I was nine years old at the time. We were in school one morning when our teacher was called away. This was a very unusual occurrence. We sat quietly waiting, and when teacher returned, she was crying and shaking uncontrollably. All of us were worried and confused – teacher had never acted this way before. In fact we had never seen any emotion from her at all. “What has happened, teacher?”, someone called out. Sobbing, she replied – “Children, Great Teacher has died!”
It was as if you pushed a button in the room. Instantaneously all of us burst into tears, with many of us wailing “What is going to happen to us? Who is going to take care of us? How will we live?” It never occurred to any of us that our parents or some responsible adult would take care of us. From the moment we were aware of the outer world, we understood that all that was good, beautiful and intelligent in the world came from Great Teacher.
I heard this story about ten years ago from a middle-level government manager in Albania. He was referring to the death in 1985 of Enver Hoxha, the Great Teacher, the Supreme Comrade, the head of the Communist Party of Albania. I was fortunate to be in Albania conducting training programs for government officials learning about the functions of the global financial markets. Enver Hoxha had been dead for fifteen years, but his presence was deeply felt by anyone over age 25, like my friend. His generation was now beginning to move into middle management positions, in an economy still dominated by state-owned institutions. The level of management above him was populated in part by men who were so damaged by the Hoxha regime that they were virtually dysfunctional. There were few other people from that lost generation that were able to replace them and perform any better.
The Collective is All
Hoxha (pronounced HO-sha) was a great admirer of Josef Stalin, and patterned his regime on Stalin’s totalitarian practices. Hoxha did not immediately institute a cult of personality upon taking power after the end of World War II, but he did immediately murder all perceived “enemies of the state” – which meant anyone opposed to his rule or that of the Communist Party. As with the Soviet Union, private property rights were eliminated, a state security apparatus sprung up which had license to intimidate, torture or murder anyone not in agreement with the collectivist state, and the government seized complete control of public information.
To make such a totalitarian system work, the government must isolate society from all outside influences. This was relatively easy in a small, poor country like Albania. The borders were strictly sealed, foreign travel was limited to all but the highest government officials, industrial and agricultural resources were rationed, and public education consisted almost entirely of indoctrination. Independent thinking was not only discouraged, it was not tolerated. Those who could not comply with this policy were assigned to life imprisonment in one of the many labor camps which dotted Albania.
Throughout the post-war period, Albania stagnated economically. Very little information about the country escaped to the West; even its communist neighbors like Yugoslavia were labeled anathema for their dalliances with the West. Eventually Hoxha’s relations with the Soviet Union collapsed after the death of Stalin. Briefly Hoxha flirted with China, but he found the Chinese were incapable of providing the quality of industrial development that had been previously supplied by the Soviet Union. In the last decade of Hoxha’s life, Albania was utterly isolated from the world.
The psychological condition of the Albanians following Hoxha’s death made for some interesting studies of the effects of life under a totalitarian dictatorship. The utterly complete indoctrination of the people in the magnificence of the Great Teacher, and the advanced state of the Albanian economy and political system in comparison to other countries, left the population stunned when reality began to seep in during the 1990s, especially as more people were able to afford television and tune in to Italian and Germany programming with the help of satellite dishes.
Albania was decidedly different from the two other case studies of totalitarian dictatorship – those of Stalin’s Russia and Mao’s China. In both of these other cases, the population had several decades to adjust to life under communist dictatorship without the all-embracing cult of the leader that had been built around Stalin and Mao. Russians in the 1970s and 1980s, for example, publicly mouthed all the platitudes that they read or heard from state media. In private, however, they had grown disillusioned with their government and cynical about anything the government declared. Within a little more than a decade after the death of Mao Tse-tung, the Chinese government had actively embraced the global markets with a determination to conquer them, which meant that tight government control over information and the economy would no longer be acceptable.
The Albanians were given no such opportunity. At the time of Hoxha’s death, Poland was already breaking away from Soviet control, following the path established by Yugoslavia and Rumania. Within six years, the Soviet Union would cease to exist. Communist governments had no reason to maintain power in Eastern Europe, and Hoxha had not prepared for any successor to take his place. Albanians were now free to embrace the West, and when they did they faced one of the great cultural shocks of the 20th century.
