The North Korean elite witnessed the collapse of the Soviet Union and Eastern European state socialism. They saw what happened to the elites of East Germany who lost their state, and the violence that accompanied the revolution in Romania. However, they would be wise to also pay attention to what has happened in South Korean politics over the past three decades.
The fate of former South Korean Presidents serves as an objective lesson to the North Korean elite: surrendering nuclear weapons is dangerous, toppling your leader could provoke unrest, and a clamor for unification could put you in the hands of a capacious public and political elite happy to find villains and scapegoats. South Korea’s transitional justice process says the same: if your ancestors did something bad, then your assets are fair game.
THE EX-PRESIDENT PERP WALK
In 1995, under significant pressure from the general public, then-South Korean President Kim Young-sam did something incredible: he ordered the arrest of his two immediate predecessors, Chun Doo-hwan and Roh Tae-woo. It was an open and shut case: Chun and Roh had overthrown a fledgling, transitional government in a military coup back in 1980, and then proceeded to massacre over a thousand civilians who rose up in protest in the southwest city of Gwangju.
The two were ultimately sentenced to death, their sentences then commuted to life before they were ultimately pardoned. Their crimes were worse than what was to follow, but this was the beginning of a recurring pattern in South Korean politics: Presidents, upon retirement, facing the threat of prosecution, along with their entourage and family.
The fate of former South Korean Presidents serves as an objective lesson to the North Korean elite
Kim Young-sam himself was lucky, but his family far less so – one of his sons went to prison for taking bribes (and not paying tax) from large corporations. Similarly, the President who followed him, Kim Dae-jung, also saw one of his sons head to the clink after leaving office.
Yet, they got off lightly. The same cannot be said for the next three to hold the office. The suicide of former President Roh Moo-hyun occurred after the beginning of a corruption probe. Now, his successor, Lee Myung-bak (President from 2008 to 2013) is currently under investigation for bribery, embezzlement and tax evasion. And Lee’s successor, Park Geun-hye was impeached and last month sentenced to 24 years in prison.
These cases are real, the evidence appears good, the charges plausible, and no doubt, the judicial system is doing as fair a job as it can. The fact that a case against Lee is only pursued, however, when a President from the opposition party is in power is telling. Justice is political in South Korea, and the Prosecutor’s office is not an impartial interface between the police and the court system, at least not where high ranking officials and politicians are concerned. It is an instrument of political power, pure and simple.
What’s more, the case of Park Geun-hye is even more worrying for Kim Jong Un: it demonstrates how a free media with fearless reporters will dig for evidence of past misdeeds.
South Korea’s fearless reporters may one day do the same in the former corridors of power in Pyongyang
BE CAREFUL WHAT YOU WISH FOR
Her case and that of Lee Myung-bak has been extensively covered in the North Korean media as evidence of how bad South Korea’s conservative politicians are. Yet, the North Korean elite might see something else in these stories: the South Korean press and justice system may one day do the same to us if we are not careful.
Indeed, South Korea’s fearless reporters may one day do the same in the former corridors of power in Pyongyang. They won’t have to dig very hard with North Korea, and with so many potentially implicated, the issue of transitional justice will be very difficult.
In South Korea, history is a highly contentious issue, with elections having consequences not just for the elite but also for the families of perpetrators of historical injustice. This begins with the prelude to the Japanese colonial era, over 100 years ago, and currently ends with the democratization of South Korea in 1987.
The Roh Moo-hyun administration set up the “Investigative Commission on Pro-Japanese Collaborators’ Property.” In 2009, the Commission published a final list of over 1000 collaborators, and the South Korean state has subsequently begun to redistribute the property of their descendants. Given what these people did, it is understandable that the South Korean people want justice and do not believe that their descendants should profit from the treachery of their ancestors.
Yet, that is precisely the point. North Korea’s top elite, their children, and their ancestors, as well as the many people who are their clients, could find themselves in a very similar position if they are not careful. If they are lucky enough to survive a transition and not get killed in the process, their past crimes and the crimes of their ancestors may forever haunt them.
Indeed, the aggressive war that the North waged in 1950, the country’s vast network of concentration camps, and secret police records serve as ample proof of countless crimes that one day might give the world the mother of all transitional justice problems.
HOW TO SURVIVE
Given how South Korea has treated its past presidents and traitors, it would be very surprising if the North Korean elite tried to overthrow Kim Jong Un. There is no clear alternative leader to the average DPRK or the elite, and the fear would be that without him, the North may fall apart and come under South Korean rule.
The country’s vast network of concentration camps and secret police records serve as ample proof of countless crimes
What’s more, the elite and leadership must surely see what has happened in South Korea and understand that dictators who surrender power throw themselves at the mercy of subsequently elected democratic leaders. Even without unification, democratic reform in the North would be highly dangerous for those who currently rule the country. Democrats need scapegoats, and a former dictator, their family and friends are about as good as it gets.
The same calculus is why North Korea will not give up its nuclear weapons. To do so would be to invite foreign intervention. Nuclear weapons are the ultimate deterrent against a foreign power interfering in its affairs.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Featured image: KCTV
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