Mugabe to Rule From Beyond the Grave: the Kim Il-Sung of Africa

Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe’s wife Grace has suggested that he could rule from beyond the grave. Such a comment shouldn’t come as too much of a shock given the equally bizarre, repressive and demagogic reign Mugabe has had. Perhaps more surprising is the acknowledgement that he is actually going to die at some point, having defied both death and deposition to rule into his ninety-fourth year.

Grace Mugabe is Robert’s second wife and has cemented a formidable reputation of her own

Africa is no stranger to kleptocratic and confounding rulers, of course. From the cannibalistic ‘Emperor’ of Central Africa Jean-Bedel Bokassa to The Gambia’s Yahya Jammeh – whose claims that he would rule for a thousand years should Allah decree it were cut short by a shock election defeat in December 2016 – the World’s least developed continent has been plagued by mismanagement from within the highest echelons of political power.

Bokassa at his ‘coronation’ as Emperor (l) and the sunglasses-loving Jammeh (r)

To think that Mugabe’s ruinous rule could continue indefinitely is enough to terrify even those blessed with the strongest of constitutions. He has led one of southern Africa’s most prosperous economies to the brink of extinction, carried out numerous acts of political repression, stifled civil society and encouraged grotesque human rights abuses.

It is perhaps no surprise that his wife is now making these fanciful claims given that she apparently has an eye on the presidency. Invoking the eternal fear of her husband may perhaps dissuade some of her rivals from attempting to oust her before she can seal the top spot.

Whether such a ploy can work is doubtful. Mugabe has been effective in maintaining his grip on power. Yet he has not developed the sort of ideological personality cult that surrounds possibly the most successful posthumous ruler of his day; Kim Il-Sung.

The North Korean communist supremo, who ruled his country (in person at least) from its establishment in 1948 until his death in 1994, retains the title of ‘Eternal President’ in the rogue state now ruled by his maniacal grandson, Kim Jong-Un.

Kim Il-Sung at the Front during the Korean War – Chinese and Soviet backing set the platform for his dictatorship

Fostering a personality cult centred on his unique Juche philosophy, the elder Kim was able to command unswerving loyalty from almost every North Korean citizen, despite a brutal totalitarian regime characterised by periodic starvation, forced interments, and a complete prohibition on the exercising of free will.

Both his son Kim Jong-Il and his grandson Kim Jong-Un have adeptly followed in his footsteps, both safe in the knowledge that the founder of their dynasty retains a critical – if not exactly active- role in ruling his state from the next realm.

The monstrous bronze monument of Kim Il-Sung on the Mansu Hill near Pyongyang reinforces his superiority over the mere mortals he continues to command, a reminder that nothing changes in spite of his physical absence.

Kim Il-Sung has been joined in eternity on Mansudae by his late son, Kim Jong-Il

It is this uniquely persevering hold on a people that has allowed North Korea to operate outside the boundaries of international law and retain a regime of unfathomable brutality without any insurrection or military coups. Kim Jong-Un is taking this ‘freedom’ to the limits, most recently firing a series of ballistic missiles into the Sea of Japan.

Unfortunately for Grace Mugabe, Robert will not bequeath her the genetic legacy or instruments of repression necessary to make her a conduit for his rule from wherever his spirit eventually flees.

You will rule from your grave at the Heroes Acre because you are a uniting force for us.

Truer words have undoubtedly been spoken, yet there is an underlying reality implicit in Grace’s sentiment. Despite overseeing a country mired in misery and suffering, the Kim’s have prevented the disintegration of the North Korean nuclear state and the upheaval such a scenario would cause.

Robert Mugabe has clung to power in Zimbabwe through the harshest measures, and still his demise threatens to unleash a bloody power struggle that could rip the nation asunder.

In a bitter twist of irony to draw to a close the life of one of modern history’s most tyrannical despots, perhaps some are silently wishing that his rule continues in perpetuity.