Most astounding to them was the difference between how they lived and how their leaders lived. A wooded part of Tirana had been off-limits to the Albanian population under the Communist regime, and within this enclave Hoxha had his private residence. To my Western eyes, it didn’t look like much: a ranch house with a modest amount of grounds, and a swimming pool in the front yard that quickly attracted stagnant water once the Great Teacher died. Nonetheless, once residents of Tirana saw this residence, and word got around the country about the unimaginable splendor of Enver Hoxha’s mansion, the cult of the leader unraveled quickly.
The Albanians then embraced wild-west capitalism with a vengeance. All sorts of schemes proliferated that would make one money, and the one that took the nation’s fancy was a pure Ponzi scheme that drew in money and paid out fabulous returns to the early investors. It all came crashing down, destroying the savings of millions of gullible Albanians. Since then, the country has become one of the crime centers of Europe. The word “Albanian” has sadly become synonymous with fraud and theft to many Europeans. Albanians, for example, own more Mercedes-Benz cars per capita than any country in Europe, almost all of them stolen from the autobahns and autostradas of Europe. The government itself is relatively free of corruption, but the daily battles against crime in the private sector take up much of its time, leaving the country once again to stagnate economically.
The North Korean Difference
North Korea espouses the same Stalinist political philosophy that marked the Hoxha reign. The country is virtually entirely closed off not just to the West, but to its Asian neighbors as well. China’s political leaders complain that they are allowed to know little of what goes on in North Korea, other than the fact that people are desperate to leave, and China does not want them. China returns any defectors it catches crossing its tightly-monitored border with North Korea; these defectors are almost certainly put to death.
There is very little difference between the Great Teacher and North Korea’s Dear Leader. TKim Jong-il's portrait is ubiquitous throughout the country. His sayings and teachings form the basis of the educational system and are the foundation of public radio and television broadcasts. He is the font of all beneficence for his people. Kim Jong-il is an expert on agriculture, on military tactics, on education, on industrial development, and any other facet of life that matters to a North Korean. He defends the citizens from the depredations of evil foreigners, such as the capitalists of the United States, a country which "still enslaves its Negroes". Within the military structure and the political leadership of the country, it can cost you your life if you even mouth a negative thought about the Dear Leader.
Everything an individual does is to be seen in the overarching context of the North Korean society. Individual actions must benefit the nation, the people, the leadership, and the local community. Poor performance is not allowed, particularly in the presence of the Dear Leader. North Korea is famous, if that is the word, for its precision gymnastics and its goose-stepping soldiers, not one of whom would be caught “dead” making an error in a public performance. Dead is the operative word here, because that is said to be the consequence for a soldier who faints during parade. Whether such a punishment is ever really imposed, certainly the failure will warrant a destroyed career for the miscreant.
Defectors who come from the security services have identified through satellite photos the nature of the many concentration camps that exist in North Korea. Several of them are for relatives of defectors, of soldiers who make a mistake, of television announcers who mispronounce a word, of industrialists who fail to fulfill their economic plan. The regime doesn’t just round up their parents and children and send them off to these camps for punishment. Entire families are destroyed for the mistakes of one person – brothers, sisters, uncles, aunts, grandparents, and cousins all find themselves without notice sent to work in a mine or factory for the rest of their lives.
How many of these unfortunates die every year is unknown, but the number is not inconsiderable, just as it is of no concern to the North Korean government. Government in North Korea does not exist to serve the people; the people exist to serve the government. After all, the government is the embodiment of the nation, just as the Dear Leader is representative of all that is good in the government. People must therefore sublimate their individualistic impulses to the good of the nation, as expressed in the wishes of its government.
All of this is soul-destroyingly familiar to the Albanians and anyone else who has lived under such a perverse social and political system. North Korea, however, is different. It is the first totalitarian system to pass its cult of the leader on to a successor. Stalin, Mao, Hoxha – they all died without an appointed successor. Kim Il-sung, however, had anointed his son Kim Jong-il as his successor. Somehow, the son was able to adopt the mantle of Dear Leader, though interestingly, he was more frequently known in the country as “the General.” This was a rather insightful title, because Kim Jong-il owed his power to the military, and as long as they recognized him as the supreme commander, his position was secure.
