Kim Jong-Il was such a cartoonish buffoon that those familiar with him could watch excerpts from “Team America: World Police” and be fooled into thinking they were watching newsreel footage. Heck, next to the Dear Leader Gaddafi looked like a serious statesman.
Some of Kim’s crimes bordered on the ridiculous. In the late 1970s he kidnapped two South Korean film stars and brought them to the North where they lived under house arrest and were forced to build a North Korean film industry. (They escaped at a film festival in Europe after making several films.) That’s just weird.
But anyone reading his biography will not laugh for long. Many of his crimes are listed among the great atrocities of history. The (alleged) drowning of his younger brother in a bathtub, the Rangoon bombing of 1983 (an attempt to assassinate the president of South Korea) and the 1987 bombing of Korean Air Flight 858 were just the warm-up acts. The main event came in the 1990s when this tinpot despot managed to starve upwards of two million of his citizens at the same time that he was developing nuclear weapons, maintaining the world’s fourth largest military, and filling his bulging belly with copious amounts of cognac. Those who defected from the country describe people during the famine so desperate for food that they resorted to eating grass and boiling bark in a futile attempt to make a thin broth, anything to stay alive. Even now the state-issued pictures of North Korea reveal a country of permanently malnourished individuals. Even the generals of the military are so emaciated that they look like little children playing dress-up. It is reasonable to conjecture that there are probably more overweight people at a single Country Buffet restaurant in suburban Denver than in this country of twenty-four million people.
One of the most bizarrely comical aspects of North Korea is the way it treats its capital city Pyongyang like a Hollywood set for the world. They have a large state church which is always empty, they direct the few people who have vehicles to flood the streets (a flood that looks more like a trickle by western standards) whenever a western diplomat visits so as to convey a sense of prosperity. And they build giant hotels that then sit empty for lack of visitors. I once spent a couple hours reading reviews of the forty-seven story Yanggakdo Hotel in Pyongyang at a travel website. Visitors from Europe and North America described a hotel of more than a thousand rooms, but with only 10-15 rooms occupied at any given time. Most of the floors were shrouded in perpetual darkness, the only occupants the poor mice unable to find even a single grain of rice to munch on. One man described peering out his balcony at night down on the city and seeing everything shrouded in darkness. There were no vehicles travelling on the streets, no sign of life save the sound of a single dog barking across the river. And remember, the two million people who live in Pyongyang are the privileged elite in this poverty stricken nation.
At least that hotel had some occupants. The Ryugyong Hotel (pictured above) was built in the late 1980s as a way to show off North Korea’s prosperity to the world. Ironically enough, it actually succeeded in that task: the Gotham City reject conveys the “prosperity” of North Korea with much greater accuracy than any bronze statue of the Great Leader or his trollish son ever could. Planned with more than 100 stories, several thousand rooms, and multiple revolving restaurants, the Ryugyong was never finished due to lack of funds and the use of substandard concrete. It now sits as a crumbling concrete shell, the ultimate monument to the failed policies of this despotic, communist carnival of shattered dreams. (Laughably in state pictures of Pyongyang at night, the hotel is pictured with rooms lit up, ostensibly a snapshot of the city in an alternate universe of prosperity.)
And despite it all we now gape in amazement at people in the streets weeping uncontrollably for their fallen hobbit, in much the same way they grieved for his father in 1994. You may wonder how this is possible — how people could be this brainwashed. In commemoration of Kim’s passing, I commend a really well done 2004 documentary called “A State of Mind”. The film depicts two young girls training to particpate in the annual “Mass Games” in Pyongyang, a staggering showpiece of communist conformity in which thousands of participants train for months to put on a mass spectacle to please the Dear Leader and continue to convince themselves that they really do live in the greatest place on earth. (If you’ve never seen footage of the Mass Games check out this youtube footage of the 2011 games: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1Fh8lMTulkg)
For me the most memorable scene in the film is not at the games but rather in the non-descript apartment of one of the young girls. As the family goes about their daily business we see a radio in the background playing state propaganda. The radio cannot be turned down, and certainly cannot be turned off. Tampering with the radio is a one way ticket to a frozen gulag. Day after day it pumps propaganda into the cramped apartment, reminding the family of how much the Dear Leader loves them. No wonder people are crying in the streets.
But now we come to a rubicon moment. It is terribly tempting to shake our heads in pity, comment on how crazy North Korea is, and get on with our day. That’s the boring, safe response. The infinitely more interesting response to to begin asking how North Korea’s craziness might provide a window into our craziness.
Right about now we need an Aleksander Solzhenitsyn. When he defected to the West after being a victim for years of the tyrannical policies of the Soviet Union, many people were expecting a cheerleader of democracy and capitalism. Instead they got a prophet. Read his 1978 Harvard Speech which elicited outrage from many quarters: http://www.columbia.edu/cu/augustine/arch/solzhenitsyn/harvard1978.html
How can North Korea illumine our predicament? Consider that radio in “A State of Mind.” Think about it. There’s always something playing in the background with the intent of conforming you to a particular set of values.
Now switch to the enlightened West where the average citizen is saturated every day with over 15,000 commercial images. Advertising is everywhere: in buses, urinals, blogs (but not mine!), smart phones, napkins, business cards, billboards, everywhere. Often we don’t even notice it as with product placement and viral advertising. But the creepiest parallel with North Korea may be Channel One, a daily twelve minute “news” program for kids which is shown daily in thousands of schools across the United States. The daily program includes two minutes of commercials and children are forced to watch it. Whether it is twelve minutes or twenty four hours, an uncomfortable fact becomes clearer: the difference is a matter of degree rather than kind. (Needless to say the two minutes of advertising consists of crap completely unnecessary for the flourishing of young children.)
Unfortunately that’s not the only parallel. What about the manic support for the Dear Leader? Is that kind of irrational commitment ever evident in the enlightened West? Well do you remember when the Dixie Chicks had the gall to say in concert that they were embarrassed George W. Bush was from Texas? In punishment for their candor they received death threats and were banned from dozens of radio stations.
I could go on, but you get the point. And I’d rather not alienate more of my audience by piling up additional examples that hit close to home. Instead let’s just agree on this:
As far as societies go, North Korea is plum crazy. But that doesn’t mean we’re perfectly sane.