In a rather bizarre unravelling of news that could stun any civilized world and more difficult to digest, the Bali-based Sukarno Center announced the award of its annual prize for global statesmanship to Kim Jong-un of North Korea.
Even when the world is well apprized of his antics and constant indulgence in theatrics that continue to destabilise the Northeast Asia’s security, Indonesia’s hailing of Kim Jong-un as a champion in the fight against neo-colonialism and imperialism would have few supporters. This seems to be the most bizarre logic employed by Indonesia’s Sukarno Center in giving Kim the award. Rachmawati Soekarnoputri, daughter of Indonesia’s founding president, after whom the award is named, made the announcement on 30 July 2015 after meeting with Ri Jong Ryul, North Korea’s ambassador to Indonesia.
The previous recipients of the Sukarno Prize have been luminaries such as Aung San Suu Kyi of Myanmar and India’s Mahatma Gandhi for their contribution to world peace and development and equating Kim Jong-un with such luminaries creates a lot of disbelief. The decision to award has made headlines and triggered ridicule and disbelief. It is well known that Kim Jong-un’s saber-rattling and bellicose policies have exacerbated already strained and frosty ties with South Korea, Japan and the US and Indonesia owes an explanation to the world in which way Kim Jong-un has contributed to world peace or compares even remotely with the above-mentioned democracy icons. Rachmawati is the honorary Asia-Pacific chairwoman of Pyongyang’s Korean unification preparation committee, a body not recognised beyond the borders of the hermit kingdom, and therefore the decision to give the award to Kim Jong-un may be seen as an obligatory return gesture.
It is not that the North Korean leader is short on accolades but most have come internally, more out of fear than respect. Kim Jong-un’s chest is surely to swell with the Indonesian award now. He is likely to travel to Jakarta in September to receive the award. Far from his contribution to peace and justice, the North Korean state is isolated from the world. During the three successive generations of dynastic rule, the North Korean state is more known to the world for its violence, repression and cruelty to its own people. In February 2014, a UN investigation team headed by Justice Michael Kirby accused the country of rampant human rights abuses “without any parallel in the contemporary world”, pointing towards Nazi Germany to find a suitable comparison.
Like the Kirby report, the Human Rights Watch too calls the regime in Pyongyang as one of the “most harshly repressive countries in the world”. Similarly, the Amnesty International has continuously raised concern about North Korea’s prison camps, and food shortages that have been affected “millions of people” in North Korea over the years.
Though the decision by the Sukarno Center to award the annual prize to Kim Jong-un clearly sounds bizarre, Jakarta is guided by history. The Sukarno Education Foundation had previously given the award to Kim’s grandfather, Kim Jong-il, posthumously in 2001. Bilateral ties between North Korea and Indonesia have remained warm since the 1960s during the era of Kim Jong-il. Rachmawati stoutly defended the decision, saying that “the allegations about human rights abuses are untrue”, dismissing reports of atrocities as “Western propaganda”.
She took comfort and justified her decision by drawing parallels with her own father, who led Indonesia’s independence movement and ruled the Southeast Asian archipelago before spending almost 22 years as the country’s leader and until he was overthrown in 1965. She questioned the Western perception of her father being a dictator, while defending her father’s anti-colonial outlook. During his rule, Sukarno was often accused of being an evil dictator who violated human rights but his daughter believes that such accusations were proven otherwise over time. No wonder, she sees Kim Jong-un from the same prism. Since the early 1960s, Jakarta has maintained open relations with Pyongyang and in April 2015 President Joko Widodo hosted a delegation from the reclusive state as part of an international conference.
International peace prizes are often criticised as being awarded for political considerations and Jakarta’s decision cannot escape criticism from that perspective. Even the Nobel Peace Prize, the most well-known peace prize in the world, is not bereft of criticism and the world’s famous advocate of peace and non-violence Mahatma Gandhi was never awarded Nobel Peace Prize. In 2012, the European Union was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for “over six decades contributed to the advancement of peace and reconciliation, democracy, and human rights in Europe”.
This prompted three former peace prize laureates to slam the decision, saying that the EU is “clearly not one of the ‘champions of peace’ Alfred Nobel had in mind” when he created the prize in 1895. It may be recalled that the Nobel Peace Prize to EU in 2012 prompted some anti-nuclear activists in Japan to successfully seek nomination for Article 9 of the country’s Constitution for consideration of the Nobel Peace Prize as it was argued that Article 9 of the Constitution has played a major role in preventing Japan for the past seven decades to opt the nuclear path and thus helped maintain world peace. It is a different matter that the bid of the anti-nuclear lobbyists found no favour of the Nobel committee and was rejected. But the kind of political debate that the nomination aroused and the kind of political storm a decision to award would have created had the award gone for Article 9, is good enough reason to view peace prize award world over with a bit of scepticism and no unanimity could ever be expected.
Even when President Obama received the award in 2009 only months into his first term in office, it caused many to accuse the Nobel Peace Prize Committee of being politically motivated. One also need not forget that former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger won the award in 1973 for involvement in the Vietnam Peace Accords, though at the time, he was overseeing the secret bombing of Laos.
One also needs to remember that the China-based Confucius Peace Prize, launched in 2000, was recently awarded to former Cuban leader Fidel Castro. In a recent report Washington Post observed: “Individuals criticized by the West have at points set up their own peace prizes to rival the Nobel – between 1988 to 2010, Libya had its own own “Al-Gaddafi International Prize for Human Rights.” Winners included Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez and the children of Palestine.”
Indonesia’s decision to award the peace prize to Kim Jong-un does not necessarily have the endorsement of Indonesian people. For example, a 2014 poll conducted by the BBC World Service revealed that just 28 per cent of Indonesians viewed North Korea’s influence as mainly positive, compared to 44 per cent who viewed it as mainly negative.
There seems to be some parallel between Kim Jong-un and Rachmawati. Rachmawati is the younger sister of Megawati Sukarnoputri, Indonesia’s fifth president, who remains one of the country’s most powerful political figures. On his part, Kim Jong-un is known for his ruthlessness in dealing with even the most senior officials suspected of disloyalty, following the execution of his uncle and one-time political mentor Jang Song-Thaek in 2013 and then executing the Defence chief in the most brutal manner with anti-aircraft fire for insubordination and dozing off during a formal military rally where Kim Jong-un was too in attendance. Whenever foreigners are detained by the North Korean authorities for whatever reasons, they are required to make public officially-scripted pronouncements of their guilt in order to help secure their eventual release.
Will the Indonesian award play a sobering influence on Kim Jong-un or spur further his ruthlessness as he is likely to see the award as legitimisation of his excesses? Viewed dispassionately, neither could be true. Kim Jong-un would remain undeterred by the kind of praise that Indonesia has heaped on him and one cannot expect that his ruthlessness would be anything less. The primary aim is to defend the kim dynasty and that is unlikely to change.