By Josh Zuckerman ’16
North Korea is somehow getting even stranger. Since Kim Il Sung first assumed power in 1948, a bizarre cult of personality has dominated the collective psyche of the reclusive Asian nation, often to the amusement and bewilderment of the West. Although the majority of North Koreans live under the constant threat of starvation, poverty, and oppression, their government has successfully created a culture of veneration and near-worship of the Kim dynasty. However, recent events have revealed a shift in North Korea’s public relations policy. Instead of focusing merely on the veneration and deification of its Supreme Leader, North Korea has demonstrated a resurgent interest in creating anti-American sentiment through increasingly bellicose rhetoric and truly peculiar propaganda.
Although North Korean founder Kim Il Sung has been dead for nearly two decades, the nation’s reverence for him has hardly ceased. In 1997, North Korea adopted the Juche calendar system, which begins on April 15, 1912, Kim Il Sung’s birthday. Thus the nation considers its first president, in essence, a Christ figure, whose birth ushered in a new era in world history.
Kim Il Sung has been immortalized in the North Korean constitution. In 1998, the constitution was amended to ensure that the deceased Kim Il Sung would forever remain the nation’s “eternal president.” The constitution also refers to Kim Il Sung as “the sun of the nation” and “a great human being”.
North Korea’s veneration for Kim Il Sung is best seen in the ridiculous amount of resources the nation supposedly puts into the perpetuation of this cult mentality. Starvation and poverty are widespread in North Korea, and its per capita GDP ranks 197th out of 229 nations. Nonetheless, a recent but unverified report claims that the nation’s government has decided to allocate 44.8% of its 2013 budget on commemorations of the 100th anniversary of Kim Il Sung’s birth.
While North Korea’s reverence for its founder is somewhat rational, its beatification of Kim Jong Il is far more perplexing and strange. Over the course of his reign, an interesting mythology developed around the Dear Leader. According to legend, Kim Jong Il’s birth was foretold by a swallow and prompted the appearance of a double rainbow in the sky (in fact, he was born in a rural Soviet village). Likewise, the (North) Korean Central News Agency reported that “peculiar natural wonders were observed” at the time of his death. Ice on a frozen lake cracked, a mourning crane flew around a statue of the Dear Leader to pay tribute, and “Mt. Paektu, holy mountain of revolution” glowed.
The archetypal mythology surrounding Kim Jong Il’s birth and death certainly makes for effective propaganda. In deifying the Dear Leader, North Korea successfully brainwashed its citizens into feeling blind love for their dictator while unquestioningly obeying his will. However, the folklore surrounding Kim Jong Il is not merely limited to the romantic, as several downright absurd and laughable tales laud the Great Leader’s accomplishments. He was apparently the world’s best golfer. According to North Korean media, he scored 38 under par with eleven holes-in-one the first time he played golf. Like President Shirley Tilghman, he supposedly had the ability to control the weather at will. An official biography of Kim Jong Il (that has sadly since been removed from North Korea’s website) claimed he did not defecate. The state-run newspaper Minju Joson claimed he invented the hamburger.
Although outsiders perceive these tales as comically ludicrous, many inside North Korea’s closed and censored society actually believe they are true. However, their propagandistic value is unclear. While his rumored ability to control the weather may contribute to his deification, his golfing abilities and innovativeness as a chef are certainly far from divine gifts; perhaps they are merely claims to greatness. One can only speculate as to why the North Korean state felt the need to claim its leader did not defecate.
In addition to the peculiar and often inexplicable mythology surrounding Kim Jong Il, the leader himself had a fair share of quirks. According to the prominent South Korean newspaper, The Choson Ilbo, Kim Jong Il received 20% of North Korea’s 2000 budget for his own personal use. What could a dictator do with so much money? Build waterslides, of course! Kim Jong Il was supposedly obsessed with the thrilling rides; satellite photos show numerous slides at one of his estates. He spent $20 million on a fleet of BMWs and his annual Hennessy cognac budget was reportedly $700,000. Before he became leader, he ordered the kidnapping of a prominent South Korean director and his actress wife in order to create a film industry in North Korea. The most famous movie the pair filmed was Pulgasari, a Godzilla-like film. Kim Jong Il was the executive producer.
