To the City of the God-King
Reading about the personality cult of the North Korean leader had not fully prepared me for what I found when I arrived in Pyongyang in April 1979, as a member of the first large contingent of Americans to visit since the Korean War. Since I was encountering an economy and society almost unimaginably different from any I had known, the stay was full of surprises. But next to the astonishing all-pervasiveness of leader-worship the rest seemed mere detail.
Everyone sprinkled his speech with straight-faced references to "our Respected and Beloved Leader," "our Great Leader," "our Fatherly Leader." Everyone wore a portrait of the round-faced, unsmiling Kim Il-sung on a gold-framed, enameled badge pinned to the left breast. Larger portraits and statues of the Leader were everywhere.
It gradually became apparent that this was a religion. To North Koreans, Kim Il-sung was more than just a leader. He showered his people with fatherly love. If I could believe what my ears were hearing he might even be immortal, able to provide his followers eternal life. The realization grew during my first few days in Pyongyang. It crystallized as I sat in the Mansudae Art Theater watching a performance of Song of Paradise, a musical drama lavishly staged on the scale of a grand opera or Broadway musical.
The curtain rises to reveal a nighttime view of downtown Pyongyang. Holiday crowds enjoy themselves as neon signs and fireworks light up the city's impressive skyline of tall buildings and monuments. Son-hui, a journalist played by a buxom soprano, is about to depart on a trip around the country to gather material fora series of articles on the glories of the workers' paradise. She is unaware that the Great Leader, meanwhile, has commissioned a search for the orphaned daughter of a Korean War hero. The crowd-chorus, overcome with joy at the wonders of socialist construction, unleashes a mighty, soaring, swelling hymn worthy of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir: "With the Leader who unfolded this paradise, we shall live for generations to come."
Paradise? To a first-time visitor, North Korea seemed to be providing its people the basic necessities of life. But there was little sign of opulence and I never saw anyone cutting loose and having a really good time. Even on the May Day holiday, people seemed to be working--as actors, posing as merry-makers and subway passengers for the benefit of foreign visitors. A group of little boys in the uniform of the children's corps sat cross-legged in a circle on the ground in a park, playing a game. A couple of hours later they still sat in the same position, playing the same game, confounding the collective wisdom of the outside world regarding attention spans of unsupervised eight-year-olds.
In the deeply dug, sparkling-clean Pyongyang Metro, with its glittering chandeliers and its imposing murals honoring Kim Il-sung, I saw "passengers" exit the station via the escalator and then turn around and go back in for another ride--their repetitive all-day assignment, I supposed.1 Trains composed of only two cars each stopped for several minutes at each station, and the tracks showed enough rust to suggest that impressing visitors was a more important consideration than transporting people in a city where buses could glide quickly through nearly empty streets.
Still, who could be more qualified to unfold a paradise than Kim Il-sung? A partial listing of his talents would have aroused the envy of a Leonardo da Vinci or Thomas Jefferson. Kim was the country's leading novelist, philosopher, historian, educator, designer, literary critic, architect, industrial management specialist, general, table tennis trainer (the Americans were in town for the world championship)--and agriculture experimenter. "Our Great Leader," said my government-assigned interpreter, Han Yong, "has a small plot at his residence where he tests planting for a year or two."
One officially propagated "legend" about Kim Il-sung's days as an anti-Japanese guerrilla fighter in the 1930s and '40s described him as a mighty general astride a white horse, "carrying an enormous sword, cutting a big tree down as if slicing soft bean curd." Another had him walking on water: "Great Leader Comrade Kim Il-sung turned pine cones into bullets and grains of sand into rice, and crossed a large river riding on fallen leaves." To hear the North Koreans talk, Kim must have made himself heir to the ancient Taoist magicians' secrets for transcending time and space.
Now he was paying more than lip service to pursuing the goal of living with his people "for generations to come." Kim by 1979 was girding up for a contest with the mortality tables. He celebrated, lavishly, his sixty-seventh birthday on April 15 of that year. During his more than three decades at thehelm of the country, he had focused his considerable abilities and enormous power on ensuring that he would outlive his rivals one way or another.
