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The defining image of North Korea under Kim Jong-Il, who died on Sunday, may not be any of the 34,000 public monuments to Kim’s father, the “eternal president” Kim Il-Sung — a small army of grandiose statuary that keeps alive the Kims’ Stalinist personality cult. Nor is it necessarily that endless gift to satirists, the photographs of the diminutive Kim Jong-Il, complete with trademark bouffant, large-framed glasses and Maoist zip-up jacket, looking every bit the part of a villain from the James Bond films he adored. It is not even North Korea’s annual military parades, a fearsome throwback to the Cold War and the nearest thing the country has to a thriving industry.
Rather, it may be a satellite map of the Korean Peninsula. In it, a sea of lights illuminates South Korea. Directly above lies a night-black expanse dotted by the solitary light of the North Korean capital, Pyongyang. It is a fitting symbol of Kim Jong-Il’s totalitarian rule, which turned the country into a pariah state, starved millions of North Koreans, killed untold thousands of others, and plunged the nation into darkness.
Official accounts – the only kind tolerated – depict Kim Jong-Il’s birth as a miracle. Supposedly, a double rainbow and a new star appeared in the heavens to mark his arrival in Mount Paektu, in northern Korea, in 1942. Not even the non-miraculous details of this biography are true. Soviet records have shown that he was actually born in 1941, in a village near the Russian city of Khabarovsk on the Chinese border, where his father was then serving as the commander of a Red Army battalion of Korean and Chinese exiles. But the mythmaking was in keeping with Kim’s self-professed image as a god among men, an image the “Dear Leader” formalized in one of his many preferred honorifics: “The guardian and deity of the planet.”
A rare title Kim Jong-Il did not claim for himself was “president.” His father Kim Il-Sung retained that office, even after his death in 1994. The father-son portraits that hang in every building in North Korea are intended to remind North Koreans that, even in death, he continues to watch over them.
Not that Kim Il-Sung’s presence was required to terrify North Koreans. Indeed, the son achieved the unlikely feat of being even more repressive than his father. Where Kim Il-Sung was said to at least consult occasionally with advisors on matters of state, his son demanded absolute control and cracked down on anyone suspected of dissent. Unfortunately for North Koreans, that was just about everyone.
The ghastly monument to Kim’s repression is the kwan-li-so, the system of forced labor camps that the country has had for 50 years but which became particularly brutal under Kim Jong-Il. According to the most recent estimates, there are 200,000 people in these camps, among them men, women, and children. Imprisoned without trial, many are guilty of not just alleged wrongdoing — a crime that could include nothing more than stealing some food to stave off starvation — but also of the Orwellian crime of “wrong-thinking.”
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