One of the enduring memories of life in an English university in the late-1970s was the collective enjoyment in leafing through and, occasionally, reading aloud the pamphlets helpfully left behind in the common room by functionaries of the North Korean state. Wonderfully printed on glossy paper, much like the ones sold for a song by the propaganda houses of Moscow and Beijing, these offerings from Pyongyang were a class apart.
Devoted mainly to the heroic achievements of their beloved leader Kim Il-sung, the booklets were the alternatives to the (still unborn) cartoon channels on television. We learnt how grandfather Kim — now the “President for eternity” in the world’s necrocracy — swam across seas and lakes to singlehandedly take on the fascist, militarist Japanese invaders. And, over purposeless pints of beer, we imbibed the profundities of the ‘Juche’ ideology which, The Times this week helpfully described as a “quasi-mystical farrago of turbid platitude and ferocious xenophobia”, but which we mistook for a Monty Python skit.
Of course, as happens with all disorganized readings of what the comrades still insist on describing as “scientific socialism”, we often missed out on the best bits of the popular culture associated with the doctrine. For example, my Maoist friend, also a great friend of North Korea, but blessed with a wicked, self-deprecating sense of humour —next to the Red Book he loved P.G. Wodehouse — never secured for me either the recording or the sub-titled version of the song, “Oh how I love to carry manure up the mountain while singing praises of Chairman Mao and denouncing the Gang of Four”.
Also, since we had gone our different ways by 1980, many of us missed out on the remarkable story of the birth of Kim Jong-il, the “Dear Leader” who was anointed successor to the “Beloved Leader” Kim Il-sung in 1980. While the wicked imperialist version is that he was born in some remote corner of the Soviet Union in 1943, the authentic North Korean version is far more compelling. The “Dear Leader”, it would seem, was born near the peak of Mount Paektu — the mythical birthplace of the Korean people — in 1941. As he entered the world, a swallow descended from heaven to proclaim the coming to earth of “a prodigious general who will rule all the world.”
As a ‘progressive’ alternative to the Christmas tale, this story is worth a look.
We also missed out on some of the childhood tales of the man who ascended to the other world earlier this week, having helpfully passed on the baton to the “Great Successor”, the 29-year-old Kim Jong-un. Kim Jong-il, it is said, was destined for greatness since childhood. George Washington merely cut down a cherry tree and spun a moral tale but the wrath of Kim-II knew no bounds. As a three-year-old, he daubed a map of Japan with black ink and, lo and behold, that traditional enemy of Korea was rocked by gales and typhoons of astonishing ferocity.
It is worth considering if it was the hand of Kim that was responsible for last year’s tsunami that decimated Japan.
The fairy tale rendering of North Korea’s recent history may have provided mirth and amusement to some bored students, but it wasn’t all that funny for the estimated two million people who died from a man-made famine in the mid-1990s. So horrific was the suffering that there were credible reports emanating from that closed society of cannibalism.
Not that the suffering of his own people bothered Kim-II, who became famous in the luxury trade as the world’s single-largest purchaser of Paradis cognac produced by Hennessey. Kim-II loved the good life and, like all communist tyrants, indulged himself without restraint. A film buff whose personal collection of Hollywood and Hong Kong films was awesome — it is said that James Bond and Daffy Duck were among his favourites — he secured the abduction of the South Korean film director, Shin Sang-ok, and his wife to coerce them into making films for North Korea. There was, it seems, something of Dr No and Goldfinger that rubbed off on Kim-II.
More ominously, he was so captivated by the glamour he witnessed in Hollywood films that he maintained a troupe of 2,000 dancing girls, recruited from poor peasant families across the land. The girls were further classified into three groups. At the lowest end was the “dancing and singing team”, which entertained; this was followed by the “happiness team”, which specialized in massages for the privileged few in the party hierarchy; and finally there was the “satisfaction team” that existed to give pleasures of the flesh to Kim-II.
Presumably, the “Dear Leader” saw these as creative endeavours. If the official biography is any guide, he devoted the time spent as a culture czar in the politburo composing six operas. These works, it was modestly suggested by the Juche chroniclers, were “better than any mankind had created.”
To regard North Korea as a rogue regime controlled by a family of megalomaniacs out to prove the prescience of George Orwell’s 1984 is stating the obvious. The 20th and 21st centuries have had their share of evil, beginning from Hitler and Stalin and extending to Idi Amin, ‘Emperor’ Bokassa, Pol Pot and Saddam Hussein. But few have managed to withstand the winds of change as successfully as the Kim dynasty, which has endured for more than six decades — nearly as long as the Soviet Union.
Does the answer lie in what the North Korean propagandists suggest: that “The Korean people are too pure-blooded and therefore too virtuous to survive in this evil world without a great parental leader”? Or is it that extreme tyranny coupled with extreme deprivation snuffs out imagination and aspiration from the oppressed, making them impervious to normal human responses?
Whatever the reason, North Korea is not a primitive society. The Kim regime spends nearly one-third of its gross domestic product on defence, making it the most militarized country in the world. Yet, the level of its military preparedness is awesome. The country demonstrated its nuclear potential in 2006 and 2009, and its missile technology that it sells on a regular basis to Pakistan is sophisticated and dangerous. They suggest that far from being a society of supine bumpkins living under the military jackboot, Pyongyang actually boasts a critical mass of extremely efficient scientific talent. Such people can be tamed for a period of time but to keep them in a state of permanent docility requires superhuman control.
Perhaps that is what the Kim dynasty perfected as their response to, first, de-Stalinization in the 1960s and, subsequently, the ignominious collapse of the Soviet Union.
Today, China is finding it impossible to combine its extreme nationalism with rigid control of society. There are uprisings all over challenging state authority and regimentation, such as the ongoing one in Wukan. Why hasn’t North Korea, a far smaller country, experienced a similar churning? It can hardly be the case that Koreans are temperamentally docile and more so if the rhetoric of the State is couched in extreme nationalism — a case of another Burma. South Korea, for all its remarkable economic progress, remains politically very volatile.
Kim Jong-il, the obituaries in the West were unanimous, “was among history’s most monstrous tyrants” who left his people “impoverished, incarcerated and broken.” That’s obvious. What is not so obvious is why such a buffoonish regime continues in the 21st century. Is it because any relaxation of tyranny presages the end of an unhappy chapter?