Putin Courts North Korea: taking a leaf from Stalin’s book to test the courage of the West

Relations between Russia and North Korea are warming; Kim Jong-un looks set to make an official visit to Moscow, President Putin has written off vast amounts of North Korean debt, and there are plans for the Russians to build a transcontinental railroad and gas pipeline across the hermit kingdom. It is no surprise, of course, that this brightening in relations comes during a period of increased hostility between Russia and the USA.

Putin looks set to snub the West further by moving closer to North Korea
Putin looks set to snub the West further by moving closer to North Korea

Washington retains a persistent concern over North Korea’s nuclear ambitions and has proven unable to bend the Kim dynasty to its will, either through strong economic sanctions (which the North appear to be bypassing) or via diplomatic concessions. That Putin now seems keen to forge closer ties with Pyongyang – two rogue states in league – could set alarm bells ringing on Capitol Hill.

Most analysts see Putin’s charm offensive as a political game to rile Washington. They argue that, should it come to supporting the North in the event of a war on the Korean Peninsula, Russia would stay well away. Whilst this seems a rational theory, Putin has quite clearly demonstrated in recent months his refusal to kowtow to the demands of the international community or to act with any political convention. Indeed, it is worth remembering the period leading up to the Korean War to get a sense of the significance that the Putin-Kim relationship may potentially have.

In 1949, Joseph Stalin had no intention of supporting a North Korean takeover of its southern neighbour, which had been in the American-occupied zone after WWII. A direct confrontation with American forces was something the dictator was keen to avoid, as Putin would be today.

Yet the success of the communist revolution in China, and the promised support of Mao Zedong, allied with North Korean enthusiasm, led Stalin to sanction an invasion of the South in 1950. The proviso was that no Soviet forces would be engaged in open combat. Rather, Stalin used the North Koreans and Chinese as a proxy army against his ideological enemy whilst helping direct the war through the presence of Soviet advisers in Pyongyang and covert air support.

Stalin backed Kim's bid for the Korean Peninsula, testing American fortitude in the process
Stalin backed Kim’s bid for the Korean Peninsula, testing American fortitude in the process

Putin himself has shown a willingness to make use of proxy fighters, from Georgia to the Caucuses and, presently, in eastern Ukraine. He has also had no problem publicising Russian arms deals to Iran, despite widespread international opposition. Indeed, Putin shares a similar worldview to Stalin in that it is Russo-centric, predicated on expansionism and belligerent to the end.

Whilst Russia is unlikely to come to North Korea’s rescue should Kim make a foolhardy move against the South, it is not beyond the realms of possibility that Putin will seek to create further Western alarm on the Korean Peninsula and, in the process, turn its attention away from Eastern Europe.

In recent years, North Korea has acted petulantly by shelling South Korean islands and sinking its ships. Russian technology and intelligence could make such ‘small-scale’ provocations more targeted, without risking a major US response. Cyber attacks – which the North has already shown a penchant for – are another possible arena of cooperation between Moscow and Pyongyang.

Put simply, the Russians have already done far worse in Ukraine and got away with it. North Korea has the added benefit of a functioning (if small) nuclear deterrent which will naturally inhibit any deadly response to attacks against the South. Should Putin also manage to attain Chinese support for any such cover operation (tacit or otherwise), he will gain the ability to influence the geostrategic balance in Northeast Asia.

America stood firm in 1950 and prevented a communist takeover of the Korean Peninsula. Stalin tested American mettle and was met with a ferocious reply. Times have changed and the disgraceful inaction over Ukraine (in addition to Nigeria, South Sudan and a whole host of other places) shows that the West has lost its bottle.

The Incheon landing, which saved Korea, was a great act of American courage and strategy
The Incheon landing, which saved Korea, was a great act of American courage and strategy

It may be logical to believe that Putin would not risk a close alliance with the world’s ultimate pariah state. Yet at this moment in time he must feel invincible. Until the West stands up to him, as it did to the Soviet leaders during the Cold War, he will not back down. If he cannot shape the world in Russia’s image, he will at least ensure that American predominance is tested in every region within which he is able to exert his considerable influence.

