Stability and status quo
The demise of Kim Jong-il provokes contradictions and questions to which there may be no answers. The word ``stability” comes up constantly. Everyone seems to want ``stability” up there.
Top diplomats from here to Washington to Tokyo to Beijing and back again advocate “stability” with disquieting regularity. No one wants to think of the calamities that might befall the Korean Peninsula and the region if the whole dynastic edifice collapsed or even showed unmistakable signs of creaking and cracking.
But then, if you ask people if they would like to see an end to the dynasty and the rise of a humanitarian leader or regime with concern for ordinary citizens and a desire to patch up relations with South Korea, the answer is of course, yes.
The contradiction is you can’t really crave stability on the one hand and regime change on the other. They simply won’t go together. It would be wonderful if history would prove me wrong, but can’t we pretty much rule out the prospect of a happy peaceful change in leadership ― that is, to an entirely new order ― in Pyongyang.
If ``stability” is popular among diplomats and certain politicians, the term ``status quo” probably is not. ``Status quo” implies really nothing can change. It means maintenance of a system in which a rather small in-group of favored, blessed people perpetuate their legacies, their families, their old ways, terrible mistakes and cruel repression of everyone else.
The status quo might be fine for some blessed societies and countries but for North Korea the status quo means the survival of a system that exists for the benefit of a few thousand, maybe a few tens of thousands, of fortunate people and the suffering of millions more. The status quo means the vast majority of the North’s 24 or 25 million people go hungry, even if they’re not starving.
It means no one outside the elite has anything like adequate medical care. And it also means that about 200,000 people have to live in a sprawling gulag system in which new prisoners-for-life are regularly replacing those who die of starvation, disease, overwork, beatings, torture, execution – anything but a ripe old age.
The contradiction always remains about the same. If you don’t care for the status quo, you like even less the prospect of a cataclysm or revolution or uprising or revolt.
Scholars sometimes insist these words have quite different meanings; they go to great lengths to show that one suggests the legitimacy of the cause while another implies a group of people in open rebellion against legitimate authority. However scholars may quibble, and they do love to do just that, you don’t find too many people really in favor of anything in the North that might discombobulate the whole peninsula.
In facing this essential contradiction, you might get the impression that people down here don’t know what to think and don’t care all that much about what’s going on up there.
Initial answers, however, may be a little deceptive. In reality, the pervasive view is really that of watchful waiting – following the daily drama and wondering how it’s going to impact the lives of the 50 million people south of the demilitarized zone.
It’s easy to say, life goes on, nothing much will change, but you’ve got to think ``the system” in North Korea can’t last in its present form forever. In the end, neither ``stability” nor the ``status quo” can really be the best way out for the Korean Peninsula, for South Korea or surrounding countries.
The image of Kim Jong-il in the United States has been that of almost a comic figure, a character suitable for jokes and satire. As such, he was probably the best known of all Koreans.
That may come as a surprise to people in South Korea who have every reason and right to think that their own leaders, notably Kim Dae-jung, the president who initiated the Sunshine Policy and dreamed of North-South reconciliation, would be equally well known.
The comic image of Kim Jong-il, however, cannot hide the fact that he was one of history’s monsters, a satanic killer who thought nothing of destroying his own people while threatening to destroy many millions more with weapons of mass destruction, nuclear, chemical and biological.
It’s understandable that people outside North Korea yearn for stability. South Korea, despite all the controversies and problems one hears about every day, is one of the world’s more successful, prosperous nations.
Who would want to jeopardize that success with anything like a second Korean War ― or an implosion in the North that would send hundreds of thousands fleeing to the South?
``Stability,” however, can’t last forever. That should be a relief for millions of people who are imprisoned, starving and diseased, maybe all three, in North Korea. For them, “stability” cannot be the preferred option.
Journalist Donald Kirk is the author of ``Korea Betrayed: Kim Dae Jung and Sunshine.” He’s reachable at firstname.lastname@example.org and his website is www.donaldkirk.com.