The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Make-believe world of Kims and critics

Pyongyang, Dec. 1: During a tour of a model hospital, government escorts kept showing off newly-delivered triplets.

They weren’t just trying to showcase North Korea’s prowess in obstetrics. The dutiful officials were trying to squash rumours that their secretive dictator Kim Jong Il is having all the triplets in North Korea taken from their families and placed in secure “orphanages” because a seer has told him he will be toppled by a triplet.

Such bizarre public relations battles filled with rumour, gossip and fable are central to the politics of this country of 22 million.

In North Korea, all power rests on the deification of Kim Jong Il, and his father Kim Il Sung, who founded North Korea in 1945.

“It’s a highly personalised rule, much more personalised than even Mao’s time here,” said Chu Shulong, professor of international studies at Tsinghua University in Beijing.

Given this, both the government and the dissidents who oppose them, mostly from self-imposed exiles overseas, go to absurd lengths to either bolster or blow apart the myths surrounding both men.

The North Korean government focuses a substantial part of its resources to portray Kim Il Sung as a giant who defeated two tyrannies ' the Japanese (who had annexed Korea in 1910 and ruled it until 1945) and the US (during the 1950-1953 Korean War) ' in one lifetime.

That Kim Il Sung was a mediocre guerrilla officer in the Free Korean forces in the Chinese army and only came to power because Stalin wanted a young man to head the new nation of North Korea in 1945 is not accepted history here.

Mere mention of the fact that Kim Il Sung was born Kim Song Ju and changed his name to resemble that of a famous Korean guerrilla leader of the early 20th century in an effort to steal some of the older man’s glory enrages people.

Instead, North Koreans are taught from childhood to look up to the Kims as messianic figures and every North Korean wears a picture-badge of Kim Il Sung on the lapel of their suit, dress or uniform.

Portraits of the Kims tower over life in every corner of the city and even the rice in country’s sprawling fields sprouts under the shadow of giant hoardings that have been erected every few miles to carry the leaders’ faces or sayings to the people.

Punishment is swift and fast for anyone who even demurs at the Kims’ self-exaltation. About 150,000 people are imprisoned in gulags for daring to challenge the Kims’ cult of personality and hold on power, the US state department’s human rights reports say.

The only crime some of those in prison committed was inadvertently sitting on a newspaper carrying a picture of one of the Kims.

With a reign of fear choking all honest expression in this country, most North Koreans publicly sing paeans to both father and son at every possible occasion.

Choe Hye Ok, a 26-year-old guide at Pyongyang’s Juche Tower, a soaring grey-stone tower capped with a giant flame built to honour the Juche idea, a nationalist self-sufficiency ideology propagated by the Kims, said she wanted to marry someone just like Kim Jong Il.

“That’s IF there is a man like him,” she said emphatically. “He’s a genius, a real genius and he’s so good looking, I really like his style.”

Given Kim Jong Il is 5 feet 2 inches, is rarely seen in anything other than khaki overalls and wears platform shoes and combs his hair into an exaggerated bouffant to make himself look taller, its hard to tell if Choe was being sincere.

But unquestioning adulation, even if it is false, has a cost. Since every decision on governance, economics and society has always been taken by the Kims themselves, to prove they are infallible their mistakes are never acknowledged or corrected. As a result, North Korea remains an economic basket case while erstwhile communist states such as China and Vietnam have found new wealth.

That hasn’t affected Kim Jong Il, who like his father, lives in sumptuous palaces and cultivates his taste for brandy, erotic art and popular cinema.

But as banned South Korean soap operas, pirated DVDs of Hollywood movies, smuggled cellphones and illegal copies of magazines and newspapers from China seep into North Korea, they are driving a thirst for change.

“I say I don’t believe in God but every day I pray to God for change,” said a North Korean who requested anonymity. “I hope God is more powerful than those who don’t want any change.”


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