The twisted rule of North Korea’s Kim Jong-il, a monster who built an enormous military, and a nuclear weapons program, while his people suffered in famine and in chains, is over. There may be some optimism that his western-educated son, Kim Jong-un, the apparent heir to the hereditary communist lock-up, will herald a new dawn. Anything is possible, but the idea that ruling clans can transform themselves from dictators into democrats on the basis of a brush with western culture or education is a faulty conceit.
After he assumes leadership, Kim Jong-un will be the third in a dynasty founded by his grandfather, Kim Il-Sung, known as “Great Leader”. It’s true that Kim Jong-il had fewer advantages than his own son. His education abroad consisted of some indoctrination in China. By contrast, Kim Jong-un received middle and secondary education in Switzerland, including the International School of Berne. But did he master the niceties of Switzerland’s system of federal, cantonal democracy while there? It’s as likely he learned to yodel.
Other recent examples of dynastic succession do not bode well for North Korea. When Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad succeeded his father, Hafez al-Assad, after his 29-year-rule, there were hopes, long since disappointed, that the British-trained ophthalmologist would be a reformer and a democrat. Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, son of Libyan tyrant Muammar Gaddafi, studied in Vienna and later at the London School of Economics. He was seen by many to be a liberal who within the government had advocated democratic change. There were even some who thought he would abandon his father’s faltering regime, and join the opposition. Instead, four days after the revolution began, he went on television and vowed to crush the rebellion using extreme violence.
Even if Kim Jong-un did absorb western culture in Switzerland, what does it mean? His father was a film buff whose personal library allegedly included thousands of American movies. Watching Fort Apache or Breakfast at Tiffany’s or E.T. wasn’t enough to turn North Korea’s late dictator into a democrat, so how is a childhood diet of muesli going to do it for his successor? If there is going to be a change in North Korea – and such a change is overdue– odds are it will arise among the wretched, impoverished masses, or at the instigation of a disgruntled army officer, not by an act of dynastic redemption.