Even Mother Nature, it seems, has been conscripted to help propagate the Kim family’s personality cult. In autumn, North Korea is devoid of any colour: the rice paddies have not yet been sown and the dirt fields lay bare save for a few skeletal trees that struggle up from the earth. But the country has two unique flower varieties that provide highlights throughout Pyongyang: the Kimilsungia and the Kimjongilia. I was there for the celebration of Kim Il Sung’s 101st birthday, the nation’s most important national holiday, and the first stop on the itinerary was the flower show.
One might think that putting together an entire exhibition with only two flower varieties would be an arduous task, but in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) the solution is a simple extension of what’s practiced everyday: they’re not floral arrangements in as much as they’re propagandistic statements made from flowers. The Kimilsungia and Kimjongilia provided the decorative borders to models of missiles, replicas of Pyongyang’s best-known monuments and photos of the leaders.
Over the holiday weekend throngs of people make their way to one of the 30,000 plus statues of Kim Il Sung around the country to pay their respects. I was taken to the statue in Pyongyang’s main square, where I was given strict instructions to lay flowers at the statue’s base, get in line with everyone else, and bow to it. It was in these most reverent occasions that the guides became palpably nervous, lest anyone show a hint of disrespect. The scene was solemn, but people seemed just to be dutifully carrying out an expected act of worship.
It was the same at Kim Il Sung’s mausoleum; people entered the hall where he lies in state and, in groups of four, bowed to him from each side of his glass box. People did not speak, move out of formation, smile or look at anyone else with an expression that could be construed as anything other than deferential. There was certainly no outpouring of emotion, like the uncontrollable wailing seen after the Dear Leader’s death in 2011.
The masochistic relationship between cultic devotion and sadistic repression that characterised the twentieth century’s worst totalitarian regimes persists unfettered in North Korea. To the regime the people are mere props, whose only purpose in life is to worship on the Great Leader Kim Il Sung, the Dear Leader Kim Jong Il and the Respected Marshal Kim Jong Un. There are currently over 200,000 people imprisoned in the country’s swelling gulags (half of whom haven’t committed a ‘crime’, but are relatives of those who have). In North Korea, political dissidence is seen to be a hereditary condition; in order to be cleansed, three generations are sent away for an undisclosed term, to work and be ‘re-educated’. Escape From Camp 14 is the remarkable tale of Shin Dong-hyuk’s escape from one of North Korea’s worst gulags. Born in the camp and classed as an ‘irredeemable’, Shin was destined to expire there; his crime, being the son of a man whose two brothers fled south during the Korean War. He was interned in a world where torture, murder, disease and hunger were as much a part of the everyday as rising, working and going to bed. He was fourteen years old when he watched the public execution of his mother and brother. They were killed – and this is as haunting as the gallows or the firing squad – because Shin had reported to the authorities that they were going to attempt an escape. As a young boy, he had been indoctrinated, as all North Korean’s are, to believe that his allegiance was, above all else, to the State. When he learnt of their plans he did what any good disciple of Kim Jong Il would do; he went straight to the guards. And as he watched on at their executions he couldn’t help but feel ‘they deserved to die.’
On a tour of a Pyongyang kindergarten I saw how the luckier children of the capital begin their scholastic misadventures. Most of the children spend Monday to Friday at the kindergarten and only return home to their families on the weekend. In every classroom the perfunctory smiling faces of the Dear Leader and the Great Leader watch over them and they walk corridors lined with violent propaganda posters and idyllic scenes of their socialist utopia. The State begins ‘educating’ them in their institutions from almost the moment they can speak. Here they learn about the cornerstones of North Korean society – they are enjoined to abandon the idea of free will, surrender themselves entirely to the State, supplant their individual desires to the group’s and praise and thank their eternal leaders for building the society in which they’re commanded to live in this way. It cripples them. In the sixty-eight years since Korea was divided along the 38th parallel, the people of the north have been so starved that they are now, on average, five inches shorter than their southern counterparts; there are also high-levels of mental retardation as a result of pregnant mothers and young children suffering from severe malnutrition.
As a foreigner, everything one sees is a carefully staged performance (right down to fake wedding parties being photographed at different sites around Pyongyang), so the evil and terror of the Kim regime doesn’t present itself in a familiar and recognisable form. Yet, many visitors seem to think it inevitably will. When Henry Wallace, Roosevelt’s vice president, visited Kolyma in 1944 he noted that worker’s looked healthy and that the amateur choir performed splendidly. What he failed to notice was that the workers were all apparatchiks and the choir was made up of imprisoned musicians. Horror and barbarity can be easily hidden behind a polished façade, particularly when one has no freedom of movement.
