Empire of Madness: Caligula in Pyongyang
The mysterious, baby-faced monster Kim Jong-un has unleashed a Stalin-style onslaught on his own acolytes. It is like a re-enactment of the Soviet Great Purge when Stalin got rid of the whole Bolshevik Old Guard. It is not an exaggeration to predict more bloodshed to follow. No doubt the North Korean nomenklatura is now frightened and humiliated. No one is safe in this universe of paranoid delusions and rampant suspicions.
The propaganda machine indulges in hysterical harangues against the alleged traitors, despicable vermin, “repugnant human scum,” “nauseating reptiles” and other surreal zoological metaphors. Until recently the regime’s number two, lionized as a wise advisor to the satrap, Kim Jong-un’s uncle, Jang Song-thaek, was killed after having been swamped into an ocean of morbid accusations. Is this the abysmal end or the frightening beginning of young Kim’s absolute rule?
As Nicholas Eberstadt has pointed out, Kim Jong-un’s grandfather and father avoided dealing mortal blows to the members of the highest communist aristocracy. They practiced a dynastic communism that blended nationalist mysticism with ferocious Stalinism. The Juche doctrine means the right of the communist Lidero Maximo to act as arbitrarily and erratically as he wishes. Initially, the enigmatic “Dear Leader,” a latter-day Caligula with a Swiss high-school background and the face of a hieratic, opaque deity, seemed to be just a puppet manipulated by his ostensibly omnipotent aunt and uncle. He has finally escaped their suffocating grip, or at least this seems to be his conviction. He acts ruthlessly and in perfect cold blood. Will he continue the carnage or will he be himself liquidated by an equally brutal backlash from those whom he wants to eliminate? Will this grotesque farce culminate in a settling of accounts that could somehow restore a minimal rationality in this empire of madness? What card will China play?
When Kim Jong-un was ritualistically anointed his father’s successor two years ago, and the world media were disseminating those mind-boggling images with teenagers hitting their heads and old ladies screaming as loud as possible their desperation, I predicted that the struggle for power would exacerbate to the point of assassinations and show trials. What is at stake is absolute power within an absolutist regime, a red monarchy if ever one was. For the time being, the “beloved aunt” and estranged wife of the executed “traitor,” has managed to survive. It is not sure at all that the vindictive Kim Jong-un will spare her. The logic of unbound Stalinism is an ever-growing, endless purge. Still, it is hard to know whether in the dark corridors of the North Korean pyramid of power some of the alleged loyalists are not sharpening their daggers. This is not Hamlet in Pyongyang, but rather Richard III or Caligula.
I have written a lot on national Stalinism and dynastic communism in Romania, North Korea, and Cuba. There are striking similarities between Nicolae Ceausescu’s and Kim Il-sung’s experiments. In 1986 I published in the journal “Orbis” a study titled “Byzantine Rites, Stalinist Follies: The Twilight of Dynastic Socialism in Romania.” I explored the wedding between unbound Stalinism and nationalist delirium, the mixing of autarchic narcissism and ideological paranoia, the relations between party elite, secret police and army within a decrepit dictatorship. I am tempted to write now an article titled “Confucian Rites, Stalinist Follies: The Twilight of Dynastic Communism in North Korea.” Ideological dictatorships, also known as ideocracies or logocracies, cultivate miracle, myth, and mystery (a point made by historian Fritz Stern).
In the case of North Korea, the miracle and the myth are totally exhausted. The mystery remains and this is most alarming.