The president smoked heavily and a large if nonmalignant tumor protruded from his neck, both negative signs for one who sought immortality. With little fanfare, however (I learned of this many years later), his government had established a longevity research institute in 1972 on the occasion of his sixtieth birthday. Researchers there were hard at work to make sure Kim would see his seventieth birthday and his eightieth.
Son-hui joins factory girls who are making merry in a Pyongyang park on their day off. They sing of "our happy life, which is always in a festive mood." The heroine's adoptive mother, who heads a work team on a farm, comes to the park and chants her gratitude to the Fatherly Leader, who has brought up the orphaned Son-hui to be a reporter. The two women sing a duet: "Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader."
Solicitude toward war orphans was an important aspect of the image of himself that Kim projected. A quarter of North Korea's 1950 population of 10 million died in the Korean War.2 Afterward, Pyongyang says, the state raised youngsters who had lost their parents, teaching them to think of Kim Il-sung as their father, themselves as his children. Some of those, like the fictitious Son-hui, had grown up to become members of the elite corps of officials and intellectuals.
On a night train trip3 to the city of Kaesong, I shared a bottle of whiskey with a man who introduced himself as Bai Song-chul, an official of the Society for Cultural Relations with Foreign Countries.4 While other North Koreans I had met sounded totally rehearsed, Bai spoke spontaneously and directly through thin lips that often turned downward in a frown or into a sardonic smile. There was intelligence in his eyes, which seemed to try to peer over his dark-rimmed spectacles. Thick hair (black, of course) surmounted a high fore-head and an oval yet strong-jawed face. At thirty-nine years old, he obviously was an up-and-coming member of the elite. Not very tall, he carried himself with something akin to a swagger. His forthrightness bespoke a confidence born of position and access to high levels. As the conversation progressed, I felt emboldened to tell him frankly that I could not help finding the Kim Il-sung cult ludicrous. Bai frowned and replied that such a reaction from an American, new to his country, did not surprise him--"but we feel bad when you talk that way."
Bai said all North Koreans had personal experiences that inspired respect and affection for the Great Leader. Bai himself had been orphaned in the Korean War, he told me. "Kim Il-sung came to our village and asked how many orphans there were. He called us together and said: 'You can stay here or you can go to orphans' school. It's up to you.' We went to the orphans' school. At New Year's, Kim Il-sung came and told us: 'You have no parents, so think of me as your father.'" Bai told his story with force and feeling. It seemed to come from the heart, and I saw no reason to doubt that the filial love he expressed for Kim Il-sung was genuine.
The reporter Son-hui, visiting an orchard, recalls the Great Leader's 1958 teaching that fruit trees should be planted on the hillsides. "Wherever you go in my homeland, the flowers of His great love are blooming," she sings. "We shall live forever in this land of bliss, with His love and care in our hearts."
Dancing farm women take up the theme and sing: "Let's spread the pollen of lo ve ... . The flowers bloom in the Leader's sunlight."
In North Korea, not just the arias and choruses in Song of Paradise but nearly all the songs we heard were about Kim Il-sung. Usually singers sang about him tenderly, with that sense of exultant yet exquisitely agonizing groping upward toward the ineffable that marks the high-church Christian musical tradition. Television documentaries showed the president out among the people, giving "on-the-spot guidance" to farmers. Sweet, sad instrumental music began playing when his face became visible. A television news program showed a foreign visitor picking up a book from a display. The camera moved in for a close-up of the volume, which was one of many works by the Respected and Beloved Leader. Sweet, sad music played as the image lingered on the screen.
People, at least the ones foreign visitors could talk with, spoke about the Leader the same way they sang about him: solemnly but lovingly. Their eyes showed their sincerity, and there was no outward sign of cynicism.
The deputy manager of the fruit farm recalls the days when he fought along-side a soon-to-die Korean War hero--the man for whose orphaned daughter Kim Il-sung has now commissioned a search. As the scene shifts to a realistic-looking wartime battle, the farm leader and other war veterans sing: "For three years and three months I have been under arms. My song echoes home from the trenches when I smash U.S. invaders seeking to rob us of our happiness."
