Hollywood portrays evil rulers as foreboding characters, often clad in black and looming over underlings. Yet, the pot-bellied, 5-foot-3 and bespectacled Kim Jong Il proved that murderous tyrants can come in various shapes and sizes.
Kim, who died Saturday, was either in his late 60s or early 70s; reports on his age varied. He ruled North Korea for 17 years, succeeding his father Kim Il Sung. It was Kim Il Sung, a Stalinist, who founded North Korea in 1948 and ruled it until his death in 1994.
Both father and son billed themselves as demigods nobly and fearlessly resisting North Korea’s greatest threat — the United States. Their efforts to delude North Koreans are legendary.
With a backwards economy, repressive lack of freedom for its citizens and bouts of mass starvation among its people, North Korea is among the bleakest spots on the globe. Instead of owning up to their responsibilities for destroying the nation, both father and son never missed an opportunity to pin blame on the U.S. wolves at the door. To Western eyes and ears, the North Korea characterizations of Americans as bloodthirsty and sadistic tyrants are almost laughable. Yet, for a nation kept in the dark for more than 60 years, such propaganda is enough to keep North Koreans in constant fear.
The more real threat comes from North Korea and its nuclear weapons capability. Little is known about Kim Jong Un, Kim Jong Il’s son and supposed successor. This along with the possibility of an internal struggle for power and a need for a paranoid state to assert itself means control of North Korea’s nuclear weapons has never been more important. For that matter, neither has the security of the border that separates North Korea from South Korea, the one guarded by U.S. soldiers.
One can wish for Kim’s death to produce Asia’s equivalent of an Arab Spring, an awakening of a North Korea that will shrug off its yoke of oppression. That may be too much to wish for in the short term. Our hope is for that day to come sooner rather than later.