There are certain things that the guides and minders cannot keep one from seeing, however. Most noticeably, the country doesn’t produce enough electricity for its own consumption, so there are constant power outages in Pyongyang and outside the capital people live in total darkness after the sun sets. A satellite image taken at night from space show the northern part of the peninsular lost; if it weren’t for the borders being traced, the land mass and the sea would be unrecognisable from one another and one could easily mistake South Korea for an island. During the famine of the mid-nineties one-fifth of the entire North Korean population died and, although things may have improved since then, much of the population still goes hungry. (North Korean’s refer to this period in their history as the Arduous March, which is not only as euphemistic and misleading as the acronyms DMZ and DPRK, but also a blatant plagiarism of Mao’s revolutionary hike). Driving to the Panmunjom – the demilitarized zone (DMZ) that marks the border between the two Koreas – I saw young children and women, with no one around them for kilometres, foraging in the small patch of grass between the road and dirt fields, collecting grass and whatever other ‘wild foods’ (like roots, mushrooms and tree bark) they could find. During the famine the government encouraged people to supplement their diets with these ‘wild foods’, promoting them as safe and healthy alternatives. But many of the apparently nutritious ‘wild foods’ were poisonous or indigestible, and countless people died as a result of the directive.
Back in the Potemkin capital I was taken to an evening at the circus (complete with rocket-shaped trapeze that took the acrobats from the ground to the skies). It was here that I first witnessed something quite peculiar about the way North Koreans applaud. In retrospect it makes perfect sense, but at the time I was nonplussed when the haphazard ovation of the foreigners was quickly drowned out by the North Korean unisonous clapping. The same thing happened at every public event that I attended – outward expressions of individual approval dictated by the rhythms of others.
The more time one spends in Pyongyang the more one begins to understand the lengths the government has gone to maintain the Cold War ambience. North Korea is kept in a perpetual state of war with the South and their ally, the American Imperialists. The government has even created their own version of the Space Race. It may appear ridiculous to outsiders who have even the vaguest sense of what’s been achieved in the field of aeronautical science, but to many North Koreans, kept completely oblivious to man having walked on the moon and photos being taken from Mars’s surface, their space program is a source of great national pride. And for a culture built on the foundations of race-based nationalism, Kim Jong Un’s first satellite launch as leader was laden with significance, an obvious attempt to demonstrate that he’s calling the shots.
Even with a very limited view of Pyongyang, one can see the personality cult of the new leader being crafted and beginning to take form. When Kim Il Sung died in 1994 his son, Kim Jong Il, was well known to the people, quite senior within the Party and his future as the country’s next leader had already been established. In North Korean history textbooks the ‘extraordinary transition period’ makes special mention of the fact that Kim Jong Il ‘is the same as Kim Il Sung’ and that his first declaration after becoming leader was, ‘Do not expect the slightest change from me; I will do everything as President Kim Il Sung did.’ The Dear Leader’s legitimacy came from his lineage and, in him, the country had a leader whose identity had been fused with his father’s. The face of the party may have changed, but, as their ‘history’ attests, the personality cult remained the same. The two men are depicted in innumerable photos, statues and mosaics working together. Most households have a photo of father and son in discussion hanging alongside their individual portraits.
The problem the State seems to have been facing is how to legitimise Kim Jong Un’s rule. When I was speaking with one of the guides about Kim Jong Un’s rise to power she let slip that before he was announced as the new leader she had never heard of him. This from a member of the Pyongyang elite, who has more exposure to foreigners and, as a corollary, to outside news and information, than almost every other person in North Korean society. I tentatively pushed on and asked why there weren’t photos of the new, young leader, Respected Marshal Comrade Kim Jong Un, with his father. Sensing the point I was about to make she tersely replied that foreigners had told her it was because he had spent five years studying in Switzerland. She hastened to add that his official biography had not yet been released.
Kim Jong Un is too young, too inexperienced and too unknown to lead North Korea. All he has is his blood, so it’s little surprise that everything he has done since coming to power has been to align himself with the personality cults of his father and grandfather (it’s rumoured that he’s even undergone plastic surgery to literally be made in the Great Leader’s likeness).
He may be the most cosmopolitan leader the country has ever had, but it’s unlikely there’ll be any positive changes in the hermit kingdom any time soon. Armed with his western education, Kim Jong Un must be aware that totalitarian regimes do not last forever. Yet, he seems intent on defying history or, in the very least, warding it off until he’s finished using North Korea as his own personal playground. All the while the gulags swell, public executions continue, people starve and an entire population are kept imprisoned.