise.
“Only in a dynasty can a man pass his power on to his son and grandson,” he said. “I once admired North Korea as the epitome of equality; I now see it is exactly the opposite.”