Mother of All Mothers

The leadership secrets of Kim Jong Il
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You've just finished your life's work, a bold new history of the Watergate burglary in which you manage to prove that the White House was out of the loop, but the ink is hardly dry when an eighteen-minute tape surfaces in a Yorba Linda thrift shop, and soon the whole country is listening to Nixon gangsta-rap about how he personally jimmied the door open. It's every revisionist's nightmare, but Bruce Cumings, a history professor at the University of Chicago, has come closest to living it. In a book concluded in 1990 he argued that the Korean War started as "a local affair," and that the conventional notion of a Soviet-sponsored invasion of the South was just so much Cold War paranoia. In 1991 Russian authorities started declassifying the Soviet archives, which soon revealed that Kim Il Sung had sent dozens of telegrams begging Stalin for a green light to invade, and that the two met in Moscow repeatedly to plan the event. Initially hailed as "magisterial," The Origins of the Korean War soon gathered up its robes and retired to chambers. The book was such a valuable source of information on Korea in the 1940s, however, that many hoped the author would find a way to fix things and put it back into print.

Instead Cumings went on to write an account of postwar Korea that instances the North's "miracle rice," "autarkic" economy, and prescient energy policy (an "unqualified success") to refute what he calls the "basket-case" view of the country. With even worse timing than its predecessor, Korea's Place in the Sun (1997) went on sale just as the world was learning of a devastating famine wrought by Pyongyang's misrule. The author must have wondered if he was snakebit. But now we have a new book, in which Cumings likens North Korea to Thomas More's Utopia, and this time the wrongheadedness seems downright willful; it's as if he were so tired of being made to look silly by forces beyond his control that he decided to do the job himself. At one point in North Korea: Another Country (2004) we are even informed that the regime's gulags aren't as bad as they're made out to be, because Kim Jong Il is thoughtful enough to lock up whole families at a time.

The mixture of naiveté and callousness will remind readers of the Moscow travelogues of the 1930s, but Cumings is more a hater of U.S. foreign policy than a wide-eyed supporter of totalitarianism. The book's apparent message is that North Korea's present condition can justify neither our last "police action" on the peninsula nor any new one that may be in the offing. It is perhaps a point worth arguing, particularly in view of the mess in Iraq, but Cumings is too emotional to get the job done. His compulsion to prove conservative opinion wrong on every point inspires him to say things unworthy of any serious historian—that there was no crime in North Korea for decades, for example—and to waste space refuting long-forgotten canards and misconceptions. Half a page is given over to deriding American reporters who once mistook Kim Il Sung's neck growth for a brain tumor—talk about a dead issue.

Cumings is even harder to take when he's in a good mood. By the time he has noted a vague resemblance between Kim Jong Il and Paul Anka, sniggered about "horny" Korean housewives, and mocked both a tour guide's English and an African man's surname ("I dissolved in hysterics"), most readers, with no photograph of the author to go on, will find themselves mentally exchanging his professorial tweeds for a very loud leisure suit. Most offensive of all is the book's message that we shouldn't be too hard on the dictatorship in Pyongyang, because human rights aren't as important to Koreans as to the rest of us.

Does this system promote human freedom? Not from any liberal's standpoint. But from a Korean standpoint, where freedom is also defined as an independent stance against foreign predators—freedom for the Korean nation—here, the vitriolic judgments do not flow so easily. This is a cardinal virtue among a people that has preserved its integrity and continuity in the same place since the early Christian era … After all, there is one undeniable freedom in North Korea, and that is the freedom to be Korean.

It seems to have slipped the professor's notice that many countries manage to stay independent without dragging children off to gulags, and that North Korea is a place where a lot of characteristically Korean behavior—speaking bluntly, for example—is punishable by execution. The only significant part of the culture that can be freely indulged under Kim is its ethnocentric streak, which is what Cumings all but reduces it to; confusing cause and effect, he sees propaganda as the reflection of the popular soul instead of (to use Stalin's metaphor) the engineer of it. The Korean people have always been more outward-looking than their insecure leaders, and for centuries this was especially true of those in the northern part of the peninsula. Even in the months after our disgraceful bombing campaign during the war—a campaign that Cumings rightly calls a holocaust—diplomats in Pyongyang noted no signs of indiscriminate xenophobia.

