Saturday, August 30, 2014
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Op-Ed Extra: Two very different Koreas

Looking at Korea's leader, Kim Jong-un, through the lens of personal experience.

Op-Ed Extra: Two very different Koreas

North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un. (AP Photo/KCNA via KNS, File)
North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un. (AP Photo/KCNA via KNS, File)

 

By Jun-Youb "JY" Lee

Despite our vast differences in fortune and allegiance, I have a little in common with Kim Jong-un. Twenty miles south of his 25 million-population hermit kingdom, my family runs a 25-employee botanical garden. Like Kim, who inherited a dynasty from his father a year and a half ago, I am expected to assume the family business upon graduation. To groom me for leadership, my parents sent me to private schools in New Zealand and America. Kim's parents sent him to a private school in Switzerland.

There, Kim read in English, French, and German. Although he struggled in the natural sciences, he excelled in music, not surprising given that his mother was a prima donna of the Pyongyang Opera. Although timid with girls, he was an avid skier and fierce basketball player who worshipped Michael Jordan, according to the Washington Post. Today, former NBA star Dennis Rodman and his crew are the only Americans known to have met Kim.

Despite growing up in privilege, he displayed seeds of compassion. Kim's personal chef, Kenji Fujimoto, recalled Kim wondering when he was 18: "We are here, playing basketball, riding horses, riding Jet Skis, having fun together. But what of the lives of the average people?" Tragically, though, Kim seems to have quickly forgotten about them. His mother passed away when he was 21, his father when he was 27, and he became the world's youngest head of state.

When my father launched a cosmetics business under my name this year, I protested that at 22, I am too young to lead it. My father assured me that Sejong the Great, the most celebrated ruler in Korean history, rose to the throne when he was just 21, and that I would not be alone under his tutelage.

Unlike me and his own father, Kim had an unanticipated coronation that left him without a guided transition to the helm. Surrounded by septuagenarian party veterans skeptical of young blood, and without a power base, he has resorted to repeated provocations of South Korea and the United States to assert his military prowess.

Kim launched million-dollar rockets in the midst of a mass starvation, aborted the Kaesong Industrial Complex run jointly with South Korea, and held hostage the reunion program for families separated by the Korean War. He has tightened his abominable grip on his subjects, staging public executions and deporting hundreds of thousands to political prison camps.

I used to harbor hopes that with his Western education and coming of age in a time of détente and liberalization in the Soviet bloc and China, Kim would transcend the repressive legacy of his fathers. I was naïve.

I was also once more idealistic about myself, though on a much smaller scale. During my college years, I explored teaching, writing, and nonprofit jobs. As I near graduation, however, I find myself gravitating toward business and away from public-interest careers. I feel my circle of moral concern shrinking to encompass only my family. We may live in a broken world, but I am bound by filial piety to prioritize a crumbling family venture above all.

When I hear artillery drills at my family's garden, I think about my grandfather who died from wounds suffered during the Korean War. Because of the war Kim's grandfather ignited, my father and I never knew my grandfather. Rather than succumbing to hatred, however, my father became an ardent pacifist. One day, with my father, I will cultivate a garden of peace for the Land of Morning Calm.

Jun-Youb "JY" Lee, a senior at the University of Pennsylvania studying management and history, is the RealArts@Penn editorial intern at The Inquirer. E-mail him at jlee@phillynews.com.

About this blog

The Inquirer Editorial Board's Say What? opinion blog showcases the work of the editors and writers who produce the newspaper's daily and Sunday opinion pages.

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