Contrary to the understanding of most of the rest of the world, North Koreans generally believed that the South Koreans had invaded the North to start the Korean War and that North Korea then had gone on to win the war. They believed it as an article of faith because Kim Il-sung told them so. The regime worked successfully to keep at white-hot intensity the people's hatred of American and South Korean invaders and Japanese imperialists. Those outsiders, described as forever hatching new schemes to undermine and attack the North, got the blame for any problems at home. Thus, there was no need for Kim's subjects even to consider the heretical thought that the Great Leader and his system might have something to do with their problems.
Son-hui and the women of a fishing village welcome the fishermen back from a voyage. "Let us enhance our honor as proud fishermen of our Leader," the fisher-men sing. "Let us gladden our Leader, our Fatherly Leader. O graceful sea, under His loving care, sway your elegant waves forever! Korea's happy, thriving sea, sing in praise of our Leader's kindness."
Hearing of the fishermen's return from the deep sea, the Great Leader has instructed that they and their families be sent to vacation at scenic Mount Kumgang. The announcement moves the fishermen to tears and the audience toapplause. "Oh, this is kindly love, a love much deeper than the deepest sea," sings the fishermen's chorus. "Our hearts throbbed with emotion profound when He hugged us still damp from the sea. By our Fatherly Leader's love ... even the waters are touched, and quiver. We dedicate our youth to repaying His kindness. The boundless love of our Leader will last forever, like the sea."
People were constantly telling me stories about Kim Il-sung's benevolence. For example, he supposedly sent a team of doctors with medicine "worth the cost of a small factory" aboard his personal airplane when he heard that a resident of the mountains was critically ill.5
Even writing off 99 percent to propaganda, it was clear that Kim possessed considerable political genius. In his ability to make North Koreans feel close to him and personally indebted to him, Kim operated much like a successful old-time American big-city boss. Whatever anybody got in the way of goodies came in Kim's name, as a "gift." Instead of Christmas, North Koreans celebrated Kim's birthday--and he sent a present to each child, just like Santa Claus. The Great Leader seemed to get out of the capital a lot, offer his "on-the-spot guidance" and let the people see him.6 Bai Song-chul told me that Kim was accustomed to spending very little time in Pyongyang. Thus, many people around the country had been in his presence.
Bai said that every North Korean voluntarily wore a badge with Kim's picture. Even if someone happened not to be wearing a badge on a particular day, that did not mean he or she failed to respect the Great Leader. The person simply had forgotten--perhaps had failed to switch the badge while changing clothes.
Son-hui departs for scenic Mount Kumgang, where working people on vacation admire the magnificent view of Nine-Dragon Falls. They chant praises of their country, its beautiful mountains and limpid streams. They extol their Leader. "We shall live with Him forevermore," they sing. "The garden of bliss blooms in His sunlight." Son-hui joins vacationers in singing: "Our happiness blooms in our Leader's care. How glorious to live in our socialist paradise. Let us sing of our socialist nation, of our earthly paradise free from oppression."
Vacationing teachers laud the school system: "As soon as you are born you are received by a nursery, then led through a flowery gate to eleven-year education."
Indeed, officials told me, mothers were entitled to seventy-seven days of maternity leave before turning their babies over to public day nurseries, or in some cases full-time nurseries. "Home education has an important meaning in a society where private ownership of the means of production is predominant," Kim Il-sung had said in a 1968 speech. "But it has no important meaning in a different, socialist society."7 The state, taking over much of the parental role, had been training youngsters to worship Kim. "Our Great Leader is the Supreme Leader of revolution, its heart and the only center," said one official policy statement. "We have to inculcate in our future generations the absolute authority of the Leader, the indisputable thoughts and instructions ofthe Leader, so that they may accept them as faith and the law of the land."8
Schoolbooks portrayed Kim in his heroic roles. Their illustrations were drawings in the style of children's biblical literature in the United States. Some pictured Kim's exploits, whether real or imagined, as a child and as a young guerrilla commander. Others depicted a mature Kim, sometimes surrounded by children in tableaux reminiscent of the Sunday-school pictures that illustrate the words of Jesus, "Suffer the little children to come unto me." A sort of aura or halo was affixed to the Great Leader's head in those pictures.
