KEEPING UP WITH KIMS
How do you grab attention when you’re already the world’s craziest dictator? You disappear. When Kim Jong-un was out of the limelight for nearly six weeks (don’t worry he’s back), he caught our eye and we decided to dig deeper into the enigma that is North Korea. Read on and step into the world of dead presidents, supernatural leaders and the crazy Korean propaganda behind the world’s most isolated country.
North Korea is so secretive you can’t even see it from space! Despite covering 47,000 sq miles, North Korea is invisible from space, unlike its neighbouring countries, Russia, China and South Korea. Of course, this has more to do with the country being backward and lacking electricity rather than being guarded.
It isn’t easy being Kim Jong-un. The supreme leader of North Korea has an unenviable legacy to live up to. Firstly, his grandfather, Kim IISung aka ‘The Great Leader’, who apparently died 20 years back, continues to be the President of the country. Then, there is his father, Kim Jong-iI, whose very birth portrayal could fill reams. According to North Korean ‘historical’ literature, at the moment of his birth on Korea’s most sacred mountain, a bright star lit up the sky, the seasons spontaneously changed from winter to spring, and rainbows appeared.
In case you’re wondering what we’re talking about, let me take this moment to introduce you to the wild and wacky world of North Korean propaganda. The entire nation is cut off from the rest of the world and strictly adheres to Kim II-Sung’s philosophy of Juche or self reliance.
But first a little history… Korea was annexed by the Empire of Japan in 1910 and Kim IISung (the founder of the dynasty) rebelled against Korea’s Japanese rule in the ’30s, which led to his involvement and training in the Soviet Union. After Japan’s defeat in World War II and its subsequent withdrawal, Korea was divided into two occupied zones, with the north occupied by the Soviet Union and the south by the United States. Kim came to lead the Soviet-backed North’s provisional government, and eventually became the first premier of its new government, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (aka North Korea), in 1948. And in 1950, he started a war with South Korea with hopes to reunify the region. There has been a ceasefire since 1953 interrupted by the occasional skirmish.
Up until this point, things seem reasonably sane, but Kim II-Sung was an autocratic leader who didn’t trust the outside world or his own countrymen and quickly began creating an amazing story about himself. He claimed to have been an anti- Japanese conspirator at 14 and founded a battle ready army at 19. He even exaggerated the role his parents played as leaders in the anti- Japanese liberation movement. He began building statues of himself around the country and giving himself esteemed titles like ‘ Sun’, ‘Great Chairman’, ‘Heavenly Leader’ and others, as well as awards like the ‘Double Hero Gold Medal’. All this, coupled with completely cutting off the citizens from any knowledge about the outside world, quickly made Kim a god of sorts. The more brutal
part of maintaining his cult of personality was harsh retribution for anyone remotely critical of the government, which included torture, concentration camps and secret executions. It is particularly chilling to note that even the slightest of infringements could see a person locked up for decades. One man was sent to prison for absent-mindedly using a newspaper printed with a photograph of Kim II-Sung to mop up a spilled drink.
Kang Chol-hwan, a North Korean defector, who spent close to 10 years (9 to 19) in a concentration camp there and is now the executive director of North Korea Strategy Center (NKSC) in South Korea, said, ‘To my childish eyes and to those of all my friends, Kim II-Sung and Kim Jong-il were perfect beings, untarnished by any base human function. I was convinced, as we all were, that neither of them urinated or defecated. Who could imagine such things of Gods?’
It turned out the Kims were having exactly the effect on people they wanted. In his memoir, Kim II-Sung narrated an anecdote involving his father and grandfather that gives the rationale for this sanitised presentation of North Korea leaders to their followers. As a young pupil, Kim II-Sung’s father was often sent to fetch wine for one of his teachers, who drank frequently, until one day, his father saw the drunken teacher fall face-first into a ditch. This led to a confrontation, in which the young
pupil shamed the teacher into giving up wine altogether. Kim II-Sung said in his memoir, ‘My grandfather’s opinion was this: If pupils peep into their teacher’s private life frequently, they lose their awe of him; the teacher must give his pupils the firm belief that their teacher neither eats nor urinates; only then can he maintain his authority at school; so a teacher should set up a screen and live behind it.’
