“North Korea is unique in having a dead man as head of state: Kim Jong-Il is the head of the party and the army but the presidency is held in perpetuity by his deceased father, which makes the country a necrocracy or mausolocracy as well as a regime that is only one figure short of a Trinity.”
Christopher Hitchens, God Is Not Great (2007)
North Korea’s paradoxologies and originalities are abundant: The country with the highest control in private and public life of its citizens, the most isolated country on Earth, the largest military power proportionally to its population and the one with the highest rate of incarceration of political prisoners in concentration camps. Equally extreme is the level of worship towards its leaders, starting with Kim Il Sung and continued with his son Kim Jong Il and grandson Kim Jong Un. This cult of the Kim dynasty pairs with a propaganda mechanism that touches on every aspect of life and tradition of the North Korean people.
Kim Il Sung took charge of the country with the blessing of Stalin in 1945, having his minor military successes exaggerated and his absence from the Pacific Front of WW2 (during the years 1941-1945 he was in the Soviet Union) historically twisted and presented as a heroic period in his life, during which he supposedly carried out clandestine missions in the Korean mountain Paektu.
Kim’s personality cult (some posters here) soon exceeded that of any other modern head of state. Until 1959 the largest university of the country took his name, his home village became a national shrine and statues of him were raised in several cities, where on his birthday every citizen had to make a pilgrimage bringing laurel wreaths. His name had to always be written in bold text and every published article had to start with an appropriate quote from him, even if it was an academic publication. Newspapers and magazines carrying his photograph could not (and still cannot) be folded, and his portraits can be photographed only in their entirety. But compared to today, that level of adulation seems mediocre. Up to the 1960s Kim admitted “great Stalin’s” superiority, as well as the Red Army’s important contribution liberating Korea from the Japanese conquerors. In his speeches he would always claim to be the subordinate of the USSR’s “superior culture”.
For the outside observers it would be difficult to see North Korea as anything different than another one of Russia’s satellite-countries. A closer look, however, would reveal the immense ideological distance between Moscow and Pyongyang. While the rhetoric in Russia and other socialist countries consisted of the dialectic struggle between the old and the new, North Korea was already introducing itself as a non-class society, with the people singularly supporting Kim Il Sung, under whose leadership the “child race” would satisfy its pure instincts. In contrast with Stalin’s idolization and his supposed continuation of Marxist thought and Leninist revolutionary oomph, Kim’s personality cult introduced him as a self-realized leader, the founder of Juche ideology and the Most Important Man in Korea’s Five Thousand Year History. As in the imperial Japanese propaganda, the dominant dualism was between purity and adulteration, being immaculate and being crud. The headliners of the official propaganda were young men with boyish features and shy, virgin maidens. Particularly after Stalin’s death in 1953, what is punctuated is the purity of the Korean blood, and not the study of Marxism-Leninism. Korean women who marry eastern Europeans are accused of “betraying the race” and people with ties with foreigners are met with suspiciousness. Immigrant women coming back pregnant in North Korea are forced to have an abortion. In 1956 Kim purged his party of any Chinese and Soviet factions, replaced these old communists with his WW2 comrades and silenced any mention to the contribution of the Communist Party in spreading Marxism during the 1920s.
But Kim was by far the most illiterate leader of the socialist world, with spasmodic education until his 17 years of age, and his later works do not illustrate an understanding of Marx’s ideas. The propagandists of his cult used the Marxist idea of “the subject” (Juche in Korean), which Kim used vaguely, as an authentic thought the Great Leader came up with. The “Juche Philosophy”, which in general terms speaks of ideas such as “man is the master of all things” and “men are born with creativity and autonomy”, was officially assigned in the Constitution as a guiding principle of the country, though there was never a complete official diatribe given by the state. Any vague mention of Juche leaves the reader thinking that the important parts are somewhere else. Of course, these principles of Juche are not followed even by the state, since the citizens, considered to be overgrown children, are expected to see the leader as a motherly-protective figure, and the country is nothing but autonomous or self-sufficient, as it relies on foreign aid, even untill today. Nevertheless, adherence to this “philosophy” serves its purpose, as it legitimizes Kim as a supposed great thinker and deters any contrarians to make any criticism on policy that is instantly made out to be an integral part of Juche.
