This editorial will appear in tomorrow’s print edition.
Joint Base Lewis-McChord is where the phone rings if the American troops deployed in South Korea call 911. Big troubles in North Korea always threaten to strike close to home here.
Is trouble brewing there with the sudden death of dictator Kim Jong Il? One of the many scary things about Kim-ruled North Korea is that no one ever quite knows what’s going on inside its halls of power.
Kim’s son and announced successor, Kim Jong Un, is only in his 20s and was only anointed heir to the dictatorship about a year ago. Who is he? Will his succession stick? Will one of his father’s military barons muscle him off the throne? Will there be political turmoil and chest-beating that could trigger military attacks on South Korea?
We not only know nothing about what’s happening with the world’s most secretive regime, we have no idea who we ought to be rooting for.
In the absence of knowledge, we can hope for the best. If this were a game of chance, the odds would overwhelmingly favor the rise of a better North Korean ruler – just because it would be so hard to find a worse one than Kim Jong Il.
Actually, “better” and “worse” are the wrong scale for this family franchise, because they measure ordinary goodness and badness. The governments of Kim Jong Il and his father, Kim Il Sung, are better measured in degrees of evil.
The newly deceased Kim presided over mass starvation in North Korea as he pumped money into an ever-larger military machine. His father, who died in 1994, launched the Korean War. Both perpetuated a totalitarian state replete with systematic terror and an extensive system of slave camps. Both were fanatical, aggressive militarists.
Not many rulers deserve to be ranked with the likes of Stalin, Mao Zedong and Pol Pot, but the two Kims cleared that high bar. The new boss – be it Kim Jong Un or some usurper – might conceivably be a trade up.
Kim Jong Il’s death on Saturday was followed on Sunday by the passing of another notable leader, former Czech President Vaclav Havel. Comparing the two men, you wonder how they could possibly belong to the same species.
Havel – a onetime playwright and political dissident – was precisely the kind of person Kim and his father would have thrown in prison to be tortured or worked to death. They enforced a communist dictatorship; Havel helped overthrow one. They specialized in inhumanity, he in gentleness.
Over the last two days, world leaders have hailed Havel as a rare hero. Lech Walesa said he was “a great fighter for the freedom on nations”; Angela Merkel said his “dedication to freedom and democracy is as unforgotten as his great humanity”; Madeleine Albright described him as “endlessly searching for the best in himself and in each of us.”
Kim’s passing may be getting more attention, but he’ll never get those kind of reviews.