More precisely, Kim Jong-il had to prove himself early on to be willing to murder anyone who opposed his rule, and he had to ensure that there were loyalists in the security and military apparatus willing to murder his enemies on his order. This is the paramount requirement for ultimate leadership in North Korea - all else is secondary, including individual capacity to lead, intelligence, diplomatic skills, and any other attribute of a modern political leader.
There was one other possibility for success for Kim Jong-il in the event he lacked the Machiavellian talents for murder, and that was the possibility that the military might find it convenient to tolerate a Dear Leader if that leader ultimately furthered the interest of the military. Quite conceivably, this is how Kim Jong-il survived long enough to enjoy a natural death. If, as is obvious, the people exist to serve the state, then the state exists to serve the military. There is no other social or industrial sector of North Korean society that benefits from the regime. If everything is geared towards military dominance in society, then a Great Leader who is a playboy, as was the case with Kim Jong-il, is ultimately subservient to the military, and a figurehead who becomes an excuse to enlist the people in a concentrated, never-ending effort to foster military dominance.
We really don’t know which situation best describes Kim Jong-il’s rule: the homicidal tyrant, or the figurehead lackey of the military establishment. We also know far, far less of his son, Kim Jong-un. He is in his twenties, and has already been appointed to several senior party and military posts. There are few pictures of him. Rumor has it that his elder brother was initially supposed to inherit power but lost his opportunity because of too many petulant requests to visit Disneyland Tokyo. This sounds laughable, until we remember that Khrushchev threw a vigorous protest at the refusal of the US government to let him visit Disneyland on his first and only visit to America. There is apparently something fascinating about these fantasy parks to dictators, as if they embody the ideal social structure where everything works perfectly, everyone is happy, and all is plentiful.
On the theory that the Dear Leader is subservient to the military, it wouldn’t matter which of the sons is to inherit the responsibility of “leadership.” Kim Jong-un is already being described in the North Korean press as a “son of heaven.” This is a term only his father was allowed to use. Now it signifies that there are three celestial Kims serving the interests of the people of North Korea. The grandfather – Kim Il-sung, was already being ascribed shortly after his death as having magical powers. His son has now joined him in the Magic Kingdom – or perhaps we should say magical kingdom without the Disney connotations. The grandson, to be worthy of leadership, has to be equally anointed by heaven to rule. In this respect, the regime is already perpetuating the cult of the leader. A third billboard picture will go up around the country almost immediately, and the people will soon be introduced to the saving grace of a new Dear Leader.
This is how North Korea differs from all previous totalitarian regimes run by a cultish leader. Leadership in North Korea has now turned into a monarchical farce, with supreme power vested in creatures of privilege, albeit a privileged existence exercised in private, and entirely dependent on the support of the military leadership.
Don’t Wait For North Korea to Turn Capitalist
The hope in the West is that Kim Jong-un will open up North Korea to the West, by embracing market capitalism, engaging the economy in competition with other markets, and improving the information available to the people. The reason this is unlikely to happen is that it serves no interest for the military and no interest for the Kim dynasty. Both parties have already shown themselves to be impervious to concerns over the living standards of the North Korean people. The mass starvation that has afflicted North Koreans on and off the past 70 years is accepted by the leadership as a petty nuisance on the road to socialist nirvana. Mass starvation of the people they are responsible for seems to be a hallmark of totalitarian dictators. Hoxha had his incidences of large-scale famine in the country; defectors to the West report enormous suffering in the North Korean population from hunger; Stalin destroyed the kulaks and ushered in a terrible era of starvation for the entire nation; Mao was said to sit quietly by while 20 million Chinese starved to death as a result of the Great Leap Forward.
Leadership that is willing to let huge numbers of their own people die from lack of food is already testifying to the fact that the survival of the Dear Leader, of the party, and of the military they serve, is paramount over any other consideration.
