April 15, 2013
Kim Il Sung, the “Eternal Leader” of North Korea, was born 101 years ago today
by Alex ShephardKim Il Sung, the first leader of North Korea, was born 101 years ago today. Kim led the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea from 1948 until his death in 1994, serving as Prime Minister and then President. He led the invasion of South Korea in 1950, and nearly took over the entire peninsula, before being repulsed by United Nations troops. That war, known in this country as the Korean War, lasted for three years. After the war, Kim solidified his hold on power by establishing a pervasive cult of personality—there are over 500 statues of Kim in North Korea and today, his birthday, is a public holiday.
While Kim remained in power during the terms of office of six South Korean presidents, seven Soviet leaders, and ten U.S. presidents, he, the country he led, and the personality cult surrounding him are widely misunderstood. Below you’ll find brief excerpts from B.R. Myers‘ timely and groundbreaking The Cleanest Race which illuminates the hermetic country’s worldview and its perception of its Great Leader.
“With very short hair and a soft, pale-moon face marked by small and feminine features, the boy Kim recalls the children pictured in imperial Japanese schoolbooks. Usually he looks cheerful showing the dimpled smile to which [North Korean propaganda] constantly draws attention. In some pictures, like one in which he receives a gun from his mother, he seems to sense the responsibility weighing on his young shoulders, but even here his eyes are blank: because true Korean spontaneity ends where an intellectual expression begins, Kim is never thinking.” (Image: The young Kim takes from his mother the gun with which he would start his war of liberation.)
“Although he had sat out the Pacific War in the USSR, [Kim} had earlier fought against the Japanese as a commander in Mao Zedong’s army, acquiring brief renown in 1937 for an attack on an imperial outpost just south of the Yalu River. For better or worse, Kim was the closest thing to a resistance fighter the Koreans had. He is said to have wanted a military career, but the Soviets, finding no more appropriate person to work with, persuaded him to assume leadership of the new state [of North Korea.]” (Image: Kim Il Sung addresses his people after the Battle of Pochonbo)
“Kim was by far the least educated of all the leaders in the socialist world. His spotty schooling had ended at seventeen and although he had spent a year at an infantry officer school in the USSR, it is unlikely that he understood enough Russian to grasp anything theoretical. None of his writings evinces an understanding of Marx. Equally ignorant of communist ideology were the guerrilla comrades who comprised the core of Kim’s power base… It is no wonder that instead of guiding the cultural scene in ideological matters the party allowed itself to be guided by it.” (Image: Kim Il Sung, his wife Kim Chong-suk, and their son Kim Jong Il ride horses near the liberation army’s secret camp on Mount Paektu.)
“North Korea’s personality cult quickly surpassed its Eastern European counterparts in extravagance… A personality cult comes into being when a one-man dictatorship presents itself as a democracy. The goal is to convey the impression that due to the ruler’s unique qualifications and the unanimity of the people’s love for him, the rule constitutes the perfect fulfillment of democratic ideals. In this respect, at least, the Kim cult resembles the cults of Mao and Stalin. In most others it is closer to the leader cults of fascism.” (Image: Kim Il Sung greets the adoring masses: behind him, the DPRK’s coat of arms, a red star shining down on a hydroelectric power plant.)
“The North Korean cult derives Kim’s [greatness] from his embodiment of ethnic virtues: he is the most naive, spontaneous, loving, and pure Korean—the most Korean Korean—who ever lived. As one propagandist recently put it, Kim Il Sung is the “symbol of the homeland.” (Images: Left: Kim Il Sung “visits a school on the first day of compulsory 11-year education.” Right: Kim Il Sung “visits kindergarten in a mountain village.”)
“Kim Il Sung appears to have believed that the best way to maximizing his country’s isolation and security was not to strengthen the economy—a goal that would have required integration into the socialist trading community and other horrors—but rather to rely indefinitely on aid… When a form of aid serves isolation, the North Koreans take it indefinitely, and when it does not, they do without; a concern for self-reliance per se does not enter into things.” (Image: The Workers’ Party symbol shows a sickle for farm laborers, a hammer for industrial workers, and (a rarity in the symbols of socialist parties) a writing brush for the higher-educated or white collar class. The last has helped keep casual foreign observers from recognizing the DPRK’s intense anti-intellectualism.)
“In contrast to depictions of the guerrilla era, Kim appears in DPRK-themed pictures always as plump, if never quite as fat as he was in real life. Unlike Stalin and Mao, who personified the triumph of consciousness over the instincts, Kim had little need to pose as an ascetic. On the contrary, his plumpness symbolizes the race’s newfound freedom to indulge its innocent instincts. (Yankee villains, incidentally, are beanpole thin.)” (Image: Kim Il Song and his son, Kim Jong Il, at the crater lake on Baitou Mountain.)
“The Leader’s published remarks are always trite: “Rainbow trout is a good fish, tasty and nutritious.” Foreigners who mock these platitudes fail to realize that the content of Kim’s guidance is not as important as the time and effort he takes to administer it… After all, to impart consciousness and discipline to the child race would be to make it less pure and childlike, which must never happen… It is… loving attentiveness on the part of the world’s busiest man that moves the characters to tears, and is meant to make the reader cry too.” (Image: Kim Il Sung before a cheering crowd.)
“A central theme of depictions of the latter half of Kim’s rule is his worldwide renown, which brings statesmen from around the world on tributary visits to Pyongyang. He receives them straight-backed, with benign smiles but no real warmth. While all may derive benefit from his insights, his love is for the pure race alone. Special treatment is shown to foreigners who have done the DPRK a particularly great service. ‘I am grateful to you,’ Kim tells an obsequious Reverend Billy Graham in a recent account, ‘for spreading so much propaganda about me.'” (Image: Kim Il Sung with Jimmy Carter, 1994)
“On July 1994, the eighty-two-year-old Parent Leader passed away—from overwork, news announcers wailed—and the DPRK immediately contracted, to borrow a line from Hamlet, into one brow of woe. Orgies of weeping took place in city and town squares across the country… Most adults appear to have been genuinely grief-stricken—or at least afraid of a future without the only leader they had only known. It was perhaps fortunate Kim died when he did. Had he lived a few years longer, the economic collapse would have done irrevocable damage to his reputation.” (Image: Kim Il Sung’s embalmed body lies under a glass coffin at the Kumsusan Palace of the Sun)
“Many in the West, of course, continue to doubt that the North Koreans really believe in their personality cult. This skepticism derives in part from the recollections of the double lives led in the old East Bloc, where the average educated citizen feigned fervent support for his country’s leader in formal settings only to joke about him behind closed doors. But this only goes to show how little the East Bloc and North Korea ever had in common, for the masses’ adoration of Kim Il Sung has always been very real. Even among the few North Koreans who have left the country and stayed out, a heartfelt admiration for the Great Leader is mainstream… This has much to do with the far greater psychological appeal of nationalism itself, but Kim Il Sung’s peculiarly androgynous or hermaphroditic image also seems to exert a far more emotional attraction than any of the unambiguously paternal leaders of Eastern Europe were able to.” (Image: A statue of Kim Il Sung on Mansudae Hill.)
Alex Shephard is the director of digital media for Melville House, and a former bookseller.