North Korea: Waiting for the "Great Leader" to Die

"You'll be there for the succession," one of my editors at NEWSWEEK told me as I was preparing to go to Moscow in May 1981 to start my first assignment there. Then he added: "But I've told our last three correspondents that and they've come and gone and Brezhnev is still in power."

If I had stayed a full three years in Moscow as planned, I would have proven my editor right in his fourth prediction. But partly because of my reporting on Leonid Brezhnev's deteriorating health and the behind-the-scenes power struggle that was already developing, I was expelled from the Soviet Union in August 1982. The Soviet leader didn't die until October, which meant that I missed the story. Like any journalist in that kind of situation, I felt frustrated and disappointed not to be there to cover the finale.

What triggered those memories was the latest reports from South Korea's YTN television that North Korea's "Beloved Leader" Kim Jong Il has pancreatic cancer, which would mean he doesn't have long to live. As during the late Brezhnev era, each such report generates new denials, new speculation, and new scrutiny of any television footage of one of the dictator's increasingly rare public appearances to determine whether or not he's already one foot in his grave. The world watches with macabre fascination as a man, who in life has been elevated to near divine status, goes the way of all ordinary humans. And it eagerly awaits the next chapter in the drama: the political succession.

The drama is heightened by its mystery. Everyone knows what is happening in broad terms, but nothing can be acknowledged and discussed openly, even—or especially—the fact of the leader's mortality. And that someone will have to succeed him, which of course means he's not irreplaceable (banish that heretical thought or the gulag awaits you!). Except in the outside free world, where each new report or rumor sends the Kremlin watchers or the Pyongyang watchers into overdrive. Will the chosen heir—in Kim's case, his third son, 25-year-old Kim Jong Un—really take over? What will the party elders do? What about the generals? Is there someone or something we don't know anything about that will take everyone completely by surprise?

The less information there is, the more frenzied the speculation, the more elaborate the theories and even dark humor. Just as with Kim, there were occasional rumors that Brezhnev had already died. When he appeared in public, there were stories that he was more like the living dead—briefly revived by large infusions of drugs and alcohol—than a real leader. His slurred speech and reports that his mind was going triggered plenty of jokes among Muscovites. As one story had it, during his trip to Bonn in November 1981, West German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt asked him to explain how he had managed to depose Nikita Khrushchev. "Who's Khrushchev?" Brezhnev answered. As Brezhnev walked away, an aide congratulated him on his clever response to Schmidt. "Who's Schmidt?" the Soviet leader asked.

But at least during the Brezhnev era, there was a large international press corps in Moscow chasing the occasional crumbs of information they could find. We knew that his personal physician, cardiologist Yevgeny Chazov, would not talk, but I was lucky enough to have established contact with another doctor who knew him. To keep in touch, I had to observe all the usual Cold War rules: never call from my tapped home or office phone. Instead, find a pay phone far away from the foreigners' compound where I lived to drop in my two kopecks and make a quick call, not introducing myself but only using seemingly innocuous small talk to set up a meeting—with exact time and place never mentioned directly. When there were new rumors of a stroke or heart attack, I was able to check their veracity. My source didn't have all the details, but he picked up the crucial information on Brezhnev's condition and could steer me in the right direction. I believed he was telling me the truth, and it turned out he was.

By comparison, North Korea is far more secretive; foreign correspondents are scarce and have little chance of penetrating that society, and no one is likely to get the real story from anyone close to his medical team. So everyone is left guessing. And not just about the leader's health. In any dictatorship, everything about his country feels like it is in suspended animation when the dictator appears to be incapacitated or dying.

That was certainly true when the comparatively mild dictator Josip Broz Tito was dying. His vigil lasted for months before his death in May 1980, with foreign correspondents writing endless stories speculating whether Yugoslavia could survive longer than its leader. It did so for just over a decade, but in the end, without him, the breakup proved unstoppable. For North Korea watchers, there's the opposite question: will the death of Kim lead at some point to the reunification of the Korean Peninsula? In very different ways, powerful dictators determine their country's course—but only as long as they remain alive and in control.

Even the seemingly most powerful dictators can suffer a reversal of fortunes. If the constellation of political forces suddenly shifts, neither their power nor their lives are safe. Think back to the fate of Romania's Nicolae Ceausescu. When I attended the Communist Party Congress in Bucharest in December 1987, the obligatory adulation of the "genius of the Carpathians" looked like something straight out of a particularly bad movie script. During Ceausescu's turgid speech exhorting Romanians to work harder, the 4,000 delegates would jump up repeatedly on cue, clap, and rhythmically chant "Ceausescu, Romania, our pride and esteem." On Dec. 25, 1989, the dictator and his equally detested wife, Elena, who had been elevated to first deputy prime minister and hailed as a brilliant scientist, were executed—the only such violent reprisals against communist leaders during the largely peaceful upheavals of 1989. Many of the same people who had loudly cheered him earlier were ecstatic about this bloodletting.

The lesson seems pretty clear: the more draconian the dictatorship, the more likely is a violent end. But nothing is ever predictable about the transfer of power in a dictatorship. As Mikhail Gorbachev learned in the Soviet Union, and as the Wojciech Jaruzelski's government learned in Poland, loosening the reins of power in the hopes of maintaining control is also risky.

Shortly before the elections in Poland in June 1989, I met with Ireneusz Sekula, the deputy prime minister in charge of economic affairs, in his spacious office at the Council of Ministers. He claimed that the government was already undertaking "revolutionary" changes. Those changes, he noted at one point, would continue "even if a new team entered this building after the elections." When an aide interrupted to say that such an outcome was unlikely, Sekula replied with a grin: "Everything is possible in a democracy." The joke was supposed to be that everyone knew Poland was still far from a democracy: in those first partly free elections, the Communist Party had rigged things by awarding itself and its allies enough uncontested seats in Parliament to guarantee its continuation in power. Or so it seemed. What Sekula and others hadn't counted on was that the momentum from Solidarity's crushing victory in all but one of the contested seats would force a change in government.

Usually in dictatorships, whatever happens comes as a surprise, even to those who were hoping and pushing for change. And in societies like North Korea, where no one dares to suggest openly that change is needed, whatever happens is likely to be even more unpredictable. It's a country where the fiction that the "Beloved Leader" is all powerful, immortal, and the center of the universe must be maintained at all times—that is, until the fiction evaporates, the emperor is dead, and he is revealed to have been naked all along.