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The Moment Before By: Paul Greenberg
The Washington Times | Friday, September 26, 2008


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 memory.

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 long-abandoned hope.

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 again.

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 that's news.

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.


Paul Greenberg is a nationally syndicated columnist.


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