This was soon to change. Throughout the 1950s the regime resorted to crude racism in its anti-American propaganda, often treating inset eyes, big noses, and other Caucasian features as the manifestation of villainy. To the consternation of the diplomatic community, little effort was made to enlighten people about the existence of friendly big-noses, even though—as this spring's Cold War International History Project bulletin makes clear—North Korea's cities were rebuilt and its people fed and cared for with enormous amounts of assistance from Eastern Europe. "They expect foreign countries," one Hungarian diplomat noted, "to give them everything." Reading the CWIHP bulletin has the odd effect of making one realize what a relatively sensible bunch of people the Soviets were. In the mid-1950s they opposed Kim Il Sung's brutal collectivization of agriculture; Kim brushed off their advice, only to demand food aid when a murderous famine ensued.

The more the regime evinced its incompetence by relying on foreigners, the more it needed to restrict the people's contact with them. By the 1960s the party line had taken a turn that reminded a Soviet diplomat of Nazi Germany, as citizens who married Europeans were banished to the provinces for "crimes against the Korean race." A diplomatic report translated in the CWIHP bulletin shows how the masses finally got into the spirit of things. In March of 1965 the Cuban ambassador was driving his family and some Cuban doctors around Pyongyang when they stopped to take pictures. Hundreds of adults and children quickly swarmed the diplomatic limousine, pounding it with their fists, tearing the flag off, and ordering the occupants to get out. Their rage and insults, directed mainly at the ambassador "as a black man," abated only when a security force arrived to beat back the mob with rifle butts. (Not for nothing did Eldridge Cleaver say that the North Korean police made him miss the Oakland police.)

"The level of training of the masses is extremely low," a party official later admitted to the ambassador. "They cannot differentiate between friends and foes." In other words, everything was going as planned. The regime went on to blur the distinction further by excising all mention of outside assistance from the history books, even as it continued to squeeze billions of dollars from its cash-strapped allies. For decades a foreign proletariat toiling in dingy factories from Vladivostok to Karl-Marx-Stadt helped bankroll Pyongyang's transformation into a proud monument to ethnic self-reliance, so that someday a Bruce Cumings could boast that it is anything but the ugly Communist capital one might expect. Well into the 1980s Kim was telling leaders of aid-donating states that he was having trouble meeting the basic needs of his people. If South Korea's dictatorships were America's running dogs, then North Korea was the Eastern bloc's house cat: intractable, convinced of its superiority, and to some observers a more independent creature, but never much good at feeding itself—even after the can openers started falling silent in 1989.

The question of where Europe ends and Asia begins has troubled many people over the years, but here's a rule of thumb: if someone can pose as an expert on the country in question without knowledge of the relevant language, it's part of Asia. Europeans hoping to lay claim to North Korea should therefore brace themselves, because Bradley Martin's publisher is touting Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader (2004) as the definitive work on its subject, though it belongs squarely in the "a puzzled look crossed the faces of my guide and interpreter" tradition of monoglot scholarship. Although hardly definitive, it is still an excellent book, well researched and lucidly written. It is especially refreshing to find someone showing serious interest in North Korean propaganda instead of merely hooting at it.

The problem is that the official translations on which Martin was forced to rely do not always reflect the original. Kim Il Sung's title Eobeoi Suryeong means not "Fatherly Leader"—a common rendering that encourages Martin to exaggerate the influence of Confucianism on the personality cult—but "Parent Leader," the most feminine title the regime could get away with. As the country's visual arts make clear, Kim was more a mother to his people than a stern Confucian patriarch: he is still shown as soft-cheeked and solicitous, holding weeping adults to his expansive bosom, bending down to tie a young soldier's bootlaces, or letting giddy children clamber over him. The tradition continues under Kim Jong Il, who has been called "more of a mother than all the mothers in the world." His military-first policy may come with the title of general, but reports of his endless tour of army bases focus squarely on his fussy concern for the troops' health and comfort. The international ridicule of his appearance is thus as unfair as it is tedious. Anyone who has seen a crowd of Korean mothers waiting outside an examination hall will have no difficulty recognizing Kim's drab parka and drooping shoulders, or the long-suffering face under the pillow-swept perm: this is a mother with no time to think of herself. When it comes to the Workers' Party, the symbolism is even more explicit, as in this recent propaganda poem:

