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North Korea: once and future Kim

The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea certainly isn’t democratic. It doesn’t give a hang about the wellbeing of the bulk of its people, and it is a hereditary monarchy in all but name. Still, it is on the Korean peninsula, and by the standards of accuracy that prevail in the state media, one out of four ain’t bad.

The country is in the headlines today following the death of the Dear Leader Kim Jong-il. Scenes of grief in Pyongyang may not reflect the real mood of the country; the privilege of living in the capital is restricted to the so-called ‘core class’ who have demonstrated their loyalty to the regime, and enjoy comfortable jobs and access to western luxuries in return.

During the famine of 1995-97, in which a million people died, residents of Pyongyang stayed fed. The mourners on the television screens are not so much singing for their supper as crying for it.

Even experts on the North Korea are not entirely sure what happens next. In theory, the handover has been stitched up in advance for Kim Jong-un, known until recently as ‘the brilliant comrade’ and since last Saturday rebranded ‘the great successor’.

Some commentators suggest elements within the extended Kim family and the armed forces are unhappy with this arrangement. Yet the extent of any such opposition – or what its demands might be, should it happen to exist – is impossible to judge.

Nor are there any signs of independent working class political or trade union organisation from which the socialist left could draw hope. That leaves only inchoate social explosion as the last best hope, and an outside shot, at that.

On any salient yardstick, North Korea must rank among the worst places on the planet in which to live. Standards of living are woeful for the vast majority; half of all children are stunted or underweight, while two-thirds of young adults are anaemic or undernourished. Basic human rights are non-existence, and even minor displays of dissent are punishable by internal exile, prison camp or even execution.

The Pyongyang dictatorship instantiates nothing of progressive content. While the property relations on which it rests are not capitalist, they are clearly not superior to capitalism in any meaningful sense.

Nor are they even a viable starting point for economic progress. All they have delivered is extended periods of mass starvation, which represents the reductio ad absurdum of any argument in support of economic planning.

The inescapable conclusion has to be that the collapse of the regime and its absorption by the South would in every respect be a tremendous step forwards for all concerned.

(Video contains footage taken from North Korean state media. Hat-tip: Andy Newman)

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