Kim Jong-iI, the next Kim to take the throne, had his very first appointment in the state propaganda and information department, and took to it with relish. When he came to power, his father’s mythology was firmly established and he decided to cultivate his own brand by mixing the grandiose with the ridiculous.
Even as a baby, Kim Jong-il had the propaganda machine working overtime for him, constantly announcing his achievements, including one claiming he could walk and talk before the age of six months. Later, he even became the world’s leading fashion icon, with the North Korean newspaper, Rodong Sinmun, reporting that an ‘unidentified French fashion expert’ said of Kim’s fashion, ‘Kim Jong-il mode, which is now spreading expeditiously, is something unprecedented in the world’s history.’ Not only that, but according to state-run media, Kim Jongil was the most prominent statesman in the world during his life time, with people around the world celebrating his birthday with films and festivals.
His many achievements included the mundane like scoring 11 holes in one when he played golf for the first and last time and inventing ‘double bread with meat’, a preparation suspiciously like a hamburger. But, all these feats are simply trivia because in North Korea, there is only one kind of God and they all have the last name, Kim. The dynasty even co-opted portions of Christianity and Buddhism, with Kim II-Sung described as a god and Kim Jong-il as the son of god
or ‘Sun of the Nation’, evoking the father-son imagery of Christianity. There is even widespread belief that Kim II-Sung created the world, and that Kim Jong-il controlled the weather.
For all his disdain of the West, Kim Jong-il cared very deeply about winning the approval of foreigners. He reportedly went so far as to force waitresses at restaurants frequented by foreigners in Pyongyang to have cosmetic surgery in order to appear more ‘western’. In preparation for the World Festival of Youth and Students in 1989, he even had disabled residents removed from Pyongyang. The government also distributed pamphlets advertising a wonder drug that would increase the height of short people. Those who responded to the pamphlets were sent away to different uninhabited islands along with the disabled in an attempt to rid the next generation of their supposedly substandard genes.
Long before his father’s death in 1994, Kim Jong-il played supervisor to the North Korean movie industry. As such, he made sure each production served double duty as both an art form and propaganda- dispersion vehicle. As per his instructions, the nation’s cinematic output consisted of films illuminating themes such as North Korea’s fantastic military strength and what horrible people the Japanese were.
Despite Kim’s creative influence on the industry during the ’70s (when he served with the country’s Art and Culture Ministries) and the fact that he literally wrote the book on communist filmmaking (1973’s On the Art of the Cinema), North Korean movies continued to stink.
Frustrated, Kim sought help by forcing 11 Japanese ‘cultural consultants’ into servitude, only to have several die inconveniently on the job (some by their own hands). But, coerced consulting can only get a film industry so far, and North Korea was still in search of its Orson Welles. Then, in 1978, respected South Korean director Shin Sang Ok suddenly found himself out of work after he angered his own country’s military dictator in a spat over censorship, and Kim Jong-il saw his chance to harness Shin’s artistry.
Kim promptly lured Shin’s ex-wife and close friend, actress Choi Eun Hee, to Hong Kong to ‘discuss a potential role.’ Instead, she was kidnapped. A distraught Shin searched for Choi, but found himself similarly ambushed by Kim’s minions. After some ‘convincing’—by way of some chloroform and a rag—he was whisked away to North Korea. Choi lived in one of Kim’s palaces, and Shin—having been captured after an attempted escape only months after arriving— lived for four years in a prison for political dissidents, where he subsisted on grass, rice, and communist propaganda.
In February 1983, Shin and Choi were finally reunited at a dinner party. With little fanfare, Kim commanded them to hug and ‘suggested’ the couple remarry (which they did). Then, they were confronted with their new moviemaking duties—namely, to infuse some life into North Korean cinema and promote government ideals.
