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?