Kim Il Sung


In recent history, Kim Il Sung holds an unique position; dead since 1994, he remains North Korea’s official leader — an Eternal President, embalmed and ennobled in a massive mausoleum in Pyongyang. His son and his grandson who dynastically succeeded him are merely de facto heads of the country that he had led to ruination and that he remains constitutionally the de jure president.

In 1950, when his ruinous rule began North Korea’s GDP per capita was $650, compared to South Korea’s GDP per capita at $870. At his dead, North Korea’s GDP per capita was just slightly over quarter of the South’s, at $2500 compared to $9,000 per capita. [In 2014, it is one-twentieth the size of the South’s GDP per capita]. See here.

As his Stalinist experiment with Communism failed, he refashioned it into a weird mixture of politics, religion, and eugenics; the ideology — later a cult — was called Juche (and alternatively in that eponymous fashion beloved by despots, Kimilsungism), which his son and grandson further aggrandized. In this system, Kim Il-Sung was the father of the nation, his birthday a national holiday, and his name sacrosanct (it must not be split into two parts by a page break or a line break). A massive highway was built to his birthplace, which was declared a national shrine. The Gregorian calendar was replaced by a Juche calendar, where the birth of Kim Il-sung was year 1; songs were written about 10,000 battles he fought (4,000 during one particularly busy year — one every 2h10m I guess) and won.

Inconveniently for the divine narrative, Kim developed a calcium deposit on his neck in the late 1970s. Its closeness to the brain and spinal cord made it inoperable. Juche ideology scoffs at physical disability and this growth was an embarrassment. North Korean photographers were forbidden from taking photos of Kim which showed the growth. Kim was depicted from his left side to hide the growth from official photographs and newsreels (in his official portrait, he cranes his neck to the right as if to hide it). As the growth reached the size of a baseball by the late 1980s, it got increasingly difficult to hide, and photos were doctored to airbrush it out. [It got to ludicrous degree when Jimmy Carter visited; western news agencies received doctored photos from Korea News Agency.]

By the time Carter was in Pyongyang, Kim’s rule has been thoroughly discredited. Even as he clung to power as Communism imploded elsewhere — in Eastern Europe, in Mongolia, and in the Soviet Union — and as China embraced market economy, he was a lone anachronism from a bygone age. Subsidies from fellow travelling nations stopped, and his isolation was clear when soon-to-be-former-Communist countries ignored his tantrums to participate in the 1988 Olympic Games in South Korea. By 1991, Mikhail Gorbachev was paying a state visit to South Korea.

Yet his thuggish regime limped on, under a potent mixture of propaganda, cultist control, and downright repression, to become a nuclear power. A suitably noxious legacy for a man who nearly got two American presidents to drop atom bombs on him.

[Above it one of the few photos where the lump was in display. Most North Koreans living today (and many outside Korea too) probably didn’t even know about this. Astonishing if you think about it: Kim died only 21 years ago.]