The Land Without Smiles

December 19th, 2011 at 8:35 am | 15 Comments |

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A brisk look at KCNA, the North Korean regime’s news agency hosted from Japan, used to form an occasional part of my reading routine. It was a source of comic relief at first. As the rest of the world lurched between crises, the inhabitants of North Korea seemed splendidly insulated from anything approaching hardship or even inconvenience. Dear Leader Kim Jong Il – depicted by KCNA scribes as a man so absolutely devoted to improving the lives of his citizens that you wondered if he had a life of his own – was unrelenting in his efforts to spread prosperity and tranquillity among his people.

In 2008, the world was bracing itself for economic meltdown. But the North Koreans, according to KCNA, were “enjoying their holidays in sanatoria and rest homes built in scenic spots of DPRK”. Kim Jong Il, ever the visionary, had seen to it “that steps were taken to develop… holiday homes so as to provide full conditions for the health of the working people and for their cultural recreation.” The same year Kim ordered pine tree forests to be turned into pine-nut tree forests. “The scenic wonders unfolded there provide valuable experience in woodland transformation,” marvelled a KCNA story. This year, galvanised by Kim’s vision, North Korea’s engineering wunderkinds finally produced the country’s first portable toothbrush.

After a while, though, reading KCNA for pleasure seemed like a perverse exercise. KCNA was aimed, after all, at a foreign audience – and the fact that the Kim Jong Il regime could so cavalierly pass off complete fabrications to the outside world, knowing very well that the world knew them to be lies, was a measure of its contempt for common decency and its utter disregard for international opinion. To those who were condemned to enduring his rule, Kim Jong Il was no joke.

Born on February 16, 1941, in a military camp in Khabarovsk in eastern Russia, Kim Jong Il’s name was recorded in official Soviet documents as Yuri Irsenovich Kim. Years later, the propagandists in his father Kim Il Sung’s regime built a myth around Kim Jong Il’s arrival into this world. According to this, Kim was born a year later – on February 16, 1942 – in a log cabin on Mount Bektu. An ancient and mysterious tree with a prophetic message carved into its moist bark, announcing the birth of the “star of Bektu,” was duly discovered in the vicinity. The site was turned into a shrine. Then a group of Japanese tourists visited the place, and to Kim’s great misfortune, one of them happened to be a botanist. He took a look at the tree and laughed at the claim that it could be 50 years old. The shrine was immediately sealed off to the general public.

Kim grew up under the tutelage of his father, a megalomaniac whose success at building a personality cult made Nicolae Ceausescu look like a demure amateur. So thoroughly had he succeeded in conscripting North Koreans in the cause of worshipping his personality that when he died, in 1994, the official version of events was swallowed by the public without a squeak. A thousand cranes descended from the heavens to carry away the Great Leader, but they had to give up their quest when they saw the determination with which Kim’s people held on to him. So the heavenly birds struck a compromise deal with the North Korean authorities: the Great Leader would be housed inside a palatial mausoleum in Pyongyang, out of the people’s sight, but in their midst, with the new title of “Eternal President.” To this day, North Koreans believe that Kim Il Sung is resting in his mausoleum.

Kim Il Sung built the world’s first Stalinist dynasty. And for more than five decades, the Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea has existed as the most absolutist tyranny on earth. Internationally, Pyongyang’s crimes have ranged from nuclear proliferation and money laundering to the promotion of terrorism and aggression against South Korea. Kim Jong Il proved even more skilful at fooling the world than his father. He extracted a commitment of negotiations from the West by threatening to go nuclear – and then used the nuclear arsenal he acquired behind the cloak of those negotiations to blackmail the West into offering even more concessions.

Kim also possessed something of an artistic sensibility. He directed operas and public performances. And he loved cinema so much that he wrote a book about it. But he was, at his core, an incurable criminal. In the late 1970s, he had the South Korean actress Choi Eun-hee abducted and brought to Pyongyang. The aim was to pressure Choi into performing in North Korean propaganda films – but primarily the kidnapping was staged for Kim’s own amusement.

When he was not a menace, Kim Jong Il was a bloody nuisance.

The news of his demise at the age of 69 is welcome. Addicted to a diet of spicy and greasy food, the obese dictator had become significantly impaired by cardiac disease for some years. But Kim’s passing is unlikely – at least in the near future – to affect the dynasty or the conditions he did so much to entrench.

Kim Jong-un, the departed dictator’s third son, who had been promoted within the military and the Workers Party, will almost certainly succeed his father. The widespread ignorance and the absence of communities in North Korea – accomplished through decades of propaganda and violent repression – will ensure a smooth transition.

The only man with the power to challenge Kim Jong-un is Ri Yong-ho, chief of the Korean Peoples Army. But the existing structure is too profitable for him to make such a move. Ri was chosen to be Kim’s puppeteer: his interest is in perpetuating the current set-up.

Kim Jong-un’s own early education in Switzerland has led some to hope for a change of direction in Pyongyang. But the extremely mysterious nature of Kim Jr.’s Swiss sojourn – during which he displayed no signs of curiosity in the world around him, lived in isolation, and took greater interest in basketball than anything else – makes that prospect highly unfeasible.

North Korea will continue for now to be ruled by the same family in more or less the same fashion – an absolute prison with more than 24 million famished inmates. Who will liberate them?

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15 Comments so far ↓

  • baw1064

    Who will liberate them?

    An excellent question for the next Republican debate. We mustn’t get too fixated on just one pole of the Axis of Evil.

  • JosephP

    The question, “Who will liberate them?” can be answered with another question: “Do they have oil or mineral reserves like Afghanistan and Iraq?”

    Answers: “No one,” and “no.”

