Tuesday, December 20, 2011

There Goes the Sun King

Kim Jong Il is dead, as I'm sure everybody in a position to read this blog knows by now. (Judging from what I've been reading online all day, it might be helpful to some readers if I explain that East Asian names usually put the surname first. So Kim was the dictator's surname or family name, Jong Il his given name; Jong Il Kim in Western order.) I certainly don't mourn him, but it's hard to know what to say when so many willfully ignorant people, people who know only that Kim was an official Bad Guy, are jumping for joy at the news -- especially in the US, where many people and our corporate media have been doing the Happy Dance over the guys it's safe to hate in the past year.

There are plenty of people on the Korean peninsula who have reason to hate Kim Jong Il; here in the US, not so much. He hurt a lot of people, but few if any Americans; so why are Americans so excited about his decease? Well, aside from Fidel Castro, we have hardly any Commies left to hate anymore, and for many Americans, Commies have a special place in what we laughingly call our hearts. Second, he was insubordinate, refusing to recognize that we are in charge of the world -- and worse, he played us rather effectively. This was a special slap in the face to American pride, given that we'd always thought him a joke from the day he succeeded his father in 1994, and have continued to treat him as a joke while simultaneously inflating him into a world-class threat to peace, justice, and the American way. Those are the only genuine reasons I can think of, as opposed to pretenses.

It can't be because he was corrupt, as he undoubtedly was -- America gets along just fine with corrupt heads of state and their families. It can't be because he ran a viciously repressive state with hundreds of thousands of political prisoners, and a failed economy that periodically collapsed into famine -- America gets along just fine with the rulers of viciously repressive states etc. No, it can only be because he wouldn't take orders from us; why, he wouldn't even take orders from his Red masters in what the deranged wing of the American Right used to call "Peiping." (It was the pronunciation used by Chiang Kai-Shek's Nationalists.)

My first thought when I heard the news and began to see Western reactions was Suharto, the dictator of Indonesia for over thirty years. Suharto took power in a spectacularly bloody 1965 coup, epitomized by the slaughter of uncountable ethnic Chinese designated as Communists. Estimates range from half a million to two or three million or even more. It seems certain that the US was involved (via) (though given our record, US involvement would be plausible even if we didn't have other good reasons to believe it), with the CIA giving Suharto the names of labor activists to butcher. At the time, FAIR has reported,
After the scale of the massacre began to be apparent, [New York Times writer Max] Frankel was even more enthusiastic. Under the headline "Elated U.S. Officials Looking to New Aid to Jakarta's Economy" (3/13/66), Frankel reported that "the Johnson administration found it difficult today to hide its delight with the news from Indonesia.... After a long period of patient diplomacy designed to help the army triumph over the Communists, and months of prudent silence...officials were elated to find their expectations being realized." Frankel went on to describe the leader of the massacre, Gen. Suharto, as "an efficient and effective military commander."
After having pacified the country,
Suharto quickly transformed Indonesia into an "investors' paradise," only slightly qualified by the steep bribery charge for entry. Investors flocked in to exploit the timber, mineral and oil resources, as well as the cheap, repressed labor, often in joint ventures with Suharto family members and cronies. Investor enthusiasm for this favorable climate of investment was expressed in political support and even in public advertisements; e.g., the full page ad in the New York Times (9/24/92) by Chevron and Texaco entitled "Indonesia: A Model for Economic Development."
A decade later, in 1975, Suharto invaded the neighboring country of East Timor, initiating a quarter-century-long reign of terror, again supported faithfully by the US, which killed a quarter-million Timorese.

When Suharto left power, he received the harsh judgment you'd expect such a person to suffer at the hands of the American media.
In the months of his exit, he was referred to as Indonesia's "soft-spoken, enigmatic president" (USA Today, 5/14/98), a "profoundly spiritual man" (New York Times, 5/17/98), a "reforming autocrat" (New York Times, 5/22/98). His motives were benign: "It was not simply personal ambition that led Mr. Suharto to clamp down so hard for so long; it was a fear, shared by many in this country of 210 million people, of chaos" (New York Times, 6/2/98); he "failed to comprehend the intensity of his people's discontent" (New York Times, 5/21/98), otherwise he undoubtedly would have stepped down earlier. He was sometimes described as "authoritarian," occasionally as a "dictator," but never as a mass murderer. Suharto's mass killings were referred to--if at all--in a brief and antiseptic paragraph.
I believe Kim Jong Il deserves nothing less than the same kind of pitiless scourging Suharto got.

By all accounts, North Korea is a dreary, regimented society, with no civil liberties and little material security. (A good place to begin reading if you want to know more would be Bruce Cumings's North Korea: Another Country [The New Press, 2004].) At the same time, I keep getting the impression that much of what is depicted as grim regimentation is simply normal for communitarian societies, including South Korea. I remember reading a sketch of a North Korean extended family, comprising at least three generations, out for a night of karaoke, which from the description sounded just like its South Korean working-class counterpart. The massed rallies and organizing chanting also sound to me like South Korean society in the days of its dictatorship: GoGo 70, a recent South Korean film set around 1970, began with archival footage of marching soldiers, cheering crowds, and martial songs that at first I took for the North, but it turned out to the freedom-loving South. And the standard of living was higher in the North than in the South until the 1970s, partly because until then the South was run by corrupt American-backed dictatorships more interested in lining their pockets than in raising up their people. Not until Park Chung Hee's Five Year Plans (did he deliberately take that label from Stalin's USSR?) did the South Korean economy begin to take off, though as with all modernizing industrial economies, at great human cost.

But despite the occasional concern trolling -- oh worra worra, what will happen to North Korea now that Kim is dead? is his young heir-designate, Kim Jong Un, mature enough at twenty-something to take the reins of power? surely he should invite the US to step in and guide him with the same benign wisdom we've exhibited everywhere else -- I don't believe that many of the people celebrating Kim's death give a damn about the North Korean people, or about peace on the Korean peninsula, or about anything except venting the free-floating rage and hatred they don't dare express about anything that matters. The US government is no more interested in democracy in North Korea than it is in the South, which means (at best) hardly at all; and most Americans don't know enough about either Korea to have an opinion.