North Korea: Love Thy Leader – III
by Israel Shamir on 24 May 2016 2 Comments

Love Your Leader: People call Kim III “The Marshal” and express towards him, as for his father and grandfather, the emotions usually reserved for a deity. This is shocking for us, but not unusual in Asia. Before 1945, the neighbouring Japanese, people of great culture and refinement, worshipped their Emperor as the Supreme Deity, and even now some of them continue to venerate him as a Shinto god. The Japanese ruled over Korea for 40 years, and during that time, they implanted some ideas, notably that of a Divine Ruler.


N Korea has little to do with Marxism, or with Socialism as the Westerners understand. It is a deeply religious society based of worship of the three Kims. If asked, the N Koreans say their rulers have been “sent by Heaven”. They ascribe every good thing in their life to their Heaven-sent rulers. They tell of miracles they performed. A modern-looking lady in Pyongyang has told me she saw an apparition of Kim II in the sky on the night of his demise. I saw people weep when death of Kim II is mentioned – and that some five years after the event.


For me, this worship has been a source of minor embarrassment, especially their custom to bow to the images or photos of the leaders. I wonder what Daniel would do? A tour of N Korea has more features of a religious pilgrimage than of sight-seeing. Every place I’ve been shown had a connection to the Kims, and this connection has been elaborated fully. I visited their memorials, burial place, birth place and accepted it solemnly as a duty paid for their hospitality. Likewise, visitors to my Israel are forced to visit the Holocaust Museum, and it is easier to acquiesce than to resist. Still, I had a problem every time I had to bow to these graven images. Perhaps it is my cultural handicap.


The Kim Tomb is vast and very impressive. Kim I and Kim II are buried in the huge former palace-residence of Kim I, almost Versailles by size and magnificence. It is open once a month; anyway you can’t go there (or anywhere else) by yourself. One is being led through numerous scanners until one meets a perfect waxwork likeness of the two rulers, larger than life-size. Such effigies or polychromatic waxwork is displayed in a few places in Pyongyang as modern idols. Mme Marie Tussaud may have a business in Pyongyang after all! Visitors are supposed to bow many times in many places.


Next to the sepulchres, there are halls containing memorabilia: medals, orders and degrees bestowed on the dead leaders. The only order that Kim Il Sung had been given for personal martial courage, the Soviet Order of the Fighting Red Banner, is missing as it does not befit a great ruler.


Still, he was definitely a great man of his country and his generation; he widely travelled and met all important revolutionary leaders. His son travelled less, and met fewer leaders, as at that time, N Korea had already withdrawn into a world of its own.


It is said that Kim II borrowed the idea from Russia with its Lenin Mausoleum on Red Square. Perhaps the idea, but the realisation is not even similar. The Korean Temple of Sun is 20, 30, no, 50 times bigger than the modest tomb in Moscow. It can compete with the equally huge Mao Memorial Hall in Beijing. Likewise, Kim Il-Sung square is many times bigger than medieval Red Square of Moscow. Again, size-wise, it is more comparable to Tiananmen Square in Beijing. The N Koreans competed with the Chinese, not with rather modest Russians.


This is true regarding their attitude to the leaders. The Russians were fond of old Uncle Joe Stalin, but they never deified or worshipped him. Stalin has not been made the main character of Soviet films. In the most popular and paradigmatic films of Stalin days, like The Cossacks of Kuban (you can watch it, still good and pleasant, if you can enjoy The Fifties) Stalin is never mentioned. There were practically no films with Stalin as a character, in Stalin’s days. There were no stamps, no books dedicated to Stalin, in his lifetime.


You can’t find a N Korean film without one of the Kims being presented. A Kim is on the stamps, in theatre productions, on every wall of every house. It is not Stalin’s Russia. It is much more massive presence, tripled as the title passed from father to son to grandson.


Kim I began pursuit of nuclear weapons. I’ve been told that he decided it had to be done after the Cuban missile crisis. He said, “The Soviet Union can’t be relied upon” and commanded to begin the work on the A-bomb, the work that bore fruit in the days of his son and was completed by his grandson.


In a deep underground sanctuary, presents given to the three Kims are preserved for posterity. There is a basketball given by Madeleine Albright, and a hunting gun presented by Mr Putin; presents from Jimmy Carter lay next to swords offered by Saudi sheikhs. It is very difficult to avoid visits to these places.


I visited a Buddhist monastery in the mountains. There were a few monks, they spoke only of Kim I’s visits. He came a few times, they said, and told his people to take good care of the place, but he did not even enter the prayer and meditation hall. Apparently, Kim has been more on their minds than the Buddha.


The Koreans I’ve met claimed they do not worship any god or Buddha. The churches stay empty. All the religious feeling has been directed towards three Kims. I really disliked it, until one occurrence.


I’ve visited a luxurious and vast Children’s Palace, a beautiful modern building with dozens of large halls, where children study dance, painting, calligraphy, chemistry, swimming, volleyball. Once a week they have a day of open doors, and a lot of people come to look at that, and to consider whether to bring their child to join one of the groups. The courses are free, and practically every child can join. Good, but here again, every hall has been adorned with an image of a Kim. Kim with a child, or with a group of children, as if he were a living god.


And now, just before crying out loud Down with Kim, I’ll share with you my doubts. Once, Moscow also had such Children’s Palaces. Many of them were connected with the Communist Party, many were named after Lenin, and my generation did not like it. We objected, and we won, almost. The names of Lenin, Stalin and that of the Communist Party went down.


And then, the Children’s Palaces, and kindergartens in wonderful old villas were privatised by Yeltsin’s cronies under Milton Friedman and his Chicago Boys supervision, and they became offices or residences. One of the nicest Children’s Palaces in Moscow has been privatised by an ex-KGB man, the oligarch Lebedev, who is now the owner of the British daily Independent (incidentally, a great enemy of Vladimir Putin).


This is the real choice for many countries: (a) your children can go to a Children’s Palace named after a Kim, or (b) your Children’s Palace is being taken over by the Lebedevs of this world, and you have to pay a fortune and spend hours to give your children the upbringing you had. This is not an easy choice. The robber barons who come after socialism has been dismantled will make you wax nostalgic for a Kim quite soon.


The Koreans are fortunate they adore their rulers. Alexander the Great, Napoleon, Stalin were adored by their people, so were the emperors of China and Japan. Perhaps it is not worse than living under a ruler one despises as was the lot of the Americans under George W Bush.


It is unfortunate that they have no contact with their South. This separation of two halves is the cause of many problems: the more populous South has all good agricultural lands, while the North is mainly mountains and industry. Together, they may found a good balance.


Bottom line


Not in vain, Korea has been called the Hermit Kingdom: it is a country that wants to be left alone. We are not into religious wars: let them worship whoever they want. If they are not proper Marxists, it is their own business. If their propaganda is crude, we are not exposed to it. If they like the aesthetics of the 1950s, they may have it. As for their human rights, they appear content and their level of life constantly improves.


I’ve been told by many Koreans that since the Korean War, the N Koreans have lived in constant fear they will be nuked by the US. For them, H-bomb is the only guarantee against a possible US attack. There is no danger they will interfere with their neighbours. End of sanctions would allow them to grew prosperous, and prosperity will help them to regain self-esteem.


A proverbial boy pulled his fish from the aquarium for it is wet there. Fish likes it wet. Koreans like to live in the atmosphere of religious ecstasy induced by Kim III. Let them have it the way they like it. Luckily, they do not force us to like it, too.



Courtesy shamireaders; first published

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