Watch CBSN Live

Column: Ailing Leader Leaves Future Of N. Korea Potentially Open

This story was written by Rosaleen O'Sullivan, Daily Trojan

The Great Leader was born to save North Korea from the terrors of the encroaching world. The Korean War came and went, and Kim Il-Sung rebuilt and improved. Enemy neighbors such as China, Japan and Russia all tried to stake a claim in the war-ravaged country, but the Eternal Leader could not be overthrown.

With the leadership of Kim came peace and stability. Knowing the dangers that the outside world would bring, he wisely cut all economic and political ties.

Such is the belief of the majority of North Koreans, and even as their country has dropped into terrible poverty, the average citizen continues to idolize the former leader who died in 1994.

There are roughly 800 statues of Kim scattered thoughout the country, and his image is hung in every place of public transportation. Prominent dates associated with his life and death are commemorated as public holidays, even today.

This cult of personality might seem strange to onlookers in the Western world, but for the average North Korean -- uneducated, starving -- Kim is the face of a time when things were better.

In the same way that deeply religious people in the West accept their faith, even with its flaws, so do North Koreans assume that Kim was right in all that he did, regardless of the impact that his isolationist attitudes have had in a globalizing world.

But the poverty of a small isolated country would not have garnered so much attention if it were not for Kim's successor. Kim Jong-Il, the Dear Leader, was the natural choice to follow in his father's footsteps (after a bit of bickering with the Korean Workers' Party, which remains an active political force). He has been deemed deranged, an eccentric genius or simply an ill-equipped spoiled brat with too much power.

Kim Jong-Il's leadership began in 1993 and, in the16 years that have followed, he has spent his time drinking the finest wines, entertaining the most beautiful women and threatening the world with nuclear warfare.

Most recently, CNN revealed that North Korea has been building a new missile launch site that is roughly 80 percent completed.

Although the construction of a missle launch site is not a violation of international law, intelligence services in the United States and South Korea said that they have been monitoring it closely for several years.

Any launch site on North Korean soil is considered a threat to the outside world because Kim has no qualms about making dire threats to the West.

Perhaps these are just the meaningless words of a hypochondriacal leader who harbors irrational fears of attack -- perhaps his massive ego and need to impress give him a bravado that would never amass to anything realistically.

Or maybe he truly is out of control and could press that button at any moment. The ongoing nuclear crisis is not so much within the strength of North Korea as a nation as it is within the power of a single ruler to do something truly insane.

But the world is taking a second look at Kim these days. Elderly, overweight and increasingly feeble, analysts have openly wondered if his health might soon give out altogether. And when Kim failed to appear at a parade marking the 60th anniversary of the country's founding on Sept. 9, speculations abounded as to whether or not he was even still alive.

North Korean representatives say he is alive and capable of maintaining power despite having suffered a stroke. But even if Kim is still alive, the West must now seriously consider what will happen when he does eventually die. The Workers' Party is an obvious choice, while the Kim family is an impressive political force. Finally, the country's sizable military orces could easily be used in a coup by any ambitious North Korean general.

And while the world has focused on Kim's personal instability, people within the country have been following his words as the unquestionable truth; after all, where else would they get their information?

When Kim eventually does lose power, the United States and other world leaders must make it clear to incoming rulers that peace with the world is possible and preferable. With an open economy and free media, everyday North Koreans could become a part of the global citizen society.

Only through the flow of accurate information about the outside world will the cult of personality surrounding the Kim family ever be dissolved.

Finally, the world must recognize the deep cultural implications that so many years of outside attack and subsequent isolation will have wrought upon the North Korean population.

Entry by foreign powers will incur nothing but fear and anger. Rather, the West must continue giving aid to the new leadership and allow the country to rebuild itself on its own terms.

With the liberation of trade and the media, North Korea will integrate itself into the modern world at its own pace. Just as former Soviet nations were quick to integrate into the world economy with the fall of the Iron Curtain, so will the flow of new opportunity and information inspire North Koreans to join the global world order.

New leadership could bring great good or further despair to the North Korean people; it is the prerogative of the United States not to inspire greater fear and isolationism, but rather to usher this strange little country into a new era of peace with the world.

View CBS News In
CBS News App Open
Chrome Safari Continue