The West, somewhat amused by the efforts of the 5-foot-3 Kim to get its attention, kept waiting for him to be toppled. He was an appalling, immoral man who privately indulged in expensive cognac and cigars while his people starved; who once kidnapped South Korean movie celebrities so he could start his own film industry. In a secret meeting that George W. Bush had with Republican senators in 2002—reported by my then-Newsweek colleague, Howard Fineman—the U.S. president called Kim a hateful "pygmy" who behaved like "a spoiled child at a dinner table." (After those remarks were reported, North Korean officials regularly complained to Washington-based Korea scholar Selig Harrison, who visited Pyongyang often: "How can we deal with you when your leader doesn't show us even a minimum of respect?") Paul Wolfowitz, Bush’s often-errant deputy Defense Secretary, declared in 2004 that North Korea was “teetering on the edge of economic collapse” and suggested a freeze in aid would bring political collapse as well.
But there is a reason that hasn’t happened—and why it’s not likely to happen soon, even now. There is, perhaps, no totalitarianism in the world that is as all-embracing as North Korea’s. Something like it hasn't existed since Stalin died (and with him a personality cult very much like that which surrounds the Kims). I have spent time in other police states, but even in some of the most vicious of them, an undercurrent of dissent ran like a subterranean stream through the back rooms of restaurants, bars and private meeting rooms. Even under Saddam Hussein, Iraqi cab drivers would glance around when pressed and spit out their hatred of the dictator. Dissidents in Myanmar, during the worst of the crackdown, would whisper their fealty to democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi. In Vietnam, Saigon residents would raise their eyebrows and snort at the central planners in the North. In China, after Mao's death, there was a reappraisal of his policies, and the Communist Party ultimately allowed that some elements of "Mao Zedong Thought," like the disastrous Great Leap Forward of the '50s or the Cultural Revolution of the '60s, had not been successful.
But in North Korea, long after Stalinism has become a yellowing chapter in the history books elsewhere—and despite intermittent reports of a power struggle at the top-- there is little evidence that dissent among the public exists at all, even today. The effects of the Arab Spring seem to have reached China, and possibly Russia. But there are no reports of any democracy movement in North Korea. Very few people yet seem willing to question whether the Kim family dynasty might be to blame for an economic slide that took the North from parity with South Korea, as recently as the 1960s, to one of the highest rates of malnutrition in the world and the death of hundreds of thousands of people from starvation.
It is too simplistic to attribute this mindset to a mere fear of repression or self-censorship. Yes, according to State Department human-rights reports and the few defectors to make it out of North Korea, there are gulags in remote areas for the wrong-thinking. But on the whole, there seems little in the way of independent thought to censor. One foreign resident of Pyongyang, when asked on our trip in 2000 if he had ever seen any evidence of dissent--even over drinks with North Korean associates--responded: "Never. Nothing." North Korea's regime has come the closest of any society to what Orwell called, in 1984, the literal inability to conceive an unorthodox thought. If one sets aside the fact that North Korea is an economic sinkhole, and that its freedom-loving enemies are crowding in upon it from every side, it may even be called the most successful totalitarianism in modern history.
The natural response of Americans has been to say that this must and will change. But that is to underestimate the peculiar staying power of North Korean totalitarianism. There is a reason why the regime of the Kims survives while, all around it, the Soviet bloc disintegrated and the Chinese opened up and reformed. The North Korean regime's ideology, called juche, is often simplistically defined as Korean self-reliance and ridiculed in the West. But to the North Korean elites, juche is still a powerfully intoxicating brew of traditional Korean xenophobia and nationalism, Confucian respect for authority and utopian Marxism-Leninism. The party embodies all of these ideals--nationalism, filial respect, utopia. Exploiting this confluence of philosophies and experiences, Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il created "an impermeable and absolutist state that many have compared to a religious cult," wrote longtime Korea observer, Don Oberdorfer in his 1997 book, "The Two Koreas."
Hence it hasn’t broken down, long after other regimes have, despite a smorgasbord of Western policies ranging from tough sanctions to occasional freezes in aid. George W. Bush started off with confrontation and ended up launching controversial diplomacy with North Korea that was disowned by his most hawkish supporters, including Vice President Cheney. But that too failed to move Pyongyang to give up its nuclear program. Secretary of State Clinton has also set a policy of "strategic patience" with North Korea, refusing to offer any new incentives to Pyongyang in order to induce it to return to nuclear-disarmament talks.
That policy seemed to have little more success than past ones. Things grew only more tense, including open hostilities between North and South Korea in 2010. In recent months, the U.S. has lurched back toward diplomacy, mostly secretly. Before Kim’s death, Pyongyang and Washington were reportedly set to hold meetings in Beijing on Thursday to discuss a possible resumption of the long-suspended “six-party” talks on the North's nuclear weapons program.
But, sadly, these efforts are unlikely to make any headway as long as the North Korean regime remains in place, its character unchanged.