The Death of 'Dear Leader'

Revisiting Kim Jong-Il’s monstrous legacy.

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 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.”

In the 1990s, when industrial production collapsed, triggering nationwide famines, the labor camps became death camps. As many as one third of prisoners in these camps died in the early 1990s under hideous conditions. Eyewitness accounts by former guards tell of starvation so extreme that prisoners tried to eat undigested grains in animal feces. Even this was considered a crime, and many prisoners were executed for trying to survive. In honor of his father’s death in 1994, Kim Jong-Il issued a brief stay on the executions. Before long though, he decided that he wanted to “hear the sound of gunshots again.” Firing squads were told to aim at the heads because they were filled with “the wrong thoughts.”

Life outside the camps was scarcely better. During the 1980s, Kim Il-Sung’s policy of juche, loosely translated as self-reliance, resulted in North Korea severing most of its trading ties, including with traditional partners like China and the Soviet Union. Concurrently, a state-controlled economy impeded agricultural production. What little money was in the state treasury was funneled toward the military.

North Korea thus had little defense against economic crises. A famine from 1995 to 1997 killed two million to three million North Koreans. The few visitors who managed to make their way into the country bore witness to the devastation and brought back reports of children eating grass to survive. Refugees told stories of cannibalism, with families protecting the bodies of deceased relatives lest they be consumed by starving neighbors.

Famine and malnutrition has left a permanent effect on the North Korean populace. A 2002 UN European Survey found an average 7-year-old boy in North Korea was 20 centimeters shorter and 22 pounds lighter than his counterpart in South Korea. Not even the army, traditionally the best fed profession outside the ranks of the Communist Party elite, was immune from these effects. North Korean soldiers are reportedly six inches shorter than South Korean soldiers. North Koreans suffered these torments in silence. They had little choice. Objecting was tantamount to treason and in the 1990s thousands of “complainers” were sent to the prison camps.

While his people starved, Kim Jong-Il denied himself few pleasures. His taste for expensive drink ran to a cellar stocked with 10,000 French wines. North Koreans survived on the equivalent of $900 a year. Kim Jong-Il spent $700,000 annually just on his beloved Hennessy cognac. Even as North Korea appealed to the UN for food relief, Kim Jong-Il retained a personal sushi chef and enjoyed rare delicacies like shark-fin soup. While traveling on his personal train, he had live lobsters flown in at stops along the way. North Koreans toiled to death in silver mines. Kim Jong-Il dined with silver chopsticks.

To account for the injustices he visited on his people, Kim Jong-Il directed the blame abroad. In the state-enforced ideology, North Korea is the victim of outside forces, most prominently the United States and South Korea. Entire museums are devoted to anti-American propaganda. Generations of North Koreans have been raised on horror stories about the “bloody atrocities of the eternal enemies of the North Korean people – American imperialism, Japanese colonialism, and their South Korean puppets.” Not surprisingly, North Koreans today believe that the United States and South Korea started the Korean War, the inverse of what actually happened.

Above all, North Koreans have been forced to worship at the altar of the Kims. Brainwashing begins from youth. North Korea’s education system is designed to serve the personality cult. The first phrase schoolchildren learn is to pay homage to their “great leader, comrade Kim Il Sung.” As adults, they take part in elaborate rituals of gratitude to the “dear leader” for helping them in their daily lives.

Wholesale suppression of dissent and the country’s isolation from the outside world has taken a profound toll on North Koreans. Where people in other totalitarian countries often opposed their regimes in private moments, North Koreans, according to some visitors, show no sign of political dissent. Slavish obedience is all they know. If true, this too is Kim Jong-Il's legacy.

That may explain the last image of Kim Jong-Il's monstrous rule: North Koreans weeping hysterically upon his death. It’s impossible to know how much of this orchestrated grief was sincere and how much of it was motivated by fear of the regime. Either way, it is a heartbreaking sight to behold. Of his legion of atrocities, perhaps Kim Jong-Il's greatest crime is the one inflicted on the minds of his long-suffering people.

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