    • Carney

      We only liberated Afghanistan because it has “mineral reserves”? You’re a disgusting idiot.

      • sweatyb

        “Disgusting idiot”? I don’t think that’s called for.

        JohnP’s point is that there’s little of value to be gained by invading N. Korea. So we wont be “liberating” their population any time soon.

      • JosephP

        Hey Carney: We did not “liberate” Afghanistan. We invaded after 9-11 to punish the al Qaaeda organization, which had teamed up with the ruling Taliban. But we never had the intention to bring freedom to the Afghan people. In the ten years we have been in Afghanistan, the US has done nothing to build support for a democratic government. Seriously, do you regard Hamid Karzai as a benevolent and democratic Afghan leader? Of course not—he’s nothing but a thug that is somewhat tolerant towards the Western powers that are propping him up.

        Afghanistan has huge mineral wealth—perhaps the greatest of any country on Earth. The international conglomerates are watering at the mouth at the thought of all that potential money waiting to be mined. Furthermore, Afghanistan sits at a critical location between Kazakhstan oil fields and ports in Pakistan and India. The Trans-Afghanistan pipeline has been a dream of oil companies like Conoco for decades, which sees it as a 21st century Silk Road.

        It is not extreme at all to suspect that these are the fundamental reasons that the US has been in Afghanistan, rather than the desire to “liberate” the Afghan people. After all, there is no way that any credible liberation effort would ever install a man like Karzai as leader.

        People like you like to imagine the United States as a promoter of democracy and freedom, and lash out in anger (“You’re a disgusting idiot”) when anyone suggests that the truth is less attractive.

        • WaStateUrbanGOPer

          I think our invasion and subsequent occupation had the clear intention of brining freedom to the people of Afghanistan. Alas, this intention was not carried out very competently. We unwittingly put in power a government that, while preferable to the Taliban, either lacks the ability or the intention to stabilize the country, and so all of our lofty– and sincere– nostrums about liberal democracy have become nugatory, beside the point. Which is why, in turn, we are getting out. At bottom, this is a simple matter of prudence and realism triumphing over utopianism; of admitting our errors and cutting our losses.

    • WaStateUrbanGOPer

      Our invasion of Afghanistan had nothing to do with whether or not it had exploitable natural resources. It was a justified act of retaliation against a medieval minded theofascist government that was hosting a terrorist group that had just slaughtered three thousand Americans. The invasion was, at bottom, an act of self-defense, for in its absence the U.S. would essentially have given the Taliban/Bin Laden axis a license to carry out another attack. Inaction or appeasment would’ve been irresponsible and dangerous.

      That said, so what if, as some paranoid critics have alleged, the U.S. had pre-war plans to build an oil pipeline up through Northern Afghanistan into the heart of Central Asia? As Christopher Hitchens and others have pointed out, most Afghanis would have welcomed such an appurtenance– much like the massive highway we built that connects Kabul to Kandahar.

      • JosephP

        Even if what you say is true (that Afghanistan mineral wealth had nothing to do with the invasion), it doesn’t negate my point that the US only invades (or talks about invading) countries that have mineral wealth. We don’t invade poor countries, even when they have the most oppressive evil leader on the planet, and even if they actually testing nuclear weapons that they are threatening to use someday. On the contrary, inconsequential banana republics like Venezuela led by a nutty (but in fact democratically elected) Hugo Chavez are the targets of US saber rattling, and it’s difficult to see why except for the fact that they have oil.

        • WaStateUrbanGOPer

          “Even if what you say is true… that Afghanistan mineral wealth had nothing to do with the invasion…”

          Yet another reminder that Richard Hofstadter’s “Paranoid Style” is not an exclusively rightwing phenomenon.

          And by the way, your “point”– that the U.S. only invades countries with significant amounts of exploitable mineral wealth– is patently false. Think Haiti in the early 90s, or Grenada a decade before. Somalia. Or, most recently, the Balkans. In fact, I think if you tally up all the countries the U.S. had invaded in the past generation, you will find that the overwhelming majority of them have scant mineral wealth.

          And with regard to Hugo Chavez and Venezuela, and the place they occupy within the rhetoric of American Imperialism: yes, I agree that “saber rattling” and other bellicose expressions of jingoism are obnoxious, but did you ever consider that any of the American politicians who denounce Chavez have more than a merely prehensile motive for doing so– like, say, a moral revulsion to his awful human rights record and his abetting of narco-terrorist groups like FARC? Have you ever considered that some of our diplomats and lawmakers are concerned about the potential instability Chavez’s support for FARC could cause in Columbia?

          And finally: if, as you insist, Hugo Chavez was “democratically elected,” then democracy as both a concept and a practical concern is totally meaningless.

    • Traveler

      This is sophomoric liberal crap as to Afghanistan. WASGOPer politely tried to disabuse you of this idiocy relating to Afghanistan, but it seems to fallen on deaf ears. Twitchers on the right, meet a twitcher on the left. Takes all kinds to make a discussion, but lets try to stick to facts.

  • Graychin

    I’m the eternal optimist, so I believe that with the passing of the Dear Leader the next regime will be more enlightened than the last.

    How could it be any worse?

  • sweatyb

    Who will liberate them?

    If only there were some economic and military superpower in the region that was looking to burnish its image on the world stage. It would help if that country had extensive ties to the N Korean government. And also if the N. Korean government was dependent on them for financial and military assistance.

    Think of the leverage such a country would have to enact change!

    • WaStateUrbanGOPer

      When a person can’t distinguish irony from mere sarcasm, the result is posts like yours above– a post, incidentally, in which a starving and subjugated people are, whether you intended to or not, mercilessly mocked.