Ah, Korean Workers' Party, at whose
breast only
My life begins and ends
Be I buried in the ground or strewn
to the wind
I remain your son, and again return to
your breast!
Entrusting my body to your
affectionate gaze,
Your loving outstretched hand,
I cry out forever in the voice of a child,
Mother! I can't live without Mother!

It's easy to imagine what Carl Jung would have made of all this, and he would have been right. Whereas Father Stalin set out to instill revolutionary consciousness into the masses (to make them grow up, in other words), North Korea's Mother Regime appeals to the emotions of a systematically infantilized people. Although the propaganda may seem absurd at a remove, it speaks more forcefully to the psyche than anything European communism could come up with. As a result, North Korea's political culture has weathered the economic collapse so well that even refugees remain loyal to the memory of Kim Il Sung.

The Yangs, for example, are former Party members who recently defected to the South with their two boys. As part of a campaign to prevent the formation of a refugee ghetto in Seoul, the family was resettled in Mungyeong, a charmless sprawl of apartment blocks and love hotels a few hours to the southeast. I visited them there in May. As we sat on the floor of their tiny living room, I told them how a young refugee once shrank from my approach because—as she later explained—I looked like the stick-nosed Yankee effigies she used to run knives into after school. "Yes, you do have …" the mother shouted over the general laughter, but she caught herself in time. Turning to the older boy, who is sixteen, I asked what wisdom he could remember from the Parent Leader. "Man is the master of his own destiny," he said shyly, his voice trailing off. What about his parents? "We didn't memorize sentences," the mother said, embarrassed, so I asked her to explain Kim Il Sung's ideology of Juche for me in her own words. "The main thing is, man is the master of his destiny," she said briskly. "And?" I asked. Silence. "Well," I said, "if people are the masters of their destiny, why do they need a leader?" The younger boy came to his mother's aid: "It was something about flowers needing the sun to grow." Everyone frowned at my pen scratching away; they were letting the Parent Leader down. "It wasn't so much what Kim Il Sung said," the father blurted out at last.

This is of course true. Expanses of tautological prose have been ghostwritten to fatten the spines of the two Kims' collected works, but few people ever read them. North Korea is a unique socialist country in that its ruling ideology is conveyed through what is written about its leaders, not by them, and the message could hardly be simpler: Foreigners bad, Koreans good, Leader best. "The most important thing to us was that Kim Il Sung suffered for the people; he fought for us," the boys' mother said. With a start I realized that this elegant fortyish woman, who now sells American cosmetics for a living, had tears in her eyes. "The Leader would sit on the ground with farmers, just like we're sitting here now. And if he shook someone's hand, that person would be happy forever. Of course, Kim Jong Il is not like that." Conversation turned to the railway explosion in the North at the end of April, and to the regime's immediate focus on the material damage. "It's because Kim Jong Il never suffered," the father said bitterly. "What does he know about the common people?"

It would appear that Kim knows just enough. The border with China remains so porous that even children often sneak back and forth, and yet no more than three or four percent of the population has chosen to flee for good. The regime obviously did the smart thing by publicly acknowledging the food shortage and then blaming it on American sanctions, instead of pretending there was no food shortage at all, as Stalin used to do. The Dear Leader has also deftly exploited the tradition according to which Koreans care for their parents in old age: the masses are told that it is their job to feed him, not the other way around, and his famed diet of "whatever the troops are eating" is routinely invoked to shame everyone into working harder. Never has a dictator been such an object of pity to his people, or such a powerful source of guilt. In 2003 North Korean cheerleaders, living it up on a rare visit to a sports event in the South, responded to a rain-soaked picture of Kim by bursting into a hysterical lament that baffled their hosts.

