The world is running low on its current supply of crazy dictators. Saddam and Gaddafi gone. And now - Kim Jong-Il is not merely ill, but dead.
The bizarre leader of the hermit state of North Korea, for whom life was one long Bad Hair Day, and who had the dress sense and good taste of a marmoset, led a peculiar government for 17 years, and proved that you could build a very powerful personality cult, even if you had very little actual personality to start with. As Dear Leader, he followed his father the Great Leader, and one wonders what his son's brand name will be.
Lest my approach be thought insufficiently reverent, never forget that this little man caused mass misery for his people and imposed his deranged ideas about agriculture, as well as keeping the best for himself (importing Hennessy cognac in bulk) and his cronies, led to mass starvation and chronic malnutrition of the people of his land.
It was claimed that he could control the weather, though he took no responsibility for the awful famines that killed so many of his people. His PR folks had a vivid imagination. According to them his birth was foretold by a swallow, a double rainbow, and a new star, and he managed a round of golf including a hole-in-one five times. I wonder whether they moved the hole to suit him. During the last World Cup he banned the broadcast of games unless his national team was winning.
When his doctors warned him to stop smoking, he banned smoking throughout the country. But this guy was a medical marvel in so many ways. According to an official website (since removed) it was claimed that he did not defecate at all. This may not explain his death, apparently from a heart attack, but which was initially reported as being due to "fatigue".
Reports about his health, mostly denied, even when officially made, abounded over the years - of diabetes, strokes, epilepsy, even pancreatic cancer. He reportedly had one wife and three mistresses, including a local movie-star. Sensitive about his height, he wore shoes with substantial lifts.
He had a major fear of flying, so his state visits to Russia and China were made in a personal armoured train, and on the way he ate specially prepared lobsters, which were flown live, daily, to his train. He was very fond of movies and collected DVDs, apparently especially enjoying the Rambo, Godzilla and Friday 13th series, as well as Hong Kong action films, and anything featuring Elizabeth Taylor. He is also said to have written six operas within three years, and to have mounted elaborate productions of musicals. And to have written some 1500 books.
The personality cult, which he inherited from his father and extended still further, in many ways resembled a religion.
His nutty father was routinely described in state propaganda as incomparable, infallible, and omnipotent, clairvoyant, "the perfect brain" and after his death the constitution was changed to declare him as "president for eternity." He himself took slightly more modest titles, such as "central brain" and "morning star".
A personality cult refers to the deliberate creation by propaganda, usually within a dictatorship, of an exaggerated heroic image of the awesome wonderfulness of the leader. Back in history, when there were few if any media, the portrayal of the king or emperor as a god-king was quite common, and even those monarchs who didn't actually directly claim to be a god, claimed to be appointed by God, and were not open to challenge by mere mortals. This was a pattern seen in many parts of the world. Self-glorification is amplified by the official media, piling obscene flattery upon unbelievable compliments.
Stalin, according to Khrushchev, added such praises to his own official biography by hand. Pictures and statues of the Great One are everywhere, far exceeding the number of religious icons in nominally religious countries.
Their lesser supporters are rewarded with grandiose titles and multiple awards and medals. In some pictures of the military leadership of such states, including North Korea, the generals are weighed down with so much military bling, covering their chest to the waist of their jackets, that one can only guess that the next stage would be for them to add yet more medals on their backs.
We are beginning to see images reminiscent of the huge orgy of mock-mourning that attended his father's
death - people howling and shaking with grief in public places, behaviours in no way resembling genuine grief, but rather the staged, theatrical grief they know is expected of them.
What will happen next seems more of a conundrum than that which usually follows the death of a leader.
When the power and glory has been so concentrated in one person, a succession is much less predictable, and no such leader has so far managed to pass the crown down to a third generation.
Maybe Korea will be the exception that proves the rule; maybe not. If Kim Jong-Un manages to succeed, he is unlikely to preside over an opening up of his sealed nation - when the people at large discover how systematically they have been lied to for decades, how they have been sacrificed to the cult, they are not likely to remain tractable or even controllable.
(Professor M.A. Simpson, aka CyberShrink, December 2011)