Don’t miss Orioles players, John Means & Paul Fry, as they guest host at our Brews and O’s event!

DICTATORSHIPS: ALL IN THE FAMILY

THE BALTIMORE SUN

As the "Great Leader" of North Korea sinks to his reward in that heaven where the ghosts of all good Communists eventually go, the "Dear Leader" emerges from seclusion and rises to his occasion.

Kim Il Sung is dead! Long live Kim Jong Il!

One can almost hear the cheers reverberate among the nervous apparatchiks of Pyongyang. Those of a different mind may be heard from later, or never heard from at all.

North Korea is entering the aftermath, that frequently tumultuous final phase in the careers of powerful leaders of dubious legitimacy. It is a delicate time, a dangerous epilogue.

Kim Il Sung's death raises a plethora of questions to trouble the minds of leaders and policy makers in other capitals, questions about nuclear intentions, international strategies, war or peace on the Korean Peninsula.

But the question that the elite in Pyongyang and experts elsewhere are probably most interested in knowing the answer to is: Will the plan of Kim the elder succeed? Will he establish a Communist dynasty based on blood, and by this device obviate the post-mortem power struggle that is often a part of the succession rite in Communist states?

If he does, he will have been the first to do so. But maybe not the last.

For the most part, and for reasons that are not entirely clear, dynastic politics seem to have had more success in non-democratic states of the non-Communist variety.

It worked in Haiti where, in early 1971, then President-for-Life Francois "Papa Doc" Duvalier named his son, Jean-Claude, his successor, then died a few months later. Jean-Claude held power for 15 years. That was one year longer than his father.

Blood succession was implemented successfully in Taiwan. There Chiang Kai-shek, driven to the island by the Communists in 1949, ruled for many years, then imposed his son Chiang Ching-kuo upon the country. Chiang Ching-kuo ran things from 1975, when the old general died, until 1988, the year of his own death.

In Argentina Juan Peron got his wife, Isabel, elected vice president on his coattails. She ascended to the presidency after her husband's death in July 1974 and managed to keep herself in office for almost two years, after which time she was ousted in a coup.

The brevity of her term only attests to the fact that there are no permanent arrangements in politics.

Many of the relevant institutions in North Korean politics lined up last week behind Kim Jong Il. The official media began calling him the "Great Leader." The security forces pledged support. The Communist Party Central Committee was called to its assembly.

Observers in South Korea were predicting the establishment would pull together for Kim Jong Il to prevent anything resembling a power vacuum to form that might suck the hermit state into its chaotic vortex.

If the scheme fails, it will not be for want of effort by the father on behalf of the son. Kim Il Sung has been grooming Kim Jong Il as his successor openly since the early 1970s, appointing him to one high post after another in the regime.

"Late in 1991 he was made supreme commander of the armed forces," said Ralph Clough, a lecturer in Korean and Chinese affairs at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. "Whether you look at the state, party or military, his position is only second to that of his father."

No one is predicting the way things will turn out in North Korea with any certainty at this point. Such predictions are dangerous if policy decisions turn on them. Occasionally they are embarrassing. Experts, even of countries where politics are more transparent than they have ever been in North Korea, have made erroneous predictions.

People familiar with Haitian affairs were almost unanimous in their expectation that "Baby Doc," as he was called, would not survive for long the tooth-and-claw politics of modern Haiti. In fact, Jean-Claude also turned out to be a chip off the old block. He defied all the predictions of his early demise.

The Duvaliers and Kim Il Sung were both dictators of long duration. James McGregor Burns, the American historian who specializes in the analysis of political leadership (his definitive book on the subject is titled "Leadership" ) thinks longevity is a quality, or condition, of great importance.

Of such people who accumulate great lengths of time in power, said Mr. Burns, "the secret of their success may be simpler than we realize. They set up a control system to prevent coups, assassinations and such. Over the years they master the means of propaganda control, state security."

These are the techniques of political perpetuation that dictators impart to their sons or heirs, and they are more crucial to their continuance than anything that has to do with ideology, charisma, party control or any of the other normal expressions of politics and skills of governance.

Despite the best training in the ways of despotism, however, in Communist countries blood succession has just not been allowed to happen. Which is not to say nepotism is not rampant. This is and was widely practiced in the Soviet Union and China, but nowhere so much as in Romania.

There, Nicolae Ceausescu -- a great admirer of Kim Il Sung --

pushed the political careers of his wife, Elena, his brother and his brother-in-law, and even began grooming his son, Nicu, to succeed him. All this gave rise to the sarcastic description of Romania as "Socialism in One Family."

In late 1989, a revolution overthrew the Romanian Communist regime, and Nicolae and Elena Ceausescu were executed on Christmas Day, and Nicu was sent off to jail.

To repeat the question of the moment, will Kim Il Sung be so lucky and succeed where Ceausescu failed? Or, considering what is known about Kim Jong Il, will North Koreans be so unlucky?

One can only speculate over what might be the reasons Communist states have had such difficulty in this area. Here is one possibility.

During communism's formative years in the 19th century, much of the world was ruled by kings and czars and emperors. Since communism was a revolutionary creed bent on overturning the powers that be, its adherents developed an intense antipathy toward monarchies: they were conservative and averse to change; they encouraged personalist leadership; they perpetuated themselves through blood.

These were conventions and traditions despised by Communists who saw them as evidence of the worse kind of human weakness. This antipathy lasted for decades, was ingrained in the creed.

"In most of these Communist countries, the ideology was strong enough so that the idea of a monarch-like succession was quite foreign to them," said James Voorhees, an expert in Eastern Europe in the Congressional Research Service.

Yet, irony of ironies, few systems since the great monarchies were swept away have produced so many personalist leaders as the Communist ones (from Stalin to Mao to Enver Hoxha in Albania to Kim Il Sung in North Korea, on and on).

And few countries were so conservative and resistant to change as Communist states turned out to be in the latter part of the 20th century.

So, in a way, the Communists became very much like those they hated most -- feudal, Byzantine, reactionary.

Certainly those words might go some way to describe Cuba today, and its leader, Fidel Castro, who has been in power there since 1959, the year he and his rebel army swept into Havana after expelling the execrable Fulgencio Batista.

With Kim Il Sung gone, Castro is the pre-eminent and longest-ruling Communist leader in the world. His is a personalist leadership, and has been from the beginning. But it is a discredited leadership: The economy of his country is degenerating, its political life remains as stagnant as that of any 19th-century Balkan backwater, the revolutionary rhetoric forever blaring forth is hollow and empty.

Fidel Castro's is a story of promise betrayed. Said Mr. Burns: "He came in on such a program of opposition to Yankees, capitalists and imperialists, what they called exploiters. He came in on such a background of corruption that he achieved a tremendous momentum. I would have imagined that for the first decade or two that was sufficient. But now that has turned to repression and control."

According to Harvard's Jorge Dominguez, political succession is not the preoccupation of the moment in Cuba. There are several reasons for that. Castro is not all that old at 68, and the economy, the mess it's in and the squalid life it has engendered, offer a more compelling obsession.

"For the most part this is not a big issue," said Dr. Dominguez. "But as Fidel gets older people will begin thinking about this."

And who is ordained to succeed Castro should he die or meet with some other incapacitating unpleasantness?

His brother, Raul. As commander of the armed forces he is the constitutional successor. He has been from the beginning.

Another chip off the old block.

Richard O'Mara is a reporter for The Baltimore Sun.

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad
52°