If this is so, why aren’t the North Koreans taking to the streets at this time of transition, forcing the government to institute reforms? Why instead are we seeing hundreds of North Koreans pounding their heads on the pavement in sorrow over the death of the Dear Leader? While some of these people may be play-acting for survival purposes, the overwhelming number of them, judging from my experiences in Albania, are truly in grief. They have no reason to doubt all they have been told about the Dear Leader’s wisdom, guidance, and strength. They have every reason to be fearful of the future.
It is not for us in the West to look condescendingly at the North Koreans who are keening with despair at the death of the Dear Leader. There isn’t a one of us who would not respond exactly the same way if raised in identical conditions. The human spirit is not entirely indomitable; most people under intense social and political pressure buckle under and concentrate on survival. Even then, many fall by the wayside. The North Korean labor camp guards who have managed to defect to the West report that their training emphasized above all that the inmates in these camps were animals, unworthy of human consideration. This applied to every aunt, uncle, cousin, and distant relative of every unfortunate North Korean caught making a mistake that embarrassed or challenged the government or the Dear Leader.
Where have we heard this before? Josef Mengele used to tell his subordinates who sometimes asked about the morality of what was happening in Auschwitz not to get “sentimental”. The outcome for almost everyone who entered the “selection process” at Auschwitz-Birkenau was death. Out of the millions who were condemned to this death camp, how many survived to see the end of the war? A few hundred?
North Korea is a concentration camp writ large. It is tolerated by the outer world because the government does not routinely, and with industrial precision, send its people to gas chambers. But the government uses murder routinely as a tool of enforcement, and terror, backed up by the fear of death, as the means to ensure compliance from a citizenry that has no rights and only obligations of servitude to the state.
There will be many in the West who apply the hackneyed paradigm of liberalism vs. conservatism, of left vs. right, to interpret what is happening in North Korea. “See!”, FOX News will say, “See where liberalism and the left are leading us.” North Korea certainly cloaks itself in the mantle of socialism and communism, and the government probably views itself still as in the vanguard of liberal political regimes.
It is time for all of us to throw away this useless left-right distinction. It is time for us to stare totalitarianism in the face and see it for what it is. The political divide that is common in many countries does not exist on a spectrum composed of a straight line leading from left to right. The reality is that political beliefs exist on a circle, just as human life proceeds along a circle wherein the elderly inevitably find themselves as helpless as a baby when it is time for them to depart this earth. Along this political circle of life, totalitarianism is an especially evil way station where right meets left, and these petty political distinctions dissolve.
Our government leaders tell us that they hope North Korea under new leadership will now open up to the West and liberate their people in the process. But which of these government leaders will be seriously inconvenienced if North Korea continues along its path of repression and isolation? This is a country with access to nuclear technology, after all, and possibly in possession of nuclear weapons. No one wants to stir up such an unpredictable, if not psychotic, foe. North Korea will continue then on its path of extorting food and energy from the West, and from China, while it offers empty promises of shutting down its nuclear energy program.
Our government leaders will continue to preach about the superiority of liberal democracy, but many of them, though they will never admit this even to themselves, are borrowing North Korean government tactics brick by brick. We see this in the incessant pandering to the military, and the unquestioned allocation of enormous resources to military development. We see this military capacity now being given freely to local police and constabulary forces, which have been converted into paramilitary apparatuses and used to suppress freedom of expression for the citizens they are supposed to be protecting.
We see this in the concentration of information and access to information in the hands of the government, or in the hands of a select few corporations that serve the interests of the government. Corporate power and corporate wealth have been allowed to grow to such an extent that large multinationals are a form of government unto themselves, working hand in glove with the political leaders they finance to advance the interests of oligarchs who help feed the maw of military expansion and the advance of the police state.
Just this past week over 200 years of devotion in the United States to the right of a fair trial was thrown out the window, by a majority of Republican and Democratic Congressmen, with the connivance of a Democratic president. Neither party cares anymore if American citizens are detained indefinitely without charges being filed, without access to an attorney, and without any trial. This weakening of constitutional rights is done in the name of the perpetual fight against terrorism, but increasingly the public sees that as an excuse for the state to grab further totalitarian powers. The public is helpless in stopping any of this.
