North Korea

Farewell to Dear Leader

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 03 January, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 03 January, 2012, 12:00am


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The Issues

Dear Leader

Kim Il-sung, the 'Eternal President', died in 1994. His son Kim Jong-il soon became known as the 'Dear Leader'.

After taking over from his father, Kim Jong-il saw his country's economy grow weaker following the Soviet Union's collapse. A famine in the 1990s killed about 1 million of his people, even as he continued to spend on the country's vast army.

Feared and venerated by his people and ridiculed in the West, Kim ruled North Korea with an iron fist for 17 years. The country is a land of prison camps and outlandish propaganda that paints him as a god-like figure.

Yet the communist leader was anything but god-like in life. He was reportedly afraid of flying and went to international meetings on his private train. Kim will be remembered as the last of a dying breed of communist dictators.

North Korea seems to be about 40 years behind South Korea. Yet propaganda describes the country as a land of happiness and plenty.

Some of the funnier propaganda stories about Kim include these tidbits:

His tracksuits made him a global fashion icon

While he studied at university for three years, he wrote 1,500 books and six operas

Every grain of rice that was served to him was inspected to make sure it was perfect

In his very first round of golf, he scored five holes-in-one

Information black-hole

North Korea has been completely sealed off from the outside world.

Only about 4 per cent of people have access to the internet and many have never heard of Western icons like Michael Jackson.

Children grow up with images of the Kims in classrooms. There are also shrines to them in every school. People are required to wear a badge with the Dear Leader's image over their hearts. Those that don't risk being hauled in for questioning by police.

Kim's regime has crushed political dissent. Political prison camps hold about 200,000 people, according to Amnesty International.

Fooling the world

Stories of people starving to death are the exact opposite of the message North Korea wishes to show the world. So people in Pyongyang, the capital, have food.

The Independent, a British newspaper, says that people who look underfed are 'weeded out'. It's believed Kim Jong-il's son, Kim Jong-un, has been on a special diet to gain weight to look like his grandfather.

China's view

Despite its outpourings of praise for the late Kim Jong-il, China was not that happy with North Korea's leader. Kim's erratic behaviour and routine tough talk irritated Beijing.

Scholars say China's recent support for Kim Jong-il and the endorsement of Kim Jong-un as the next leader reflect the fear that the collapse of North Korea could lead to anarchy or war.

'China has decided that North Korea is too big to fail,' said John Park of Harvard University's Belfer Centre for Science and International Affairs in the US. He expected Beijing to give the impoverished country generous offers of energy assistance, food aid and fertilisers. He thinks the various factions of the regime are likely to be more reliant on China. 'The Chinese will play an increasingly important role,' Park said.

Political dynasty

Kim Jong-un was named by his father as successor. North Korea is the only communist country in history with hereditary succession.

Yet the country's dynasty is not entirely unique in the modern world. India's Rahul Gandhi is on a quest to become the fourth generation of his family to rule India. Congo's Joseph Kabila is celebrating his questionable re-election to the presidency, which he inherited from his father. Indonesia's former president Megawati Sukarnoputri was the daughter of the country's first president.

The News

North Korean leader Kim Jong-il died on December 17. His son Kim Jong-un has officially taken his place. Kim Senior's death was unexpected. His death was kept secret for two days by the regime. Analysts believe there may have been some sort of power struggle.

Kim was a larger-than-life figure who seemed best suited as a villain on the pages of a novel. He has left his country as one of the poorest in the world, yet one with nuclear weapons.

Kim's death has piled the pressure on his young son to ensure the stability of his impoverished state and walk a political tightrope between two superpowers, China and the United States.

Potemkin village

A Potemkin village is a showcase village or town. The idiom comes from a story that a Russian minister, Grigory Potemkin, built a lot of fake villages to fool the empress, Catherine the Great. He wanted to impress her with the wealth of the new lands he had conquered.

In the 1950s, North Korea really built a propaganda village, in the northern half of the demilitarised zone. The idea was to attract defectors from the South by showing them how wonderful life was in the North.

Needless to say, it didn't work.

Voices: What people are saying

More than 21,000 North Korean defectors now live in South Korea. For many, the news of North Korean leader Kim Jong-il's death carried mixed emotions.

Here, in their own words, are what three of them had to say:

The Painter

'I felt rather calm after hearing of Kim Jong-il's death,' said Song Byeok, 42, a painter who learned art by drawing propaganda posters in North Korea. 'I thought to myself about him: 'You, too, are human, after all.'

'It was his destiny. He couldn't avoid it ... He was praised like a god, but in the end he was only a human who fell like an autumn leaf.'

He still believed Kim Jong-il was a good leader.

Desperate for food in 2000, Song and his father tried to cross the river into China - not to defect but just to get something to eat.

However, his father was swept away by the current and drowned. Border guards ignored Song's pleas to help rescue him. Instead, they beat Song up and detained him. In 2002, he decided to leave North Korea for good.

He hopes the Dear Leader's death will pave the way for reforms.

'Kim Jong-un is young and he may lean towards reforms. But I still think he may not last long because he's too inexperienced. He only had a year or so to be groomed as successor.'

The Student

'I believed North Korea was the best country in the world,' said Lee Hyeon-seo, who was 13 when president Kim Il-sung, father of Kim Jong-il, died in 1994.

'When Kim Il-sung died, I saw many foreign guests crying on TV, which made me feel like he was a god. But, as the days passed, I felt I wasn't as sad as I was supposed to when I stood in front of his statue.

'Everybody was crying but I couldn't cry, so I dabbed my face with my spit. It was a hot day, and a girl even fainted'.

Lee, now 30, fled in the mid-1990s. She lived for a decade on the mainland before moving to South Korea in 2008. Now, she studies at the Hankuk University of Foreign Studies in Seoul.

The Activist

'I know a person's death is usually something that shouldn't be celebrated, but this time it was completely different,' said Kim Seung-cheol, 50.

'Kim Jong-il's death means that North Korea will start changing.'

Kim Seung went out with a friend to celebrate over sausages and 'soju', a popular Korean liquor. They laughed with joy.

When he defected 20 years ago, he left behind his wife and son.

'If unification happens, I would like to find out if my son is still alive,' he said. 'If I find him, I will ask him to hit me for leaving him.'