In late December last year, North Korea announced the death of its enigmatic leader Kim Jong-il. The news immediately reached my college campus in New York City, which was otherwise in the mood of quiet desperation that usually accompanies exam week. The “death of a dictator” can be (and in some circles, has been) construed as something of a positive chapter for North Korea, a nation plagued by autocratic rule and poverty; perhaps the fall of a powerful dictator would cripple North Korea’s administration and usher in an era of reform.
Dampening such optimism was the historical fact of the North Korean regime’s remarkable resilience, which had warded off pressures both internal and external.
Whatever the projections, the overwhelming mood was one of uncertainty and unease. In addressing the power vacuum created by the death of Kim Jong-il, several commentators have, much to the terror of South Korean citizens, pointed to the history of power transitions marked by the successor’s need to assert authority and “flex” his muscles. Such behavior would further aggravate the already strained stability maintained by Seoul and Pyongyang. That Kim Jong-un, long known as Kim Jong-il’s favored son, was declared North Korea’s new leader seemed to only raise more questions about the nature and direction of his leadership. The immediate fall in Asian stock markets following these developments seemed to tell me: “Everybody is worried and you should be, too.”
Of course, any developments in third-world nations suffering from dysfunctional governments and destitute living conditions warrant attention for humanitarian reasons. Yet the death of Kim Jong-il (literally) hit a little too close to home. It was impossible to ignore the worried discussions taking place among my Korean friends on campus. I found myself calling home more often than usual. Despite having academic interest in democratic reform and the rise and fall of dictators, the only question I really wanted answered from my parents back in Korea was whether “everything was going to be OK.” Much to my relief, my family assured me that I would not have to worry about the resumption of the Korean War or anything of that sort.
Indeed, North and South Korean relations have seen a series of tense moments since the ceasefire of the Korean War in 1953, none of which have precipitated in a large-scale conflict. In 1987, North Korea bombed a South Korean civilian aircraft, killing all 115 civilians aboard. Just last year, the North Korean military fired artillery shells on Yeunpyongdo, a South Korean island located in the Yellow Sea, which culminated in the death of four South Korean citizens. The tragedy of these events notwithstanding, the fact that such moments of high tension have been largely contained points to the surprising stability of the Korean peninsula. North Korea’s aggression has seldom triggered panicked behavior among South Korean citizens. Of course, there are exceptions. When a North Korean official declared that his country was ready to “burn down the entirety of Seoul” during a conference with South Korean representatives in 1994, Seoul saw widespread food hoarding. Fortunately, Seoul was not burned down and this fact seems to be a source of comfort and security in the collective memory of South Korean citizens.
Yet whenever I attempt to contextualize the apparent volatility of the Korean peninsula today, many of my American friends remain unconvinced. Their skepticism is understandable; sometimes I question whether I am simply desensitized by the long history of North Korea’s confrontational behavior. But what is the alternative? I could spend my entire day speculating about Kim Jong-un’s personal disposition and political agenda based on accounts of questionable veracity. Uncertainty is a fact of life, but what is absolutely certain to me is that there are better ways of coping with it—I will not be paralyzed by it.