To concede the effectiveness of the personality cult is not to agree with Selig S. Harrison's startling assertion, in Korean Endgame (2002), that Koreans have a "built-in readiness … to accept as truth what is dispensed from higher authority." No regime ever needed to subject its citizens to a lifetime of brainwashing in order to make them follow their natural inclinations. What must be acknowledged is that Kim Jong Il has evinced a genius for propaganda ever since managing the efflorescence of his father's cult in the 1960s. Even so, he cannot cover his lack of charisma completely; it's as if Hitler died and left the Third Reich to Goebbels.

Kim must also be aware that the infantilization of the people has come at a price. Away from Pyongyang's carefully monitored tourist sites, North Korea is a much more raucous place than any dictator could be comfortable with. "One surprising thing," Michael Breen writes in Kim Jong Il: North Korea's Dear Leader (2004), "surprising because you expect robots, is … how frequently fights break out." According to refugees, even women fight out their differences, and young female teachers are said to hit children the hardest. This lack of restraint is a problem for many North Koreans trying to adjust to life in the South. Social workers complain that the refugees pick fights with strangers, and storm off jobs on the first day. "I'd have thought they'd be better at controlling themselves, coming from a socialist system," is a common lament.

In short, the conventional Western view of North Korea's official culture as a stodgy combination of Confucianism and Stalinism—two ideologies that prize intellectual self-discipline above all else—could not be further from the truth. Fortuitously enough, this view has so far encouraged Americans to stay cool in the face of Kim Jong Il's missile-rattling. But misperceptions of hostile regimes are inherently dangerous, especially when Uncle Sam is doing the misperceiving, and this one has as much potential to excite tensions as to reduce them. On August 18, 1976, a detail of U.S. and South Korean soldiers at the DMZ were pruning a tree when People's Army soldiers demanded that they stop. The Americans refused, prompting the North Koreans to wrest away their tools. In the ensuing clash two American officers were killed. Unable to conceive that Communist troops could act out of spontaneous rage, Washington assumed that Kim Il Sung had ordered the incident. Troops were set on high alert, and nuclear-capable B-52s dispatched to skirt North Korean airspace. Luckily for everyone, the Parent Leader issued an apology for his children on August 21. As the Americans saw it, of course, Kim had "backed down."

Perhaps the most unsettling thing about the nuclear accord brokered by Jimmy Carter in 1994 is the decade of crowing it set off in North Korea. A high-school textbook remembers, "The Great Leader dragged the Americans, who had fallen into a state of extreme terror and unease, to the negotiating table … All problems discussed during the talks between America and Korea were resolved to Korea's advantage, and the intense nuclear standoff ended in our victory." This is evidently sincerely believed; if it weren't, the North Koreans would not still be so enamored of Carter and Robert Gallucci, the chief U.S. negotiator back then. Both men—and this must thrill them no end—are praised in propaganda literature as fervent admirers of Kim Il Sung.

It is reassuring, then, to read in Harrison's book that the agreement actually represented a victory of high-ranking North Korean "doves" over their hardline colleagues. I just wish he had explained why even the most hawkish propagandists remember it so fondly. What bothers me more is the author's insistence on interpreting the two Kims' every act as part of a rational pursuit of national security. We are told, for example, that the deployment of atomic weapons in South Korea in 1958 frightened Pyongyang into starting its own nuclear program. As the CWIHP bulletin makes clear, however, Eastern European diplomats in the early 1960s were aghast at the North Koreans' assertions that a nuclear confrontation was nothing to be afraid of, and that the time had come for another invasion of the South. It is by no means certain that this sort of adventurist thinking has been abandoned. In a propaganda novel set in 1993, Kim Jong Il and his generals regard a likely American air strike on the Yongbyeon nuclear facility as the perfect opportunity for a "sacred war" (seongjeon) of reunification. Harrison ignores such things, which may well be better than overreacting to them; but to approach North Korea as if it were the détente-era Soviet Union is asking for trouble. When he gets his next update on the hawk-dove struggle from officials in Pyongyang, a city where most foreigners count themselves lucky to learn their tour guide's name, he should perhaps keep in mind that North Korea has always viewed the existence of similar factions in Washington as the manifestation of a ludicrous disunity. No one under Kim Jong Il would describe his government in such terms to a Yankee visitor unless the goal were to extract more concessions from the outside world.

