Since the news of the death of North Korean leader Kim Jong-il made headlines across the globe
in December, worldwide experts and public officials have discussed the next move regarding the future of the country. Although the international community does not hold a crystal ball, many are hoping for the best possible outcome moving forward.
As the former supreme leader’s son, Kim Jong-un
, takes the reins, some are questioning his leadership abilities, his motivations and the people that surround one of the youngest leaders in the world.
Despite the oppressive nature of the state, the North Korean people are learning more
about technology, free markets and democracy with or without the help of the government. Information
is also coming both in and out of the country.
Upon reflection, what will the legacy of Kim Jong-il be? Looking forward, what does the future hold for North Korea? This, and many other issues, was discussed Saturday in Toronto during a panel discussion of experts at the University of Toronto Munk Centre for Global Affairs Campbell Conference Facility
Hosted by HanVoice
, Conservative Member of Parliament Barry Devolin; HanVoice's Executive Director, Randall Baran-Chong; CanKor columnist, Jack Kim and North Korean refugee Tae Ha, Executive Director of Toronto's North Korean Refugee Association, provided their own insight into these questions.
“The other day I was watching the State of the Union by American President Barack Obama and I was really paying attention to what he was saying. He touched upon the nuclear situation in Iran, and I was waiting for him to say something about North Korea and he didn’t say one word and I was wondering how come. Maybe he’s a practical president,” said Toronto City Councillor Raymond Cho in his opening address.
“This is a topic that, in terms of timing, is very crucial as we know that new generation, the dictatorship has been inherited. We know that a lot of people are dying from hunger, disease and people running away and we know they have a lot of problems, but we can’t do much here. But we should not forget what’s happening in that part of the world. Maybe it’s a ticking time bomb. I can’t believe how they could have a nuclear bomb, but there are thousands of people of dying from hunger and their physical structure is 10 cm shorter than in South Korea.”
Legacy of Kim Jong-il
Devolin, a deputy speaker in the House of Commons in Ottawa, started off the panel by stating that communities in Canada, as well as the federal government, can do what they can to help North Korean refugees who flee to this country, China, South Korea and elsewhere.
Although all the Soviet nations have fallen in the last couple of decades, Devolin is often involved in discussions where speakers compare the situation in North Korea to East Germany during the Cold War. He tends to disagree with this assessment and finds that it is not helpful.
During his last visit to the region, Devolin explained that he wanted to shout to the North Korean military officers that the ideology battle that they have been fighting and dying over has come to the end.
With recent positive revelations coming out of the Asian country, the popular Haliburton—Kawartha Lakes—Brock MP remains optimistic, but feels change will occur as a surprise and not in an instant.
“Most of my efforts have been focused principally on the refugees on a human level as opposed to a political level,” said the Canadian MP. “It’s a fascinating discussion to talk about the geopolitics of that region. It’s one of the last legacies of the Cold War and we’re still dealing with on the Korean Peninsula. Most of my time has been trying to figure out what we can do to help North Koreans who have fled the country.
The HanVoice executive director said that symbolism in Asian culture is quite important to the people. Because of this, Baran-Chong pointed out that Saturday’s panel discussion occurs one month after the funeral of Kim Jong-il
Throughout his career as the supreme leader, Kim Jong-il has been surrounded by symbolism, legend and myth. Meanwhile, his son hasn’t had the time to establish credibility similar to his father’s.
“Symbolism and legend and myth are very important to establishing the legitimacy of someone like Kim Jong-il,” explained Baran-Chong. “What this has is reverberating impacts on when his son, Kim Jong-un, takes over, he has to build his own street [credibility] in his own way and unfortunately he didn’t have that same legend he had.”
Kim Jong-il introduced a military-first policy (songun) where not just every dollar is put towards to the army, but every grain of rice. All of foreign aid that is sent as food is consumed by the military
. This is the reason why the intended recipients urge the international community to send other types of food aid that the military wouldn’t eat, such as protein biscuits. They do this because the government would never serve this type of meal to the esteemed soldiers and generals.
The world often viewed Kim Jong-il as crazy, but officials, such as former United States Secretary of State Madeline Albright, say he was intelligent. His nuclear weapons policy could be one of those brilliant ideas of his.
Although the North Korean regime has been isolated by the international community, nations across the globe pay very close attention to the internal affairs of the nation because of its weapons. If they did not have any, why would the U.S., Great Britain or Australia care?
Baran-Chong feels that Kim Jong-il will be most remembered for the thousands of refugees, the systematic suffering of the people (North Koreans are four inches shorter than the average male because of the lack of food and water and the rampant diseases) and the mass graves.
The CanKor columnist stated that the world cannot detach Kim Jong-il from North Korea (even though we would like to). As noted before, it is still premature to look at how the former leader will be remembered and what the future will look like.
During his reign, the massive famine transpired, which led to 20,000 fleeing the country. This brought forth information about what actually occurred in Pyongyang. Basically, North Korea looks like China in the middle of the 20th century.
Throughout Saturday’s event, Kim cited how important it is that there have been new methods to get information out about policies and situations.
“By leaving the country, they’re also leaving with the information they have and these information banks,” noted Kim. “They carry this treasure trove of information that informs us about what has happened in North Korea. North Korea is changing – some people comment that North Korea looks like China in the 1950s right before the Cultural Revolution and it took China 30 to 40 years to get out of that. Will it take the same for North Korea?”
Tae Ha, a North Korean refugee, said that people tend to believe there will be changes, but there hasn’t been any as of yet. He stated that a nation like Canada is run by all, but North Korea is run by different classes. He cited that there are two groups in North Korea: the Core and the Peripheral.
Unless there is a societal revolution then there will not be any changes at all because there is a struggle between the core and the peripheral.
The situation is uncertain and everyone is at a crossroads: economic liberation or the current system. North Korea must undertake reforms and have modest revisions to the societal structure. If or when this materializes, the human rights situation will improve.
Ha does not advocate an invasion from external forces or war of any kind at all because it would result in a bloodbath. He believes change must come internally, but did say Canada and Australia will play a role in solving issues facing North Korea.
What will you remember most about Kim Jong-il?
The panelists generally agreed that they’ll remember Kim Jong-il being a terrible person. The experts do want to know why he did what he did during tenure. The gentlemen did agree, though, that he inherited the government from his father and if he did not follow similar policies then he may have possibly been killed.
In the end, they concurred that history will judge Kim Jong-il.