If there is a reason famous people die in threes, imagine the lively debates Vaclav Havel, Kim Jong Il and Christopher Hitchens are having in eternity’s waiting room.
Havel had long been on the Nobel Peace Prize short list for his role in bringing democracy to Czechoslovakia and central Europe. Were there an award for the opposite feat, destabilizing the world and playing a role in the deaths of millions, North Korean leader Kim would win easily. And the indefatigable Hitchens would be there to chronicle this celestial collision of minds.
The question for those of us among the living is what Kim’s departure means for peace and prosperity. There are three main scenarios for the world’s most-isolated nation. One, more of the same, and possibly worse. Two, a calculated detente with the outside world. Three, the beginnings of an Arab Spring on the Korean peninsula.
We know Kim Jong Un is the heir apparent, yet here’s what we don’t know: virtually anything about the young man, not even his exact age (estimates are 28 or 29); what’s in his mind and heart; or if Kim Jong Il’s third son will even get the top job in Pyongyang. A power struggle may be afoot.
If Kim the younger manages to extend his family’s dynasty into a third generation, my money is on door No. 1 for the foreseeable future. Far from being a comfort for markets, it could be just as chaotic as any outcome. That’s because Kim Jong Un may feel obliged to prove himself to the generals who covet control of North Korea and its nuclear weapons.
Attacks last year that killed 50 South Koreans are a case in point. It’s widely believed they were aimed at cementing Kim Jong Un’s place in the regime. The worry, and the reason South Korea called in police officers for emergency duty and reinforced its borders, is that more such provocations are almost inevitable. This is clearly Kim Jong Il’s favored scenario, one he’s been grooming his son for ever since a 2008 stroke.
Scenario No. 2 — North Korea opening to the world — is the one Havel favored. In speeches and OpEds, the writer, dissident and former Czech president urged the international community to push Kim to respect basic human rights.
It’s possible that the Swiss-educated Kim Jong Un, who’s said to be a big American basketball fan, will surprise us. Perhaps he will sense the limits of his dad’s economic model. Blackmailing the world for food and oil is endearing North Korea to no one. Nor are piracy, currency counterfeiting and weapons sales. Freer trade and a touch of capitalism are preferable.
That would be grand for South Korea. For all the good news flowing out of Seoul, it sits 120 miles from the North’s capital. When credit rating companies eye the South’s outlook, risks from the North will play a growing role. That goes for Japan, too. North Korea is suddenly a more uncertain place in a very vital neighborhood. The world should nudge China, North Korea’s main benefactor, to encourage this shift.
Kim Jong Un is a wildcard. Will he notice the devastation of the Kim dynasty of which Havel warned and take a different path? Myanmar may offer a timely example of the benefits of bringing international tensions down a peg. Who knows, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton may soon find herself in Pyongyang. As a year, 2011 was a dismal one for dictators. There’s no reason to think 2012 will be kinder to them.
Scenario No. 3 would not only be gratifying to Havel, but perhaps Hitchens, too. After visiting Pyongyang a couple of years back, Hitchens commented often on its similarities to the world George Orwell conjured up in “1984” and questioned whether the Kims were long for this world. Hitchens also wrote extensively about people-power protests from Cairo to Bahrain.
The North Korean government has great control over what its 24 million people know about the outside world. But as we’ve seen in Myanmar, information finds a way. It’s not clear North Koreans will go along with this latest power shift.
“The people of North Korea are pretty much fed up with the way they’re ruled,” says Bradley Martin, author of “Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader.” “That doesn’t mean they’ll revolt any time soon — that’s especially hard to do in North Korea — but as we’ve seen around the world the time does seem to come eventually when each dictator has to answer for his rule. I don’t envy the boy ruler.”
As historians sort out the legacies of our trio of recently departed icons, there can be little doubt about Kim’s. A man who built nuclear weapons while 2 million of his people died from famine deserves every insult and indignity thrown his way. Redemption is unthinkable. We can always hope the sins of the father are atoned for by the son.
William Pesek is a Bloomberg View columnist.