When Kim Jong-un came to power, with his Swiss education, informal demeanur and his near obsessive love for basketball, there was hope for the international community that they could look forward to a more open and less autocratic North Korea. But, they were wrong. For all his apparent cuddliness, the third generation ruler proved to be every bit as dictatorial as his father and grandfather. He had his 67-year- old uncle, Jang Sung-taek, the second most powerful man in the country, stripped naked and fed to a pack of 120 dogs, who had been starved for three days. He described the execution as the removal of ‘factionalist filth’.
Kim Jong-un has modelled his entire public persona on his grandfather. There are even reports that he put on weight and got cosmetic surgery to look more like Kim II-Sung. As soon as he came to power, the country was filled with posters and signs proclaiming his glory, including 1,840 ft long propaganda sign erected in his honour. The sign, supposedly visible from space, reads ‘Long Live General Kim Jong-un, the Shining Sun!’
On the international front, however, the world’s youngest head of state is facing the prospect of charges of human rights violations in an International Criminal Court (ICC). The UN has been expressing its displeasure at North Korea’s human rights record for decades, and North Korea has happily ignored them. But, something changed this year, when the UN produced a
meticulous 400-page report on North Korea’s human rights situation. When it compared the country’s systematic violations to Nazi- era atrocities, governments around the world took notice. Botswana, for example, broke off relations with the nation.
Even more startling is that Kim himself has been named as responsible. UN Special Rapporteur on human rights in North Korea, Marzuki Darusman, said the goal at the UN should be to hold accountable those North Korean leaders who are ‘most responsible’, and that would include Kim Jong-un himself. ‘Having been informed of these violations, and no action being taken renders Kim culpable of complicity in crimes against humanity.’
Of course, no one thinks Kim will ever face trial. North Korea is not a signatory to the treaty that set up the International Criminal Court. It has a one-million-man army and nuclear weapons, apparently. China would also be likely to veto any action at the UN Security Council to refer North Korea to the ICC. Nevertheless, North Korea has been taking some unprecedented diplomatic steps.
In late October, a top North Korean diplomat held an on-the-record briefing about human rights in New York. North Korean officials took part in proceedings at the UN related to this issue. North Korea even signaled that it would be willing to allow the UN Special Rapporteur to visit the country. Some experts see the recent release of the American prisoners—Kenneth Bae and Matthew Todd Miller—as part of this effort. ‘It’s always been assumed that they are impervious to human rights criticism, but I believe that we’ve now seen that that’s not the case,’ said Roberta Cohen, co- chair of the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea.
It is unclear how Kim Jongun will handle international pressure in the future, but it’s likely that nuclear threats will continue to form the backbone of his country’s foreign policy. On the domestic front, the tried and tested methods of indoctrination seem to be in full swing, and after Kim Jong-un had many of his top officials executed for treason, it does not look like there will be any significant internal challenge to Kim’s rule. Meanwhile, the propaganda shows no sign of abating, and why would it, when it continued making gods of the Kims, while the country suffered through famine, war and human rights violations unparalleled in the modern world. For all practical purposes in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, the Kims are gods, above and beyond the reach of mere mortals.
Kim Jong-il only spoke seven
words in public, ever Kim II-Sung Square is famous as the place
where Kim Jong-il made the sole public speech of his entire reign. His words were, ‘Glory to the heroic Korean People’s Army.’
Mass games could be deadly The Arirang Festival, one of the most famous mass performances in the world, is a masterpiece, mobilising about 1,00,000 people from kindergarten kids to college students. The condition of the students participating, however, is appalling. Considered a symbol of national pride and cohesion, the practice is so rigorous that students have even died during performances.
Talk about discipline All kids wear the same uniform all the time, even when they’re not in school.
Tear game North Koreans are forced to live and breathe North Korean pride around the clock and are expected to weep when they see their leader. So, some cry for real and some fake it, because if they don’t, they’ll be sent to a labour camp for the rest of their lives.
The mystery behind the rocket hotel The 105-story Ryugyong Hotel in the middle of Pyongyang, started to be built in 1987 and still hasn’t been finished. It’s either the control room for nuclear weapons or it’s just an odd undertaking for a nation whose economy is stagnant and the infrastructure is rotting.