North and South Korea played their own distinctive games of power politics last week. The processes of leadership selection were enacted almost simultaneously, a coincidence that defined them so sharply as to provide a classroom lesson on the differences between the two systems.
North Korea got all the publicity, not all of it because of the long-range missile it insisted on firing in the face of warnings to cease and desist. There was also the huge outpouring in Pyongyang for the centennial of the birth of the nation’s “Great Leader,” Kim Il Sung at which his grandson, Kim Jong Un, made his maiden speech before thousands of wildly cheering soldiers.
Equally portentous, in the days before the young new leader stepped forward to speak from the balcony overlooking Kim Il Sung Square, he acquired two titles: first secretary of the Workers’ Party and chairman of the party’s central military commission. The next day, after the North’s vaunted missile had plunged into the Yellow Sea 90 seconds after liftoff from its pad in the desolate hills near the Chinese border, he acquired another title: first chairman of the National Defense Commission.
Kim Jong Un was already “supreme commander” of the armed forces, but it seemed the inner ruling clique in Pyongyang needed to make sure he had all the legal requirements to rule unquestioned over everything before he could finally be heard in public.
Political scientists might debate which was really more important in North Korea, the party or the military establishment, but the point was rendered moot by these selections. His late father, Kim Jong Il, had the exact same titles with one slight exception. Having been general secretary of the party since the death of his father Kim Il Sung in 1994, Kim Jong Il would be “eternal general secretary.” Nobody could take over as “president” — Kim Il Sung was already the unquestioned “eternal president.”
One could hardly imagine a more different process of power selection than that in South Korea. While the North Korean elite was showering new titles on its leader, South Koreans went to the polls. They were electing members of a national assembly deeply divided between a conservative majority largely supportive of the conservative president,Lee Myung-bak, and a liberal-leftist opposition that many had expected to come out ahead this time.
The campaigning for the assembly’s 300 seats was very raucous and very public. Friends and aides of candidates lined up on street corners wearing the colors of their parties. Sound trucks careened down streets and avenues blaring out messages and songs. The candidates appeared at rallies, shaking hands and making speeches. Charges of incompetence, corruption and much else filled the air and the headlines.
The South Korean elections had special significance because they were seen as a bellwether for the December presidential election. Lee, limited to a single five-year term by the “democracy constitution” adopted in 1987 after mass protests against dictatorial rule, cannot run again. As his popularity ratings sank, the main opposition Democratic United Party anticipated a strong enough showing in the assembly elections to guarantee victory for whomever it nominates. It counted on rising unemployment and a widening rich-poor gap to win support against a government seen as favoring the chaebol, the conglomerates that dominate the economy.
Against widespread expectations, however, the conservatives retained their assembly majority. Although the liberals gained seats, many older voters preferred stability rather than a return to the decade of liberal rule responsible for the “sunshine policy” of reconciliation with the North initiated by the late Kim Dae-jung after his upset election as president in 1997. It’s even possible North Korea’s missile and nuclear program swayed voters at a critical juncture.
The South Korean brand of noisy, fractious democracy may be far from perfect, but it is crucial for maintaining the freedom in which business can innovate and flourish and citizens can argue issues, battle malfeasance and denounce and advocate policies. The total absence of democracy in North Korea means no one can question for a moment the wisdom of a missile test and birthday celebration that cost enough to feed the North’s hungry masses for a year, on top of a nuclear program that costs multibillions more.
Economic reform has been impossible in North Korea while the Kim dynasty, its generals and party leaders rule every sector of society. No one thinks of protesting the harsh system in which dissenters are sentenced to prison camps for terms that end only in death from starvation, disease, torture or execution.
What is most incredible is that the two “halves” of the Korean peninsula could have fostered such disparate systems when they’re populated by people of the same ethnic origins, speaking the same language, steeped in thousands of years of the same traditions. In one week they put their respective systems to the test. In any free and fair election to choose between the two, there could be no doubt as to which would be the winner.
Donald Kirk is a journalist and author of numerous books about Korea, most recently Korea Betrayed: Kim Dae Jung and Sunshine.