There is a moment that comes in the planet's frozen regions and frozen
regimes when it has been winter so long spring is only a forgotten
It is a moment of both absolute quiet and absolute unease. Nothing
seems to be happening. Nothing has changed, not outwardly. The wind
still howls as it has howled for so long, the snow still piles and
drifts and settles, obscuring the outlines of structures and events ...
and yet one can feel something is changing, something beneath the
surface, beyond appearances.
Call it the moment before. Long before spring. Before even the first
tentative signs of any thaw. Before the first thunderous crack of the
ice is heard, before the floes begin to collide and the waters gush
again. It is not so much a change as an uncertain intimation of it, a
kind of prestirring. It may exist only in imagination, in
Such is the moment that has arrived for North Korea.
It has come not with any news event in that long, ice-locked
dictatorship, where any change is treason, and hope a state crime, but
an event that didn't happen. Dear Leader was not seen at a state
ceremony or grand convocation of the Party, and then he was not seen
The other day he didn't preside over the parade marking the 60th
anniversary of the state's founding. The 60th anniversary of a great
prison was being celebrated without its warden in attendance. Now
For months, tanks, rocket launchers and all the equipage of a
typical People's Republic (the kind bent on assuring that the people
never have a republic) had been assembled outside Pyongyang for the
great display. But came the great day, and the parade was scaled back.
Among the missing displays was Kim Jong-il himself. Dear Leader hasn't
been seen by his adoring/fearful public for close to a month. And with
his every nonappearance, something shimmers, something akin to hope.
Somewhere in the subterranean depths of the state, in the corridors
of closely held power, something may be happening. Or not. It could all
be a cruel hoax. But the rumor/anticipation/wild thought grows that
Dear Leader may be sick — sick unto death. Speculation is that he
suffered some kind of collapse late last month. August 22 is the best
guess. But it is a state secret. The lips of all his courtiers are
sealed. Even as they maneuver to arrange, dare we even say it, the
Succession. Who will take charge? Will it be the military, some
kinsman, a Soviet-style troika?
Who knows? It is the East. It is North Korea, which would make even
the regime in Beijing seem open. It is a mystery shrouded in fear. In
Pyongyang, the prudent know better than to ask. Only the innermost
circle may know. And the doctors.
The people take great care to go about their business as usual, as
if all were as it always has been and officially will be. For to talk
of such things is dangerous. Only outside the forbidden kingdom do
people jabber about whether the passing of Kim Jong-il would mean a
slackening of the terror that is his rule. Or only an intensification
of it in order to discourage any dreams of post-Kim laxity. Inside the
country, long frozen hope can't be said to be stirring, not yet, but
people may begin to remember what hope was.
When has this happened before? Memory reaches back for another such
moment: Russia, 1953, early March. Nothing had changed yet, but
everything was about to. The inkling came long before the official
announcement that the doctors had applied leeches to the patient. Even
before it was officially announced that the Man of Steel, Josef Stalin
himself, had fallen ill.
All anyone knew was that the Face on the Posters had not been seen
at this event or that. Could it be? Could it be that Big Brother was
not mythic after all, and so eternal, but a man of flesh, subject to
all the ills flesh is heir to? Might he yet prove, one dared not even
think it, mortal?
The same unexpressed, inexpressible thought must now be on
everyone's mind in the forbidden kingdom: Could he already be gone, our
Dear Leader? The old ones will remember the death of his father and
template, Kim Il-sung, and that it was not announced till more than a
day after it had occurred.
In the frozen wasteland that has been North Korea's history for more
than half a century, the people wait for the news to come. When it
does, it will light up the sky, and a great wave of official mourning
will cover the land like a celebration. People will cry, for who need
know that the tears are tears of joy?
When that great day comes, those of us who comment on the news will
speculate as always on what happens next, on the role of the military
and the Party, on the possible make-up of the next troika, on the
chances of war or peace or neither. But the poets and historians will
conjure up the feelings that, long held back, rise to the surface when
it is announced that some Maximum Leader is ailing. Even now, surely,
they must sense it, this moment before.