The training and peer pressure that reinforced such images had intensified over the years. Thus, the young people I met struck me as more fanatical than North Koreans aged forty or older, whose indoctrination had not been as thoroughgoing.
I was suspicious of the notion of total unanimity and said as much to Bai. "Of course, we have people who dissent; that's why we have police," he replied with his characteristic bluntness--and with a trace of what may have been irritation that I had put him on the spot. But Bai insisted that simple disagreement with policy didn't equate to punishable dissent. For example, he said, when office workers met to decide whether to help out on farms or in factories, voices against the idea could be heard--but once the group decided to volunteer, everyone in the unit had to go along.
I had heard repeatedly during my stay of measures to guard against "impure elements." On a night drive from the east coast, for example, my driver pulled up at a floodlit guard post. When I asked for whom the guards were searching, the answer was "impure elements." Nobody would tell me just what these impure elements were. "You know," said one North Korean, peering at me like a disciplinarian schoolteacher waiting for me to confess my guilt. "You know who they are." Actually I did not know. When I pestered Bai, he finally grew impatient enough to spit out an unadorned definition. Impure elements, he said, "are spies, people trying to destroy the system. We shoot them." It seemed, then, that "impure elements" were South Korean or American agents, including the saboteurs against whom rifle-toting soldiers were posted at highway and railway bridges.
"We are free from exploitation," the happy vacationers sing, "free from tax or levy, completely free from care for food or clothing. Our socialist system, which our Great Leader has built, is the best in the world."
Although rather severe food shortages had affected at least some parts of the country since the mid-1970s, North Koreans evidently believed that much of what they had was indeed the best in the world. Kim Il-sung told them so, and few had any basis for comparison. Almost none traveled outside the country. Those who did were trusted officials. The foreign news North Koreans got was carefully selected, with little from the industrialized West. Radios were built so they could be tuned only to the official frequency. "Newspapers" were propaganda sheets that filled their pages with Kim Il-sung'sspeeches. Articles told of foreigners gathering abroad to celebrate the brilliance of Kim, who had "wonderfully adorned human history in the twentieth century"9--and whose ideas clearly were the answers to the problems of the underdeveloped world.10
Son-hui and a photographer tour Mount Paektu, "the holy mountain of revolution," and the battlefields of Kim Il-sung's anti-Japanese struggle. They sing of Kim's feats in "repulsing the one-million-strong Japanese army. Each tree and flower seems to relate the days of struggle against the Japanese. On long marches through blizzards He mapped out today's paradise ... our blissful land of today."
An image of Mangyongdae, the president's humble ancestral home, appears in the background. A red sun, another symbol of Kim Il-sung, is projected onto the image. The Korean audience applauds as women soldiers onstage remove their hats and bow to the image.
Kim Il-sung could legitimately claim a genuine guerrilla background. He had fought hard against the Japanese colonialists. That gave him impeccable nationalist credentials in a country where it had been all too common for capable and ambitious people to serve the Japanese masters. With that starting point, his publicists over the decades of his reign had inflated his image. North Koreans did not credit the U.S.-led Allied defeat of the Japanese in the Pacific for their national liberation. All young North Koreans had learned that it was Kim Il-sung and his anti-Japanese guerrillas (with help from the Soviet Army, in some versions--but in other versions with no acknowledged help at all) who had liberated Korea from the Japanese. The Americans got only blame, for spoiling the liberation by occupying the South and dividing the country.
Son-hui visits Kangson, an iron-and-steel center, and gathers reporting materials on "the proud life of the smelters, who are performing miracles." The shop manager, played by a full-throated bass, exhorts his workers: "Comrades! Let's fulfill our quota ahead of time!"
The "miracles" at the Kangson complex had begun in 1956, my guide told me. That year Kim Il-sung visited a Kangson rolling mill that was considered to have a capacity of 60,000 tons a year. The country needed 10,000 additional tons, the Great Leader said. The managers replied that such an increase would be "very difficult"--which, in Korean terms, means just about impossible. Kim appealed directly to the workers, who assured him there was no need to limit the improvement to 10,000 tons; they would produce 30,000 extra tons for a total output of 90,000 tons the following year. Indeed, my guide said, the workers responded so enthusiastically to Kim's exhortations that their output doubled in 1957 to 120,000 tons.
