The Blog

How Long Will North Korea Survive?

The good news is that the dark tyranny of North Korea under Kim Jong Un, according to Izidor Urian, who knew Kim's grandfather Kim Il Sung, is doomed to end. The bad news? That happy ending could take "thirty, forty, fifty years."

The good news is that the dark tyranny of North Korea under Kim Jong Un, according to Izidor Urian, who knew Kim's grandfather Kim Il Sung, is doomed to end. The bad news? That happy ending could take "thirty, forty, fifty years."

That Kim Jong Un - a fat boy with a bad hairdo - cuts a comedy villain figure on the world stage masks a human rights tragedy on an immense scale. North Korea is the most brainwashed nation on earth. Pity the 23million locked up in the dungeon state; pity, too, the 100,000 souls in the gulag, suffering conditions similar to the Nazi concentration camps in the late 1930s.

Any light, however flickering the candle, shed on the people's tragedy of North Korea is a good thing but if Hollywood was perhaps a little more serious they might not have made The Interview but The Interpreter. Izidor is the Zelig of North Korea, the little man in the back of the massive limousine translating for Kim Il Sung and his boss, Nicolae Ceausescu in 1971 while hundreds of thousands danced and twirled in homage to the twin gods. It's mass-brainwashing on an epic scale. See here:

Izidor's insider account of the coitus between the two tyrants is living history at its most spell-binding. Of the two monsters, Izidor seems warmer about Kim The First: a mass-murderer with flashes of humour and humanity. Urian first went to North Korea in 1954. The journey by train from Bucharest where he was a young and brilliant linguist for neo-Stalinist Romania took 14 days. More than any other European alive, he knows North Korea through the cold in his bones: "if someone disappeared, you couldn't find them."

That nails the North Korean regime, then and now. But I wonder whether my friend Izidor might be too pessimistic. In 1985 I went on a press trip to Ceausescu's Romania and found a country locked in a robotic stasis. Four years later, on Christmas Eve 1989, for my old newspaper, the Observer, I drove across the length of Romania but this time in the middle of a revolution. We were shot at, cheered, mobbed and robbed. I saw a man on a spindly ship-yard crane on the Danube paint out the words 'Hail Nicolae Ceausescu'. And then they machine-gunned the dictator and his wife. That Christmas with the Ceausescus taught me that tyrannies that seem so strong can crumble to dust.

For that reason, unlike Izidor, I don't think that Kim Jong Un has up to fifty years but more like fifty months.

True, North Korea's people have been brainwashed since 1945. True, any instance of disloyalty, particularly by a member of the elite in Pyongyang, may be met with nine grams of lead in the back of the head and the gaoling of your children and grandchildren. True, every single time Kim Jong Un pops up, crowds of North Koreans weep with ecstasy. Kim the Third is the ruler of a political religion. He is more god than politician. But so was Gaddafi who ended up with a knife in his bowels.

As the hacking of the Sony Corporation has shown, the West has precious little purchase on the North Koreans. But China does. Thus far, the military-security complex that sets the tone in Beijing supports Kim Three's Absurdistan for fear of something worse: an American ally, South Korea, moving up to its border.

But the pressure on the smart, sensible people in the Chinese Communist Party to do something about their unruly neighbour is growing by the day. The hacking of Sony is hugely embarrassing for the Chinese because of its lack of subtlety. Having spent eight days in North Korea in 2013 when its rhetoric about thermo-nuclear war with the United States was at its most bonkers, I have no doubt that North Korea is ultimately responsible for the hacking. The Guardians of Peace speak NorthKorGlish, a horrible road-crash of clunky English grammar and post-Stalinist hate-speak. The GoP sentence - "how bitter fate those who seek fun in terror should be doomed to" - can only have been written in Pyongyang.

But worse is the fear of a regional nuclear war started by some stupid action by Kim Jong Un. The North Koreans have set off three nuclear devices below ground. The Japanese right are telling the Americans, if Pyongyang can do that, then so will we. The prospect of a nuclear-armed Japan frightens China. Perhaps the end for Kim Jong Un might come when the Chinese tell a North Korean general: 'if you shoot the Fat One, we won't mind.'

Izidor knows North Korea better than any outsider alive. But for a truly Happy Christmas for the poor wretched people of North Korea, I hope and pray he's wrong about fifty more years of tyranny. So my message to Kim Jong Un is not so seasonal: "Remember how Christmas turned out for the Ceausescus."

John Sweeney reported for BBC Panorama's North Korea Undercover in 2013 from inside the world's most paranoid state. His book, North Korea Undercover, is published by Corgi Books, £9.99