The recent death of the brutal North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il is welcome news. Kim was a murderer and cruel oppressor who inhabited a bizarre alternate universe — sipping on expensive cognac, taking in deleted scenes from Caddyshack while simultaneously banning even the simplest of pleasures for his own people, imposing unimaginable misery upon them.
Because of his grip on power, Kim’s death does not herald an end to the decades of misery that has been continually inflicted upon the long-suffering North Korean people. Nor will it diminish the continued nuclear threat that the regime poses to the United States and our allies in the region. This is because, before his death, Kim began the process of imposing his successor on the country.
Press reports indicate that the late dictator’s son Kim Jong Un is now poised to assume his father’s role as head of the North Korean state. Yet, his youth and inexperience could present a
challenge to a “peaceful” leadership transition, and the international community is girding for Kim-style acts of belligerence from whatever regime eventually emerges in Pyongyang.
The United States needs better intelligence to deal with these possibilities. We also need to avoid mistakes made by past administrations in similar circumstances. In 1994, for instance, the Clinton administration confronted a similar leadership transition when Kim Jong Il took over from his father, North Korean founder Kim Il Sung. Instead of exploiting the uncertainty created by that transition, the administration instead provided food and energy assistance to the regime, effectively enabling Kim Jong Il to consolidate his power and thereby continue his father’s cruel oppression unabated. The Obama administration has repeatedly stated that it will not make the same mistakes; it now must abide by its own words and resist the reflexive impulse to offer aid as a basis for negotiations with the terrorist regime in Pyongyang.
It should not be lost on anyone that the official North Korean news broadcast of the death of their tyrannical leader occurred within hours of the announced passing of one of the world’s pre-eminent champions of freedom, Vaclav Havel. A human rights campaigner, democracy advocate, political prisoner, and former president of the Czech Republic, Havel dedicated the greater part of his life to exposing the hollowness of the communist systems that use lies and imprisonment to consolidate their authoritarian rule. As he once said, “Without free, self-respecting, and autonomous citizens, there can be no free and independent nations. Without internal peace, that is, peace among citizens and between the citizens and the state, there can be no guarantee of external peace.”
The “hermit kingdom” of North Korea is a prime representation of the very authoritarian absurdity that Havel devoted his life to ending, in which a totalitarian regime, bereft of ideas, sustains itself by instilling fear among the very people it claims to protect.
The United States must continue to stand as a beacon of freedom for the oppressed people of North Korea. Perhaps, one day, a North Korean Vaclav Havel will emerge. Barring such a miracle, the United States must reaffirm its alliance commitments to Japan and South Korea and stand with the North Korean people by refusing to enable the continuation of the Kim regime.
Kim Jong-Il is dead. But the immense suffering and threats to world peace continue — we must do all we can to hasten an end to both.