Purges in North Korea: the route to security or instability?

The decision by North Korea’s supreme leader Kim Jong-Un to execute his chief advisor and uncle, Jang Song-Taek, has led to considerable speculation as to what this will do to the security of the isolationist country and the Northeast Asia region in general.

The purge of Jang (right) has led to fears of increased insecurity on the Korean Peninsula
The purge of Jang (left) has led to fears of increased insecurity on the Korean Peninsula

At his father Kim Jong-Il’s funeral in December 2011, Kim Jong-Un walked beside the leader’s the coffin flanked by seven men. These were designated regents, dubbed the ‘gang of seven’, chosen by the late Kim to provide advice to his son, the fledgling dictator. After Jang Song-Taek’s execution, only two of these men remain in office. Kim Jong-Un’s purges send out a signal; he is the man in charge and will be held accountable to no person, whatever sound judgement they may provide.

It has been suggested that Kim Jong-Un’s purge of Jang is a sign of impulsiveness, bordering on weakness, which marks the young dictator’s desperation to be seen as the sole arbiter of North Korea’s future. This sign of weakness, it is argued, may embolden potential agitators to manoevure Kim from power, potentially sparking factional infighting within the North Korean Workers’ Party and thus destabilising the Korean Peninsula as a whole.

Despite the apparent suddenness and brutality of the purge, however, Kim is merely following in the footsteps of his father who overcame his own obstacles en route to consolidating his authoritarian position.

Even before the death of North Korea’s revered founder, Kim Il-Sung, Kim Jong-Il (his son) was ousting potential rivals and usurpers from the political scene. In October 1992, he purged 20 military officers whose loyalty to the regime was in doubt, sacking a further 300.

After succeeding his father, who died in July 1994, Kim Jong-Il instigated further purges. In April 1995, he removed and executed the entire officer corps of the Sixth Army, apparently issuing death warrants for several hundred other soldiers on tenuous accusations of treason.

The reclusive Kim Jong-Il purged officials and military officers throughout his reign
The reclusive Kim Jong-Il purged officials and military officers throughout his reign

During a time of high famine in 1997, Kim publicly executed his agricultural minister, along with several hundred other officials, as a means of deflecting criticism of his handling of the economy. He followed this in 2000 with another purge of senior political figures for “alienating the party from the masses and playing into the enemy’s hands.”

Even Jang Song-Taek, Kim’s brother-in-law and the man at the centre of the current debate, was dismissed from his party posts in 2004, although he was later reinstated.

If there was ever any inkling that an individual was becoming too powerful, or had designs on undermining the all-powerful Kim dynasty, he was swiftly brought to book, along with anybody unfortunate enough to have links with the said individual.

Past loyalty was irrelevant; paranoia and suspicion remained essential characteristics for Kim in his bid to retain dominance over the country. His willingness to purge people, often executing them subsequently, led to the failure of many policies and the imposition of incompetents in positions of power.

That in itself, however, prevented any significant challenge to Kim’s rule and consequently denied the possibility for the sort of infighting that could lead to the violent breakdown of the one-family dynasty, a scenario most Western diplomats are terrified about.

By initiating his own purges, Kim Jong-Un might encourage his potential opponents to overthrow him whilst any chance remains. It is more likely, however, that his ruthless decision-making will consolidate his rule, as was the case with his father. It might lead to the execution of many innocent people, but such a policy will also root out potential usurpers.

Kim Jong-Un's preservation of his family dynasty is reliant on a policy of purging
Kim Jong-Un’s preservation of his family dynasty is reliant on a policy of purging

This means continuing misery for the North Korean people, destined to live lives of impoverished brutality under the Stalinist regime. Simultaneously, however, it reduces the risk of an internal rupture within the North Korean Worker’s Party. As such, the chances of a bloody civil war in a nuclear-armed country are decreased rather than the feared reverse.