Saturday, October 02, 2010

A Shakespearean North Korean succession

North Korea is such a thoroughly insane regime, its horrors so vast and its system so bizarre that it borders on the incomprehensible. So the news of the promotion of Kim Jong-il's third son, Kim Jong-un – to vice-chairman of the Workers Party of Korea's Central Military Commission, a four-star generalship and membership in the party's Central Committee, all in the same week – is, in a sense, reassuring.

The problems of succession are at least problems we can recognize. It's a narrative that can be understood. To a strangely precise degree, the succession of Kim Jong-un follows the pattern of Prince Hal in the Henry IV plays.

One of the major themes of the homilies was how, no matter how unjust the leadership of the sovereign, no man could stretch a hand “against the Lord's Anointed,” a phrase that might have been culled from North Korean propaganda.

The greatest character in these plays is Prince Hal, later Henry V, whose succession consumes the bulk of the action in Henry IV, Parts One and Two. Prince Hal employs a succession strategy that was entirely Shakespeare's invention. Like Hal, Kim Jong-un is a perfect blank. Nobody even knows how old he is. Also like Hal, he represents exactly the opposite of what one might expect of a next “Dear Leader.” We know so little about him that every scrap of knowledge rings with significance. We know that he is young. We know that he was educated outside North Korea, in Bern, Switzerland. And we know that the state is promoting his computer knowledge, sometimes addressing him as CNC, or Computer Numerical Control.

All three descriptions represent the antithesis of the North Korean system. Kim Jong-un, the pre-Leader – young, educated abroad and computer-savvy – represents exactly the forces that he will repress as Leader.

[Excerpt of editorial by Stephen Marche in The Globe and Mail]

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