Son-hui hears steelworkers sing a rousing number reminiscent of the "Anvil Chorus": "In His warm loving care we are blessed ... . We are highly cultured under the new policy."
The regime had produced literature, museums and public art aplenty, under the policy that North Korean culture "must not depart from the partyline and its purpose of benefiting the revolution," as Kim Il-sung had instructed one group of artists and writers.11 In practice that meant that, regarding books, for example, a North Korean could read anything he or she wished as long as it glorified Kim Il-sung.
Many of the museums showcased nothing but gifts the Great Leader had sent for the edification of the masses. Some of those were objects that might better have been used instead of displayed, such as overhead projectors and pencil sharpeners proudly shown to visitors in a shrinelike room at a Pyongyang primary school. Others, however, were true relics--stuffed birds and animals and pickled fish, trophies from the Fatherly Leader's hunting and fishing trips. Kim Il-sung University showed off a hunting dog sent by the Respected and Beloved Leader. It, too, was stuffed. Reportedly it had died a natural death.
As for publicly displayed art and sculpture, most of what I saw depicted Kim Il-sung. A Japanese newsman, in Pyongyang to cover the table tennis tournament, was sent home early after he filed an article reporting that the gold coating on a sixty-five-foot (twenty-meter) bronze statue of the Great Leader had been removed. His article cited a rumor among foreign residents in Pyongyang that Deng Xiaoping, during a visit not long before, had suggested to President Kim that a golden statue might be a bit too extravagant a display for a socialist country seeking Chinese economic aid.
Son-hui arrives at the village where, following her wartime rescue from a burning house, she spent her childhood. She is deeply moved to see the village now becoming a model cooperative farm. It is harvest time, and "the rice stacks rise mountain-high," the farmers sing. "Let us boast of our bumper harvest to the whole world." The farmers are grateful to the Great Leader: "For many miles around He gave us water and sent us machines to ease our heavy toil. Let us sing, let us dance, let us sing of our Leader's favors for thousands of years."
Bowing deeply, the farmers sing: "Heaven and earth the Wise Leader tamed, repelled the cold front and brought in the best harvest."
After a couple of weeks in North Korea, believe it or not, a visitor could catch himself starting to get used to such extravagant tributes. Outside observers had long remarked the romantic propensity of Koreans, north or south, for excess. Besides, one could reason, the extreme reverence for Kim Il-sung no doubt reflected Korean history. Like China, North Korea had married traditional Confucianism--patriarchal and authoritarian--to Stalinist dictatorship.
Prior to 1910, native dynasties fashioned more or less on the ancient Chinese model had ruled the country. Then, during the 1910-1945 colonial period, Koreans had been Japanese subjects, required to worship the emperor in Tokyo pretty much as North Koreans later came to worship their Great Leader. 12 "Mansei!" (Long life!)--the Korean equivalent of the Japanese "Banzai!"--was the cry I heard issuing from the throats of thousands of North Koreans who assembled on May Day, 1979, in downtown Pyongyang'sKim Il-sung Square, to praise Kim for having built a workers' paradise.
My guide, Kim Yon-shik, gave every appearance of sincerity when he explained to me that the people had suffered for so long under "flunkeyism"--meaning subordination to surrounding great powers Japan, China, Russia and the United States--that they were grateful to Kim Il-sung for bringing them out of it.
That might have seemed a plausible account of how Kim Il-sung became a god. However, around the same time such explanations started to come easily to the mind, so did a small voice suggesting that it was about time to end the visit--before I might start giving thanks to the Great Leader at the beginning of each meal, as North Koreans were taught from nursery school to do. Any day now I might forget that this was 1979, with just five years to go before the end of the current seven-year economic plan and ... 1984.