In North Korea, as was true in Enver Hoxha’s Albania, the operative policy for proper behavior is “self reliance”. We are assured by the government in Pyongyang that Kim Jong-un will continue with his father’s policy of self reliance. Self reliance in a totalitarian state means that after the individual fulfills all of their obligations to the state, they are on their own in finding food to eat when it is scarce, in providing warmth for their family when the electricity runs out, in seeking out a useless herbal nostrum when someone in the family develops cancer.
Have you been paying attention to the Republican Party candidates for president, and to the crowds that attend the debates, cheering on every time a candidate urges the Occupy Wall Street protestors to “get a job!” Have you noticed how much the Republican Party has embraced the North Korean concept of self reliance? This is a political party that is hoping to overturn Obama’s health care plan, in favor of allowing the country to continue on its path of destruction, wherein no one but the privileged few and wealthy have access to medical care. This is a political party that refuses to recognize that millions of Americans highly qualified for work can no longer find employment to match their qualifications. Instead, Republicans prefer to characterize the unemployed as lazy. There is certainly no room for sentimentality in the modern Republican Party; Josef Mengele would be proud.
The urge to authoritarian measures – the allure of totalitarianism – is so strong within the Republican Party that a candidate like Newt Gingrich can openly declare his desire to eliminate altogether judicial courts which obstruct the “people’s will”, and to allow the police or military to arrest and indefinitely detain judges whom he as president does not like. How is this any different from the judicial systems of North Korea and Albania, where show trials are common for political dissidents, and where people disappear forever into concentration camps like Gitmo?
Look all about you. In nation after nation, power is being concentrated in the hands of the few, and liberties for the many are being circumscribed. Vladimir Putin pretends to retire from power and hand control over to his lackey Dmitry Medvedev. Then, when the time comes for Putin to run again for the presidency, he loses the election and has to stuff the ballot boxes in order to obtain power. Russian youth come out onto the streets in protest, but are beaten back by the police. Just when all looks lost, a candidate emerges to challenge Putin at the next election. But all is lost – the candidate is yet another Russian billionaire oligarch.
How many billionaire oligarchs does the world need in high political office? Michael Bloomberg was legally prescribed by city law from running for more than two terms, but here he is on his third term as mayor of New York City – just the sort of man needed to beat back the Occupy Wall Street protestors. The Italians finally get rid of billionaire oligarch Silvio Berlusconi, and who replaces him? A banker. If Newt Gingrich doesn’t win nomination for president of the Republican Party, that leaves hedge fund multimillionaire Mitt Romney as the likely candidate.
Is this the best leadership the world can offer? Or is this the right sort of leadership for a world gravitating inevitably toward authoritarian, if not totalitarian, government. We can look at length at the causes of this retrograde political movement. It is becoming harder and harder for governments to deliver security, comfort, and opportunity to their citizens, and the disorder that results is thus met with police state tactics. Perhaps overpopulation plays a role, along with the rapid depletion of the earth’s natural resources – especially energy and water. We also appear to be on the cusp of a massive collapse of capitalism as an economic system capable of providing the security, comfort and opportunity that people in liberal democracies are used to enjoying. All of this and more suggests the ongoing destruction of liberal democracy, in favor of authoritarianism and political neo-feudalism where oligarchs play the role of warlords.
This is why it is a mistake to dismiss the North Korean experience as an anomaly – a throwback to 20th century failures in totalitarianism. The death of Kim Jong-il, and the installation of his son as his heir in an unchanging system that relies on death and terror to force the population to serve the select few, is a warning. The North Korean political system has gone well beyond the stage of experimentation; it is now entrenched, and other governments are adopting its tactics as a means of maintaining power. Even if Kim Jong-un is overthrown, he will be replaced by some other Dear Leader, and the military regime will carry on, just as the military regime in Egypt has undermined and co-opted the Arab Spring in order to retain power.
None of us is very far from the receiving end of Mao Tse-tung’s pithy observation that power comes from the barrel of a gun. Power is increasingly being concentrated in the hands of governments unafraid to use guns to sustain their control. Let us not look with disinterest at the death of Kim Jong-il. Let us instead, like the North Koreans, look with fear at the future.