Limited options for retiring dictators, even one with nuclear warheads

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 27 August, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 27 August, 2011, 12:00am


Uneasy lies the head of a dictator while mobs demonstrate against him and rebels rampage over his fiefdom. The trouble is, there's no retirement programme for dictators. Nobody ever heard of a dictator, faced with the need to flee or get killed or thrown into a dungeon, saying: 'OK, I quit, now it's somebody else's turn to be a dictator.' Instead, dictators not only hang on for dear life; they try to ensure that their progeny carry on if - heaven forbid - they prove to be mere mortals after all.

That's the problem across the Middle East, from Libya to Syria, and also in a number of other countries where dictators aren't always in danger of losing their jobs but love to make life miserable for their long-suffering people while amassing billions for themselves. Dictatorial bosses, unless they are owners figuring out how to divide their assets among their sons and daughters, have to step aside at some specific age. Dictators never fade away. If they're lucky, they slip into forced exile. Otherwise, they hang on until death and they are memorialised in statues and place names.

So it is in North Korea, whose dictator for life, Kim Jong-il, has survived any number of illnesses, and possibly palace coup attempts we know nothing about, and now is selling the singular qualifications and achievements of his youngest son to no doubt disbelieving but accepting Russians and Chinese, and everyone else who counts. The Russians and Chinese, no fools, cannot think Kim Jong-un has done much to distinguish himself, despite his rank of four-star general, but that doesn't matter as long as North Korea serves as a buffer against the evil aims of the Americans, Japanese and other historic regional control freaks.

The Americans are no better when it comes to coddling dictators whose interests are seen as coinciding with those of the United States. The US has never been good at explaining why regimes in Saudi Arabia and lesser kingdoms on the Persian Gulf are OK when their records show they are anything but. It's s also possible to conjure up the names of dictators, from Central and South America to Africa to eastern Europe, who have been quite liked by Washington just because they are on the right side of whatever benighted interests the US was pursuing.

Sometimes, to be sure, American leaders and diplomats have had a terrible time rationalising their policies even to themselves. They had trouble during and after the Korean war, for instance, swallowing Syngman Rhee and finally shipped him, in 1960, to that resting ground for no-longer-needed 'pro-American' leaders, namely Hawaii. Rhee set a precedent for later dictators whom Washington came to view as a nuisance or an embarrassment, such as the Philippines' long-time ruler, Ferdinand Marcos, who was flown to Hawaii in 1986 after his ouster in a 'people power' revolt.

Would that Libya's Muammar Gaddafi or Syria's Bashar al-Assad could accept a similar fate. As dictators, they definitely qualify for retirement in Hawaii, but, too bad, they're not American allies. Then again, maybe something will open up for them. Who would have believed Uganda's Idi Amin, after years of terrorising and massacring his people, would have found aid and comfort in exile in Saudi Arabia? Then there was Romania's Nicolae Ceausescu and his wife, Elena. They were trying to get to the airport in Bucharest for a flight to Beijing when anti-communist forces grabbed them, executing them on Christmas Day in 1989.

Kim Jong-il has to be looking over his shoulder as revolt sweeps the Middle East, just as his father, Kim Il-sung, worried about the fall of regimes in charge of the Soviet Union and eastern Europe before his death in 1994. He has been inoculating himself by paying homage to Chinese and Russian leaders, looking for economic survival and the blessing of his Korean war protectors for his choice of Kim Jong-un as heir. That's after South Korean leaders for a decade, from 1998 to 2008, plied him with untold billions so two South Korean presidents could fly to Pyongyang and bow before him.

The case of Kim Jong-il is actually more extreme than that of most other dictators for two reasons. One is that none of the others countenances such an extensive system of political prisons. True, some of them have knocked off hundreds, perhaps thousands, of foes, but North Korea has inflicted death, by execution, starvation or disease, upon hundreds of thousands if not millions.

Second, none of these other dictators has been so enthusiastic about developing nuclear warheads. Sure, Gaddafi had them for a few years, but he gave them up to impress his critics that he was really a nice guy, and to benefit from trade and investment.

Amazingly, there was a time when Washington hailed the Libyan example as worthy of emulation by North Korea. Then, as the US turned on Gaddafi, North Korea held up Libya as evidence of what befalls a country that yields to such pressure. Now, as Kim begs for aid in order to celebrate his 70th birthday in February and the 100th anniversary of the birth of his father in April, no one believes he'll give up his beloved nuclear weapons. For the 'Dear Leader', they provide the ultimate bulwark against the fate that has befallen so many other dictators. He might, however, consider overdue retirement - as long as his son carries on as dictator after him.

Donald Kirk,, is the author of Korea Betrayed: Kim Dae Jung and Sunshine