In the early summer of 1945, various American military planners bobbed through Pacific typhoons, paced humid Sichuan airfields, and filled their War Department offices with tobacco smoke in anxiety, wondering what they would do with postwar Japan. The end of World War II in Asia is primarily remembered for its horrifying conflagration of human flesh and the U.S. Air Force attacks on civilians, but the period also witnessed the expression of a classic debate which concerns us today: Given conditions of defeat or collapse, can a victorious foreign power or an indigenous band of political reformers use a discredited imperial cult to its own ends?
Against a chorus of protest which included many Japanese, General Douglas MacArthur decided to maintain Hirohito on the throne, christening the Showa Emperor almost immediately in September 1945 as a man whose past was irrelevant and whose desires were congruent with the new democratic trends. MacArthur was well versed in using American troops to smash dissenters, but he fell squarely into the camp that the imperial institution, stripped of its militaristic garb, could play a significant role in stabilising Japanese society undergoing intense upheavals in virtually every other area of life. Hirohito played along magnificently, efficiently having his wartime diaries burned even as the US rebuilt Japanese airfield which would soon be used to drop napalm on North Korean troops and civilians.
In the case of the country whose occupation was supposed to have been modelled on the successes of Japan – namely, Iraq – the U.S. made a different set of calculations. From the outset of the war (die sogennanten “Operation Iraqi Freedom”) the Americans sought to assassinate Saddam Hussein and his family. The U.S. moved thereafter to uproot, demonize, and render illegal anyone who had had contacts with Saddam’s expansive Baath Party, a group which included more than a few members of the university system and most of the police. Thanks to the “de-Baathification” policy and the total demonization of the old system, such people were thus rendered inoperable and pushed into varying degrees of resistance to the occupation. Seven years, four million refugees, three city-sized forward operating bases, a few thousand American dead, and a couple of trillion dollars later, we realize that a policy of soft continuity on the Japanese model, had it been possible, might have been easier. The comparison is inherently unfair, yet it still is worth making: Hirohito got a free pass, the occupation went relatively well (nostalgic stat for the day: 0 American combat deaths in seven years of occupation) and the emperor spent the rest of his life cutting ribbons, writing books about sea biology, and listening to his successor-son Prince Akihito practice cello. Saddam, by contrast, unleashed a Mao-style guerrilla warfare against American forces, had his dead offspring laid out on operating tables like slabs of meat for foreign photographers, and was so hated that, when he was finally handed over to our new Iraqi Shiite allies, they put his execution up on YouTube.
Among the most horrified viewers of Saddam’s demise was, undoubtedly, Kim Jong Il in Pyongyang. Kim has, no doubt, lingered over video footage of dictators strung up by long-repressed mobs like Ceaucesceau in Romania (1989) and Moussilini in Milan. Moreover, as one whose teenage years were spent in the global swoon of leftist tilt toward Moscow, he was also no doubt aware that the Romanov royal family ended up, well, in pieces. But, as Bryan Myers argues in The Cleanest Race (a “must-read” for any serious Pyongyangologist), the North Korean regime patterns itself most clearly on the Japanese imperial model. For a man confronting his own morality and the possibility of torrential change after his death like Kim Jong Il, Hirohito remains a salient example in more ways than one, and one who represents continuity.
Forgetting for a moment that China seems determined to prop up the DPRK, come hell or high water (and there has been plenty of both already in the past few months): What happens if North Korea collapses? The US and China, the two big military fish in the region, seem unable to agree to even discuss post-collapse scenarios. When a top Chinese think-tank scholar implied that China would work through the UN and not unilaterally occupy North Korea, it was big news. Nevertheless, this kind of open discussion certainly also causes tremors in Pyongyang. South Korea, for its part, has always seemed to assume a collapse of the northern government would result in the absolute obliteration of the North Korean state system and the wholesale absorption of the entirety of the peninsula under the rule of the Republic of Korea from the traditional political center of Seoul. Recent estimates, however, of the exorbitant price tag for such a policy – minus one bullish Goldman Sachs report which fairly drooled at the all the valuable minerals still to be extracted from underneath North Korea’s mountain ranges – have cooled Seoul’s ardor to swallow North Korea whole. Keep sending rice, they say, we don’t want these people here. With 20,000 North Korean refugees now in South Korea, the ROK feels stuffed to the gills with them. Imagine 20 million poor North Koreans all needing handouts, jobs, etc. A tiered society would emerge immediately, even if a handful of North Korean elites – assuming they were able to escape prosecution for crimes against humanity – would be able to hold their own economically in the new system. Continuity has its benefits.
If North Korea can evolve into a system truly committed to Chinese-style reforms, the regime may still have a Kimist face. Irregardless, even if North Korea were to fall tomorrow, keeping in mind the example of Douglas MacArthur and Emperor Hirohito may prove to be also of some use.