The voice urging me to flee grew particularly strong on a day when the American reporters were taken to the Demilitarized Zone. The DMZ, as it was abbreviated, divided north from south. We arrived at a visitors' parking area adjoining the truce village of Panmunjom. As I was stepping out of the car that had brought me down from the city of Kaesong, I took care to remove my passport from my bag and place it in my pocket--just in case I should feel the need to make a break. Hit by a fit of temporary madness such as sometimes possesses Western visitors to the Earthly Paradise, I briefly visualized myself sprinting across the DMZ. At the moment we were not yet within sight of the border, but I had visited Panmunjom several times from the Seoul direction and thus had a clear mental picture of the layout. I could visualize the rifle-toting North Korean and American soldiers facing each other just a few feet apart. If I made a dash to the other side, I fantasized, I could then produce the passport as my admission ticket to the considerably Freer World.
However, when I got to the truce village I looked across at the outsized GIs, soldiers handpicked for their ability to project an intimidating presence. I saw that they were glaring, with looks of unbridled ferocity, at me and at my fellow Western correspondents. To look menacing and unwelcoming was their job, of course, but they did it so well that the moment of madness instantly passed and with it my fantasy of leaving North Korea by other than orthodox means.
Finale in Pyongyang: The people dance, joyously singing of their happiness. The searchers have learned that the reporter Son-hui is the dead soldier's daughter, and she has received her father's hero medal from the Great Leader. She joins the crowd in facing the red sun to sing a powerful, ecstatic, spine-tingling hymn of praise and faith: "Oh, unbounded is His love. We shall live forever in His kind care. His grateful love has given us eternal life ... . We shall relate His everlasting love age after age. Oh, we shall be loyal to Marshal Kim Il-sung, our Leader, our Great, Fatherly Leader."
When I asked what the country would do after the death of the president,a party member replied: "If he dies--I mean, when he dies--we'll find another leader." Kim Il-sung's choice for the job was his son, Kim Jong-il, then a chubby thirty-seven and running the secretariat of the Workers' Party. The younger Kim had disappeared from the public view in the late 1970s. Rumors had said he was dead, or had been injured in an automobile collision and was a "vegetable." By 1979, it was known that he was alive and healthy, but still his name was hardly mentioned publicly. Rather, he was referred to by the code term "the Party Center" or, often, "the Glorious Party Center."
Many Pyongyang-watchers figured that his curious anonymity had to do with efforts to buy time in which to get rid of elements opposed to such a reactionary phenomenon as a hereditary succession, unknown elsewhere in the communist world. A Soviet newsman stationed in Pyongyang told me the opponents included military men. But the Russian added that Kim Jong-il "has power in the party. He's a strong man, groomed for power and pushing to take over."
Indeed, the younger Kim's days in the political wilderness, if such they had been, appeared to be ending. In September 1978, he had made one highly visible appearance, at the celebration of the thirtieth anniversary of the founding of the North Korean republic, where he had met foreign guests. By 1979, a visitor could see his likeness alongside that of his father in a few of the portraits of the Great Leader that decorated entrances to buildings. Watching television one night I saw a film of the elder Kim, in wide-brimmed felt hat, giving "on-the-spot guidance" to peasants and factory workers. The Glorious Party Center was along, too, and several times the camera focused on him.
Curtain. Standing ovation. Flowers for the prima donna playing Son-hui.
My guide, Kim Yon-shik, was an official whose regular job was arranging North Korean participation in international sporting events. One of the few North Koreans permitted to travel abroad, he had been in Guyana in the fall of 1978 around the time of the notorious Jonestown massacre, in which members of an American religious cult died in a gruesome murder-suicide spectacle. Kim Yon-shik asked me what Americans thought of the incident. I could not resist framing my reply in terms that might strike very close to the bone for him. "Most Americans see Jonestown as a case of fanaticism," I told him blandly, "people blindly following one leader."
Kim Yon-shik was in his forties, old enough that he would not have been brought up completely in the current system, and he usually demonstrated a good sense of humor. Yet he showed no sign of appreciating the irony in my reply.
"Does the People's Temple sect still survive?" he asked me.
"It's hard," I replied, "for a cult like that to continue for long after its charismatic leader has died."
Kim Yon-shik still showed no sign of recognizing the barb. "Don't you think the CIA was involved in that incident?" he asked me.
UNDER THE LOVING CARE OF THE FATHERLY LEADER. Copyright © 2004 by Bradley K. Martin. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information, address St. Martin's Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.