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North Korea’s New Leader Kim Jong-un Inherits Father’s Nuclear Legacy & Country’s Uncertain Future

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Tens of thousands of North Koreans filled the capital Pyongyang today to attend a state funeral for their leader, Kim Jong-il, who died of a heart attack on December 17 at the age of 69. Presiding over the ceremony was his son, Kim Jong-un, who is transitioning into power, and all of the top advisers spanning three generations. Our guest is Bruce Cumings, professor of history at the University of Chicago and author of several books on Korea. Speaking of North Korea’s transformation into a nuclear state, Cumings says, “That is essentially Kim Jong-il’s only legacy, if you can call that a positive legacy… Otherwise, his 17 years are going to be seen as a period of failure.” Of the ascension of Kim Jong-un, Cumings notes: “In a monarchy, you don’t assume that the king is running everything. The king is the symbol of the regime, the face of the regime. And that’s even more true of Kim Jong-un than his grandfather or father. You have an enormous collection of power in the military and the party that stands behind him, and in that sense, they’re running things, not Kim Jong-un.” [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZALEZ: We turn now to North Korea, where tens of thousands of people filled the capital city of Pyongyang’s Kim Il-sung Square yesterday to attend a state funeral for Kim Jong-il, who died of a heart attack on December 17th at the age of 69. Some reports say as many as 100,000 people were in attendance, as high-ranking government officials and military officers eulogized the dictator known in North Korea as “Dear Leader.” Presiding over the ceremony was his son Kim Jong-un, who is transitioning into taking power. He will become the third member of the family to run North Korea.

AMY GOODMAN: Jong-un led a military procession Wednesday through the capital Pyongyang, a reminder of his father’s legacy of a military-first policy. Under Kim Jong-il’s leadership, North Korea became a nuclear state. In 2003, it quit the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Three years later, it tested its first nuclear device.

Well, for more on North Korea, we turn now to Bruce Cumings, professor of history at the University of Chicago, author of several books on Korea, including Korea’s Place in the Sun: A Modern History, The Korean War: A History and North Korea: Another Country.

Professor Cumings, welcome to Democracy Now! Talk about the funeral, the significance of the death of Kim Jong-il.

BRUCE CUMINGS: Well, it’s very nice to talk to you again, Amy.

I think the significance of the funeral is that you had the entire leadership, from 90-year-old folks to Kim Jong-un at the age of 28, lined up, parading through the streets with a very nice vintage Lincoln Continental. You had three generations represented: Kim Jong-un at the front; Jang Sung-taek, who is his uncle and runs a major security agency, behind him; and Kim Ki-nam, who is in his eighties and served his grandfather, Kim Il-sung. So, the entire leadership is behind this guy.

And then you had people in the streets, of course, crying, sobbing. You never know how much of that was forced and how much of it is voluntary, but it’s really typical of the way the Koreans do their funerals. Hendrick Hamel was a Dutchman who landed on the shores of Korea, shipwrecked in the 1600s, and he wrote a book after he got out of Korea. And he said, when a father dies, the kin of the father run shrieking through the streets, pulling their hair, crying, weeping. Sometimes they do this for days. And North Korea has essentially taken this to a much higher level with apparently the whole nation doing this when the leader dies. So, it was quite an extravaganza, but I think entirely predictable.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And Bruce Cumings, what about this extraordinary situation, which really has never happened in any other declared socialist state, of three generations of a family, in essence, having a monarchy under the guise of socialism? It certainly didn’t happen in China or Russia or Vietnam or any other country that practiced socialism at one time in its history.

BRUCE CUMINGS: Well, Koreans have only known monarchy or dictatorship. They’ve never had an experience of democracy. They had literally millennia of kings coming and going, so that the kind of intrigue that would, for example, try to tell us whether Kim Jong-il is going to choose his first son, Kim Jong-nam, or his second or his third son, Kim Jong-un, is the kind of thing that went on in Korea for centuries. And you have, exactly as you said, a monarchy imposed, superimposed, on a communist state. But it’s entirely predictable that Kim Jong-un, because of this monarchical background, would be the successor.

