King Jong-un

Talking about North Korea with a friend the other day I referred to the country as a monarchy, and my friend looked distinctly puzzled, as if I was misinformed, as if the DPRK was some kind of democratic republic.

It’s funny how some issues of straight political substance are misrepresented as being about word definitions, and sometimes vice versa.

Whether the benefits of marriage should be accorded to same-sex couples seems to me to be a substantive political issue—a civil rights issue—and not (as I argued in a recent post here) about the definition of the term marriage. But we are looking at the opposite case when a purely linguistic matter — about whether a certain dictionary definition fits — is wrongly treated as having political substance.

What could make anyone think that North Korea is not a monarchy? It looks to me like one of the cruelest and most corrupt monarchies in human history.

King: You can look it up. A king is a male absolute ruler of an independent country or territory who, in the clearest cases, rules for life and bequeaths his role to a member of his family, typically a son or daughter.

Kim Il-sung begat Kim Jong-il, and Kim Jong-il begat Kim Jong-un. With each generational transition, an absolute ruler with access to arbitrary power, privilege, and wealth transmitted all of these, along with his status as head of state, to a favored scion who took over upon his death.

The Kims rule not merely as kings but almost as soi-disant gods. The founder of the royal dynasty, Kim Il-sung, was named “eternal president” on his death, as if he could continue to preside from his tomb in the huge Kumsusan Palace of the Sun in Pyongyang. His earthly powers and wealth were transferred to his son Kim Jong-il, who despite his death continues as eternal secretary general of the Workers’ Party and eternal chairman of the National Defense Commission.

The wealth of the royal family of this desperately poor kingdom is fantastic; Kim Jong-il is said to have stashed an exile insurance fund of $4-billion in foreign bank accounts, and presumably the callow new king has the login names and passwords for the accounts.

Commoners in the kingdom are not even free to express their views, on pain of being locked up without trial in huge prison camps that might as well be dungeons. To find out what goes on in the country, journalists sometimes smuggle themselves in disguised as academics.

How many generations of princelings assuming the throne held by their father will it take to convince people that they are looking at the affairs of a royal dynasty? The phrase “hermit kingdom” is occasionally used of North Korea, and I am suggesting that we take the latter part of that phrase literally.

It is true that the Kim dynasty originally assumed its power only through the intervention of the Soviet Union. In February 1946, Kim Il-sung was just the head of the Provisional People’s Committee for North Korea. But that is merely how he gained power. He and his successors rule as kings while dishonestly purporting to be popularly chosen leaders of a communist people’s republic. But the claims of North Korea to be a people’s republic have grown harder and harder to believe over the decades. No one could believe them today.

In fact the latest version of the country’s constitution never even mentions communism. Why should it? No sense in pretending. When you’re a king you don’t need to pretend.

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