reasoned thought for an age of uncertainty
As reported by the North Korean government, dictator Kim Jong Il died this week, due to a heart attack “owing to excessive mental and physical exertions he had made in the days of his high-intensity forced march for leading the drive to build a thriving country.” In short, he worked himself to death. Building socialism. Out of love for his people. Right. As the western media has been quick to point out, Kim Jong Il was reputed to have had a taste for cigars, cognac and gourmet cuisine and believed to have had diabetes and heart disease.
The disjunction between the reality of Kim Jong Il’s death and the official party line reflects a greater disjunction in the life of the Dear Leader and, more generally, life under Communism in North Korean, where reality is what the state says it is, and after a while, well, it is hard to tell the difference. This disjunction is commonly referred to as Socialist Realism: where socialist idealism meet reality, and rewrites it.
The reality of life for North Koreans is something of a contradiction: a horrible tragedy of which they are completely unaware. And in this tragedy, Kim Jong Il was a loving father figure, who bestowed gifts upon the people (albeit only when Western aid packages arrived), modernized the socialist state (utilizing his love for the people), fought bravely to keep the American and South Korean imperialist aggressors at bay while striving for peace and unification of Korea, was renowned author of every book you are allowed to read and esteemed inventor of the adjustable desk, and was adored by leaders the world over, who bestowed gifts on him.
And if you were lucky, one year you would be able to make an annual pilgrimage to the International Friendship Exhibition, where the Dear Leader would share these some 100,000 of those gifts with you (or at least as many as one can see in a day). On display in this museum of wonders are naturally things that only a country other than North Korea could have thought up: a bronze tank from the USSR headquarters in former East Germany, a metal horseman and several ornate chess boards from Muammar Gaddafi, a gem-encrusted silver sword and reproduction of a Moslem mosque in sparkling mother of pearl from Yasser Arafat, a silver serving set with water buffalo-horn handles from Lebanon, pistols from Vietnam, silverware from the president of Indonesia, an ivory lion from the president of Tanzania, and a gold cigarette case from Yugoslavia’s Tito. Not a bad life’s work. (If you’re a villain.)
In reality, Kim Jong Il was one the most despised, isolated dictators in the world. And, like most dictators, he was responsible for countless deaths, including 1.0 to 3.5 million North Koreans who died during famines brought on by his policies in the 1990s. Communist policies centralize control over agriculture, which has historically wreaked havoc on farmers and led to severe food shortages. Kim Jong Il’s North Korea also became one of the most oppressive police states in the world, with brutal prisons, forced labor camps, and public executions. In 1987, Kim Jong Il directed the bombing of Korea Air flight 858, which resulted in the death of 115 civilians when the bomb planted by North Korean agents went off near Thailand, 115 civilians perished. The agents later confessed that the attack was directed by Kim Jong Il in order to dissuade nations from attending the 1988 Seoul Olympics.
While we may know that the official North Korean story about Kim Jong Il’s life is a lie, what if someone told you that lie for your entire life, and you never heard any other perspective? North Koreans are still living their lives in that nightmare, and many will be born and die without ever having known what reality is. North Korea, may very well be the world’s biggest cult, with an entire political system and way of life built around a cult of personality (first, Kim Il Sung–the “Eternal Chairman of the Republic”, then Kim Jong Il–the “Dear Leader”, and next Kim Jong Un). Pictures of the country’s beloved leaders abound, and as reported by the BBC, “North Koreans have been taught from an early age to express devotion to both Kim Il-Sung, the so-called Great Leader who died in 1994, and the Dear Leader, Kim Jong-Il.”
After Jimmy Carter visited North Korea in 2004 to diffuse nuclear tensions, he remarked that North Koreans looked up to Kim Il Sung “as almost a deity, as a George Washington, as a Patrick Henry, as a worshipful leader all rolled into one.” Even more outlandishly, according to the North Korean government, what Jimmy Carter actually said was, “President Kim Il Sung is a preeminent man who was as great as George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln, the most illustrious early US Presidents, all combined.”
This hyperbolic adulation extends beyond the political into the bizarre. Consider, for example, that in 2010, North Korean media reported that Kim Jong Il’s military suit sparked a worldwide fashion craze, because “the august image of the Great General, who is always wearing the modest suit while working, leaves a deep impression on people’s mind in the world.” Kim Jong Il was in fact brutally mocked in in the 2004 movie Team America World Police:
In the fictitious world of Kim Jong Il, North Korea is under constant attack by the United States and “the south Korean puppet army,” defended heroically by Kim Jong Il like his father Kim Il Sung before him. Yet while socialist realism may construct a Potemkin Village in which an entire people lives its life, there is at least solace in the fact that even the Dear Leader Kim Jong Il cannot cheat death. Even self-styled gods must die.