The downright lies constituting the mythology of the Kim Jong Il cult have not yet developed around the deceased leader’s son. This is not to say Kim Jong Un does not have his own eccentricities. Under the name Pak Un, he enrolled in a Swiss boarding school in 1993. According to former classmates who were unaware of the future dictator’s true identity, the shy teenager was awkward around girls but showed signs of academic ambition. He was also obsessed with the Chicago Bulls, claims former classmate Joao Micaleo. This passion for basketball was revealed to the world via Bulls star and NBA hall of famer Dennis Rodman’s now infamous visit to the solitary Asian nation. As the first American known to have met Kim Jong Un, Rodman returned with some rather odd feelings about the North Korean leader. Rodman explained the dictator’s desire to speak to President Obama and even offered the young leader some diplomatic advice—“Obama loves basketball. Let’s start there.” Upon returning to the United States, Rodman referred to the oppressive tyrant as a “friend for life” and even asserted, “I love him. He’s awesome.”
Around the time Rodman visited North Korea, the nation began to elevate its rhetorical attacks on the United States. In February, it released a poorly made propaganda video showing a North Korean man’s wonderful dream about rockets hitting New York City. The video uses We Are The World as a musical background for some unfathomable reason, transforming an otherwise intimidating and perhaps even horrifying video into a laughing stock. Similarly, the rogue nation created videos showing horribly animated fire devouring images of President Obama and American troops, and in perhaps its strangest display of supposedly intimidating rhetoric, North Korea referred to the United States as a “boiled pumpkin” due to its purported vulnerability.
While the brainwashed and depressed civilian North Korean populace certainly deserves our sympathy, the ludicrousness surrounding the Kim family is, in many ways, absolutely hilarious—if it were not for North Korea’s recent threats and nuclear capabilities. As of the writing of this article, North Korea has authorized its military to execute nuclear strikes against the United States. Luckily the Koreans do not have the technological capabilities to carry out long-range strikes. Following these threats, and the deployment of missile batteries to the eastern shore of North Korea, the United States increased its naval and Air Force presence in the volatile region.
While North Korea’s actions represent mere empty threats to Americans, South Koreans face a far more dire situation. Despite the presence of an American garrison in the nation, South Korea’s military is dwarfed by the North’s. At the time of the writing of this article, the North has recently expelled South Korean workers from the Kaesong Industrial Region near the Demilitarized Zone. This region, formerly one of the only examples of economic cooperation between the two Koreas, granted the South access to cheap labor, while the North benefited from the influx of foreign capital. Furthermore, the North has warned foreigners to leave South Korea and informed embassy staffs within its own borders that it cannot guarantee their safety.
The North’s increasingly bellicose taunts, as well as the immediate danger that our vital military and economic allies South Korea and Japan now face, have created an interesting foreign policy dilemma for the Obama administration and for the Pentagon. While United Nations sanctions have successfully crippled the North Korean economy, they have clearly failed to prevent the hostility displayed by the Kim regime. (Also devastated by UN sanctions, Iran is now contemplating shipping oil to North Korea). Must the United States, as a result, take harsher action against North Korea? Preemptive military strikes are (at least for now) unwise, as they would almost certainly result in a full-scale war. But the American military has increased its presence in the Pacific, sending additional troops and machinery to Guam, South Korea, and the waters surrounding the Korean Peninsula.
While this increased preparedness on the part of the American military is certainly justifiable, it will likely prove to be for naught considering North Korea’s long history of making empty threats. Furthermore, while North Korea undeniably engages in strange behavior, its leaders, while perhaps a tad bit crazy, are not stupid. Kim Jong Un surely realizes that, although his nation is capable of causing a great deal of damage and death in South Korea, his military is no match for American strength. A direct attack on South Korea would likely be initially successful but would ultimately lead to unimaginable devastation in the North should America choose to respond with her full military capabilities. Although Kim Jong Un is perfectly willing to let his people starve to death, it is unlikely he will start a war that will lead to thousands, if not more, of civilian casualties.
Like all recent crises on the volatile Korean Peninsula, it is likely that this one too will pass without violence or bloodshed. Luckily, North Korea seems primarily interested in showing its strength. While the motives of the isolated nation are unclear, the recent surge in propaganda and hostile rhetoric are probably attempts to increase solidarity, cohesion, and feelings of nationalism among its censored and oppressed people. By rallying its people around common enemies—South Korea and the United States-the communist regime is attempting to earn the loyalty of its denizens. North Korea’s recent actions are, therefore, merely manifestations of the cult of Kim Jong Un. They represent yet another attempt to brainwash and manipulate an uneducated population that is kept in a state of ignorance.