Up to the mid ‘90s any mention of Marxism-Leninism disappeared from the state’s rhetoric. Socialism (or as they said “our way of socialism”) was renamed into “our method” and capitalism now meant only “the way the Americans enslave our brothers in the south”. In 2009 the Constitution was revised and any mention to communism was deleted. Socialism was placed as the guiding principle of the land, with the dogma of “the military first”. The famine that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union (and the halt of its economic aid that NK received from the Soviets) was named “lack of food” and the word “famine” was never uttered. Bad weather conditions were deemed the cause of the problem, as were the American sanctions and the laziness of low-level bureaucrats. Paradoxically, the famine heightened the support towards the government and in its duration a desire to go to war with America flourished. The Americans would be systematically demonized by the official propaganda for their participation in the war of 1950-’53 and the USA’s supposed occupation of their northerner compatriots through films, literature and in schools, where children would be introduced to the American people as “bastards” and “dogs” from a very young age. Every day children are reminded that, at any moment, they could get to have the wonderful experience of sacrificing themselves for their motherland and are taught to not be afraid of war, even a nuclear one.
Kim’s personality cult is infused in mythological and matriarchic elements. Kim says: “The homeland is the mother of all and from her breasts flows every true life and happiness”. The official encyclopedia reads: “The Great Leader is the loving parent that embraces and nurtures all of Korea’s children in his bosom”. The country’s mythological history describes Koreans as the first Asiatic civilization, the snowy mount Paektu as a symbol of chastity and the purity of the race and contemporary citizens as the continuation of the unimpaired and inborn moral virtue of their ancestors. The white color dominates in the depiction of the singularity of the race in paintings and novels; from the whiteness of snow to the whiteness of a character’s clothing. North Koreans believe in their moral superiority compared to all other peoples. Of course, all these issues could not be further from a Marxist’s view. Any potentially positive influences from the outside are ignored by the official propaganda. Christianity, Buddhism, Shamanism and Confucianism are rejected, let alone humanism and western philosophy; and the North Koreans are left to believe that they are just born virtuous. Eugen Weber noted that Lenin, considering the people to be “an eternal child”, saw the purpose of the Communist Party to be forcing them to grow up. The Soviet party took up the role of a father figure. Kim Il Sung’s role, however, was not to promote his people in that way but to protect them like helpless infants. Kim was not depicted ruling or sharing wisdom but showing up in desolated poorly farms to give courage to the farmers, walking helpless old women to their homes, visiting schools on their opening ceremonies, tying the shoelaces of a tired soldier in the snow or carrying a sick child to the hospital. In these depictions his mere presence is enough, as if it is not his guidance but the time he dedicates for his people that is important.
Even in war the soldiers are depicted as children. We read about a tank driver in the novel Tank No.214:
“The skin was dark, but the face was both noble and adorable, like the face of a small child. Chon Ki-ryon’s expression didn’t even change when he rolled over the enemy.”
The propaganda of the personality cult is continued in Kim Jong Il’s days, when he took over after his father’s death in 1994. But, while Kim Il Sung was the tireless wise man and an expert in every aspect of human endeavor, his son is the General with the motto “the military first”, who is forced by the “imperialist American bastards” to concentrate the country’s resources for the development of the army and neglect the economy. This inferiority in wisdom (in relation to his father) does not present a difficulty for his propagandists and mythobiographers, as North Korea is not a state that dedicates itself in improving the living conditions of its people (like a Marxist-Leninist state does) but a nationalist state where the leader is called to encapsulate the Korean virtues (in which intelligence is not included anyway). Kim Jon Il was supposedly born on the mythical and emblematic mountain Paektu (in reality he was born in a military base in the Soviet Union). His birth brought springtime in the middle of winter, while a star lit the skies and a double rainbow was formed as the birds greeted joyfully the glorious event in the Korean language. As a child, he was often cold and hungry but never complained and didn’t ask for any privileged treatment. Throughout his life he is never shown to have fun, but always to support and console the Koreans, while dressed in simple, ascetic clothing. The matriarchal image of the Leader continues to dominate the official rhetoric with phrases like “Our Great Mother, the General Kim Jong Il” and “We can’t live away from his bosom”.
In December 2011 Kim Jong Il died, and the third in row of the dynasty, Kim Jong Un (Supreme Leader), took over. Very few things are known about him, as no cohesive biography of him has been written (or any mythobiography up to this point). When he took over, even the North Koreans knew very little about him, but whoever would raise a doubt about his worthiness would be sent to a “re-education” camp. What’s certain is that his propagandists will find it difficult to create myths around his person, as they did for his ancestors, as the people seem to have gotten tired of the hyperboles of the previous decades, having lived the decline of the economic system and the famine, and continuously learning more and more about how the outside world looks like with the help of technology (mobile phones and DVDs are not as rare as they used to be).
Christopher Hitchens – A Nation Of Racist Dwarfs