Kim Jong-il’s Death: A Reflection

As we are sure you know, the North Korean dictator Kim Jong-il has passed away at the age of 69.  Normally, The Composite would offer you tidbits on the situation, ranging from live blog’s and analyses to a book review on his life (don’t tempt us!)  Given the fluid nature of the situation, though, I thought it appropriate to pass along a story that might put Kim’s death in perspective.  A reflection, and then some thoughts, after the jump.

Back in 2006, I had no idea what I wanted to study in college.  A high school junior, I had predictably already changed my career path enough times that it seemed like I would just fall into something.  First I wanted to be a Veterinarian- my cockapoo’s uneven haircut is proof positive that would have been a disaster.  An illustrious career as a radio DJ also fell by the wayside, probably due to my inability to refrain from expletive-laden rants about 90% of the music scene.  Law enforcement?  Let’s not even kid ourselves.  I loved my history classes, but those seemed to offer nothing more than a distant, ivory-tower position I’d regret for the rest of my life.  In fact, the only thing I seemed to enjoy doing was…debating.

Unaware that things like “communication studies” even existed, I finished up my junior year of speech and debate ready for summer and debauchery.  One final, minor task was in my way: a corporate sponsored three-on-three debate tournament at Rutgers University.  Money and/or success may or may not have been the prize.  To be truthful, I don’t really remember.  In fact, I entered the tournament with no false pretenses.  The debate was an excuse to skip class, argue, and maybe have some fun in the process.

If you told me then how that debate would alter the course of my life, I would have laughed at you.  If you asked me today what the topic of the debate was, I’d stare at you blankly.  For argument’s sake (ha!), let’s assume it was the following (or some approximation of it.)

Resolved: The United States should not provide humanitarian assistance to non-democratic regimes.

The basis gist of the debate was sanctions.  Should the U.S. (a.k.a., West) be attempting to assist populations living under corrupt governments?  About halfway into the day, my debates began to shine some sort of metaphysical light on me.  The longer I listened to my opponent’s claim that depriving a country of assistance was the only way to assist those living in poverty, the more I wondered:  is that really the case?  My argument, time and time again, used North Korea as a case study.  Surely, it was not the fault of North Korea’s population that they were born into a murderous regime?  Even if aid was siphoned, the little help that did get through was proof enough that we could make a difference, was it not?  Was it up to us to be picking and choosing which populations we would help, based largely on political aims?

Sanctions weren't going to turn the lights on, or provide food.

I don’t remember much of that day.  Surely, our collective lack of understanding in International Relations theory made us all look like fools.  Fools though we may have been, I knew my calling when I drove out of New Brunswick that day.  My calling was to make a difference, somehow, anyhow.

The next year, I applied to political science/international relations programs, and enrolled at Seton Hall.  Although I learned quite a lot about North Korea, diplomacy, and poverty, I didn’t end up a diplomat.  I did, though, learn that what matters most is the needs of people on the ground.  For all of the theorizing, debating, and criticizing my peers and I conducted from on high, the bottom line was that millions of people around the world were dying and starving with little academic fruit waiting to save them.  I left college seemingly as I entered it: armed with a belief that at the end of the day, what matters most is the needs of those who were born with nothing, and never asked for their place in life.

It’s always easy to point out the flaws in a political policy.  Hell, these days it seems like the best political policy is to criticize what your opponent is doing.  To this day, I maintain that we need a major refocusing on issues like poverty and sanctions: not left/right, intervention/isolationism, or anything else of the sort.  Rather, if people would remember that our ultimate goal is improving the lives of those living in desperation, it might just get the ball rolling on some real accomplishments.

That day at Rutgers told me that simply through conversation, we can realize how passionate we are about something.  For me, it was finding a way to shed light on the needs of those who have been murdered, starved, and deprived of their most basis rights.  For others, it might be a love for biology or poetry.  What mattered most about that day wasn’t just hopes, dreams, and flawed arguments of stupid high schoolers.  What mattered, at least to me, was how we lose focus of what inspires us.

Six years later, I don’t study international relations.  I’m not on my way to becoming a diplomat.  Hell, I don’t even follow the news as much as I used to.  The one thing that remains from that sunny day at Rutgers is my hopes that I could make a difference in this world.

A large question mark hangs over North Korea.  As it stands as of my writing this post, Kim Jong-il’s son is set to take over the country.  That possibility should bring little hope to the millions of North Koreans starving or living in repression.  It seems disrespectful to all of those affected by the North’s tyrannical reign to suggest things are looking up.  Between rogue generals and an inexperienced new ruler, the possibility for some sort of real change are wild and (at this point), speculative.

Certainly, it would be an experience to a be a fly on the wall in the dark corridors and back rooms of Washington, Pyongyang, Seoul, and Beijing right now.  Clearly, the U.S. and South Korea’s chief concern should be stability; let’s not forget the thousands of U.S. military personel stationed in the region.  China has a clear interest in a stable North Korea, lest millions of refugees pour over the border.  As for South Korea, let’s put it this way: Kim’s government frequently threatened to turn Seoul into a “sea of fire.”  A bunch of nuclear weapons being handed over to an experienced son can’t be too comforting to the South’s leaders.

From a purely speculative point of view, things aren’t getting better in the North anytime soon.  Democracy isn’t going to pop up tomorrow, and the thing’s I’ve seen online already are straight-up bugnutty (#OccupyPyongyang?)  In reality, Western policy-makers will maintain the status quo.  Of course, security is a top concern.  Still, it seems that a much needed focus on the North Korean population could be lost in the shuffle of regime change and potential power struggles.  We need only look at coverage of all the other poorest places on earth to remember where the media’s priorities lie.

It’s certainly amusing to poke fun at Kim Jong-il and the backwards state of affairs in the North.  Hell, even I’m guilty of playing “Is Robert Mugabe the next crazy dictator to go?”  Our focus on North Korea, though, isn’t just about nuclear weapons and crazy dudes with funny hair.  It’s about those who are like us, just waiting for a chance to eat, live, and express themselves freely.  If we all remember that moving forward, it will make today’s events so much more meaningful and hopeful.  So from one person inspired by the North Korea people: let’s remember that our  focus in the days ahead should be on those who suffer the most, not those who impose the suffering.

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