When people compare Kim Il Sung and Kim
Jong Il, the comparison is rarely favorable to the latter. The reasons for this
vary. North Koreans usually blame Kim Jong Il for the devastating famine of the
late 1990s, which took lives of hundreds of thousands of North Koreans, while
in the English-speaking world, the reason is different: North Korea is often
viewed as a living embodiment of all that is evil and unjust in humankind, and
such hell can get only worse – and never
better. Meanwhile, North Korea is not hell – it
is merely a country ruled by a very nasty and oppressive dictatorship. And it
does change– and sometimes these changes do bring some improvement to the
lives of its citizens. In this article I will try to demonstrate that most of
these changes actually appeared when Kim Jong Il was in power, and I will argue
that he was a lesser evil when compared to his father, not the other way
In order to pass judgment on a politician,
one should first look at the results of his or her rule by comparing the
country’s conditions before and after, and second, at
the opportunities he or she had. Although the rise of Kim Il Sung began in late
1945, he became truly independent from his Soviet supervisors only in the late
1950s. Let us observe how he changed the country.
 Kim Il Sung created a songbun system,
under which all of North Korean society is divided into five strata according
to one’s paternal ancestors’ activities
during the colonial period and/or the Korean War. Songbun had an
enormous influence on people’s lives in the Kim Il Sung
era, as one with bad songbun could forsake all hope for a good job,
education, or career.
 At Kim Il Sung’s
behest, North Koreans had to attend regular ideological meetings, listening to
the stories of the Great Leader’s unsurpassed genius
and engage in criticism of others as well as self-criticism.
 In 1967, Kim Il Sung introduced a “Monolithic Ideological System”, according to
which not only was contradiction to him forbidden, but all manners of thinking
were to be derived from his teachings. This was unprecedented in communist
Kim Il Sung imposed his grotesque and pervasive cult of personality on
 Kim Il Sung instituted a system of
travel permits, according to which one could not go to neighboring counties
without a permit.
 Kim Il Sung created a system of prison
camps. While camps for ordinary criminals were modeled after the Soviet Gulag,
the camps for political prisoners –usually with
significantly harsher conditions – were
unique to North Korea.
 Kim Il Sung failed to create an
independent economy. Despite all the talk of self-reliance, the North Korean
economy was very dependent on aid provided by the USSR and the PRC, the cut of
which led to the famine of the late 1990s.
 Finally, Kim Il Sung created the system
of family succession in which the successor was driving his legitimacy by
following the ideas of his predecessor[ i.e. Kim Il Sung himself], thus
reducing the probability of reforms in North Korea even after his death.
Basically, with the exception of a very
limited economic liberalization of the 1980s, Kim Il Sung’s policy was that of
construction and further strengthening of the one-man dictatorship.
However, when it comes to Kim Jong Il, we
can hardly find a single measure by which he actually made the regime more
oppressive than it already was. In fact, we can find some measures which had
the opposite effect.
 Under Kim Il Sung, if a person
committed a crime, especially a political one, all his family, including young
children would have suffered. It was a normal practice to send the relatives of
the offender to a prison camp. Under Kim Jong Il, this practice was not
abolished, but its implementation became more infrequent. Defection to the
South, for example, almost never resulted in the incarceration of the refugees’relatives.
 Kim Jong Il reduced the sentences
people received for economic crimes, such as illegal visits to China. In the
Kim Il Sung era, such a crime was punishable by either execution or life
imprisonment. Under Kim Jong Il, the average sentence was less than two years
of forced labor.
 In 2002, it seemed that Kim Jong Il was
seriously considering economic reforms. On July 1st, 2002, the North Korean
government published a series of economic measures, the 7.1 Economy Management
Improvement Measures, which de-facto legalized the existence of farmers’ markets in the country and changed the previously fixed
exchange rate of the North Korean won to a more realistic one. In the same year,
North and South Korea created the joint economic zone in Kaesong, and the North
approved the idea of South Korean tourists visiting the country –despite all the political risks. The most daring project, however,
was the creation of the Special Administrative Zone in Sinuiju, which Pyongyang
planned to turn into a Hong Kong-style capitalist and free city. I plan to
dedicate my next article to the fate of this amazing project, which, most
unfortunately, was never fully implemented.
 Last, but certainly not least, Kim Jong
Il gave more freedom to artists. In the Kim Il Sung era, the only permitted
style of art was “socialist realism”, which was, speaking honestly, nothing more than state propaganda.
Under Kim Jong Il, North Korean painters, for example, were allowed to explore
new ways of art, such as impressionism. In a sense, this particular situation
was more liberal than in the Soviet Union.
It should be remembered, however, that the
main goal for Kim Jong Il was the preservation of his power. The lives of North
Koreans were of little meaning to him in comparison. To see the leader enjoying
a life of luxury, while the people were dying from widespread famine –and that exactly what happened in North Korea in late 1990s – is revolting. Also to be considered is the fact that some of
Kim Jong Il’s policies, most notably, the currency
reform of 2009, utterly failed – probably
because the North Korean leadership did not have a clue how an economics really
works [where would they study such a thing?]
Thus, Kim Jong Il is by all means guilty,
but he is guilty mainly of crimes of inaction. Kim Il Sung, however, is
culpable of innumerable criminal acts against the people of North Korea.
*Views expressed in Guest Columns do
not necessarily reflect those of Daily NK.