I went to North Korea first in August of 1981. And I spoke with—I was trying to get a visa to get out of North Korea into the Soviet Union to take the Trans-Siberian Railway all the way to Moscow. And when I went to the embassy for a visa, a guy roughly my age sat me down, gave me some cognac, and asked me what I was doing in North Korea. And they had just had their 80th Party Congress, where—I’m sorry, Sixth Party Congress in 1980, where Kim Jong-il had been nominated as the clear successor to his father. And I said something like, “Oh, Kim Jong-il, he doesn’t look like his father. He’s rather diminutive. In fact, he’s the spitting image of his mother, and he doesn’t look charismatic.” And this Soviet fellow said, “You know, you Americans are always focusing on personality. They’ve got a huge bureaucratic bloc behind Kim Jong-il coming to power. And you should come back here in the year 2020 and see his son take power.” That was one of the best predictions I’ve ever heard about North Korea. It just so happened that Kim Jong-il died in his late sixties rather in his eighties, so Kim Jong-un is taking power about eight or 10 years before people expected, who know this regime very well.

But that also, in its own way, is not really anything new. Korea’s greatest king, King Sejong of the 15th century, under whose rule the Korean—unique Korean language was invented, he took power at 30. But the last Korean king, Kojong, who was king before the Japanese seized Korea, he was 11 years old when he came to the throne. And his father, known as the Daewongun, was the regent behind him who guided him until he came into his own and became a long—a king that lasted decades. So, I think Jang Sung-taek, the uncle of Kim Jong-un, who, as I said, has been right at the center of security of the regime and especially of the leadership, he and others will guide Kim Jong-un. And I really think, unless this regime somehow disappears, and it certainly hasn’t in the last two decades since the Berlin Wall fell, you’re going to see a lot of Kim Jong-un, and he’s going to be a much better face for the regime than Kim Jong-il was, in part because they’ve doctored him up to look exactly like Kim Il-sung, his grandfather.

AMY GOODMAN: We want to talk about Kim Jong-un, but—and we only have a few minutes, but very briefly, if you can talk about the significance of, under Kim Jong-il, North Korea becoming a nuclear state, especially as we look right now at the tensions being ramped up around Iran possibly becoming a nuclear state—or those are the accusations that the United States is making. The significance of how it became a nuclear state and what it means today?

BRUCE CUMINGS: Well, that is essentially Kim Jong-il’s only legacy, if you can call that a positive legacy. He turned North Korea into a nuclear state. They had two nuclear weapons tests. One was kind of a dud, but the second one, in May of 2009, clearly indicated that they know how to make an atomic bomb. I think, otherwise, his 17 years are going to be seen as a period of failure. The terrible famine that killed hundreds of thousands of people in the late 1990s is laid at his doorstep. This is a regime that can intervene everywhere in the country if it wants to, and it’s just a crime that so many people died under his leadership. He also was not a good face for the regime. He had a very cynical, dyspeptic face, the kind perhaps that a spoiled brat like him gets when he’s 40 years old. And so, I think you’re going to look back maybe 10 years from now on Kim Jong-il’s rule as a kind of unfortunate interim. I think North Korea, and I hope North Korea, will begin doing better in part because Kim Jong-un was educated in Switzerland and, unlike his father, grandfather, has the experience of living in a free and democratic society.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And the potential impact on relations with South Korea and reunification, the major—the big issue for both North and South Korea?

BRUCE CUMINGS: Well, North Korea is the only leadership so far to go into 2012 with a fairly stable situation. There’s an election in South Korea in December. And the current president can’t run again, because he’s limited to one term. We’re having a presidential election in the United States. There’s one in Russia. And in China, the top leadership, Hu Jintao, is stepping down, and that will change. So North Korea is a curious kind of island of stability in terms of leadership transition in a year that’s going to be extremely important. And North Korea will be watching very carefully especially who’s elected in Seoul. They would like to go back to the period of engagement that Kim Dae-jung and his successor, Roh Moo-hyun, did from 1998 to 2008. And they very much hate the current president, who turned his back on that engagement. They loathe him. They call him a national traitor, so on and so forth. So I’m sure North Korea is hoping that a more palatable, so to speak, leader comes to power next year in the December elections.

AMY GOODMAN: Bruce Cumings, we have 20 seconds. You’ve said it’s a mistake to call North Korea a one-man dictatorship.

BRUCE CUMINGS: Well, in a monarchy, you don’t assume that the king is running everything. The king is the symbol of the regime, the face of the regime. And that’s even more true of Kim Jong-un than his grandfather or father. You have an enormous collection of power in the military and the party that stands behind him, and in that sense, they’re running things, not Kim Jong-un.

AMY GOODMAN: Bruce Cumings, we want to thank you for being with us. We will continue to go back to you as events develop in North Korea. Again, the two-day funeral of Kim Jong-il is taking place now in North Korea. Professor Cumings teaches history at University of Chicago, author of a number of books on Korea, including North Korea: Another Country.

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