September 26, 2023

North Korea and Singapore: Two families, two nations

The Kims, the Lees and the curious parallels between a leader eulogized and a nation demonized

The death of Lee Kuan Yew on March 23 is a reminder of the intriguing parallels between North Korea and Singapore and the importance of context in deciphering events. Parallels involve dissimilarities as well as similarities and for states to be comparable requires that both are of roughly the same order of magnitude and probability so that the pairing of the two provides insight. There must be enough common ground for differences to be meaningful. There would be little point in comparing either North Korea or Singapore with Brazil, or Pakistan, or the United States, or the Vatican – the differences are too overwhelming. But North Korea and Singapore do fit together quite well.

The starting point is the role of the two families – the Kims in Korea and the Lees in Singapore. Both countries are essentially one-party states with, so far, an inherited leadership. Kim Jong Un is where he is today because he is the son – though significantly not the eldest son, of Kim Jong Il. And Kim Jong Il was the son of Kim Il Sung. In Singapore, the leader – here the Prime Minister rather than the President – Lee Hsien Loong is the (eldest) son of Lee Kuan Yew. In both countries power does not reside with the nominal head of state.