Considering that for decades the North Koreans refused to listen to their own allies, it seems naive for the author of Korean Endgame to assume that what Washington does "will largely determine what the North … will do." The Juche regime has received substantial U.S. aid since the famine, but the dominant slogans of anti-American prop-aganda remain "A hundred thousand times revenge" and "A jackal can never become a lamb." In other words, even as the regime tells the outside world it wants nothing but better relations with Washington, it tells its own people that better relations are neither desirable nor conceivable. In January of 2003 Pyongyang issued a taunting poster of a missile attack on the Capitol.Later that year, with the six-party talks in progress, an old tale of murderous missionaries was reprinted in four North Korean magazines, complete with racist caricatures.

Still, the thrust of Harrison's book is valid.

The goal of the United States should be to disengage its forces gradually … over a period not longer than ten years, whether or not this can be done as part of a negotiated arms-control process … The stage would then be cleared, as it were, with the initiative left to Seoul and Pyongyang. Washington would have its hopes and its advice but would recede into an unaccustomed posture of detachment, ready to let the two actors make their own mistakes.

This is excellent counsel. Far from being a stabilizing factor on the peninsula, the U.S. presence serves only to rally the North Koreans around their military-first government. As Harrison makes clear, this is no time to get sentimental about our old ally. Seoul asks that U.S. troops stay, but at the same time it poses as a neutral mediator of the resulting tensions, often playing down the nuclear threat just as Pyongyang seems bent on playing it up; a disastrous miscommunication among the three parties seems all but preordained. It is a shame that Harrison does not place greater stress on the need to extricate our troops even if the arms-control process fails, because it's hard to see how it can succeed. Kim Jong Il refused to let South Korean doctors tend to blinded children after the North's railway explosion last spring; such a pathologically secretive man must be expected to balk at an early stage in the verification of nuclear dismantlement, no matter what agreement he has signed. Washington will then renege on its part of the bargain, prompting Seoul to voice regret over American "intransigence." This, in turn, will embolden the North to demand a re-negotiation of the point in question, and we will all be right back where we started, albeit with even more nukes to worry about.

In the meantime, anything can happen. Having predicted the speedy downfall of the regime back in 1994, Pyongyang-watchers now predict that it will be around forever, but North Korea is already well into a precarious post-totalitarian phase. Thousands of citizens in border regions chat with refugees by smuggled cell phone, and millions more enjoy illegal access to television broadcasts from outside the country. The majority of the population has bought and sold things at open-air markets, and many young people in rural areas have simply stopped attending school and political meetings. The personality cult will find it hard to adjust to this kind of change without routine recourse to anti-American alarmism, and if there are no grounds for confrontation, Kim Jong Il can be expected to create them. All the more reason, then, for America to heed Harrison's advice and pull out. But will we do so? Our patriotic dash into the Iraqi quagmire hardly inspires confidence that we wouldn't follow our own Dear Leader into a new conflict in North Korea, especially since the WMD really do look like a "slam dunk" this time.

The only comfort to be had from the new batch of Korea books is provided by Breen's biography of Kim Jong Il, which details a hedonistic streak as wide as the DMZ. Apparently the dictator lives in a huge palace stocked with Paradis cognac, and every summer a fresh "Joy Brigade" of high school beauties gets to admire the ceiling. Breen waxes indignant about this, but would he rather Kim were sharing a tent with a mountain goat and a well-thumbed Koran? We can all breathe a little easier knowing that our most formidable adversary wants his virgins in the here and now.

B. R. Myers is the author of Han Sorya and North Korean Literature (1994) and A Reader's Manifesto (2002), a portion of which first appeared in the July/August 2001 Atlantic. He is currently teaching North Korean studies at Korea University, in South Korea.
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