Kim Il Sung

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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.]

Flipping the North Koreans off

Not many people visit North korea these days but if you are one of the lucky few, more likely than not you will be led through an official guided tour of USS Pueblo – an American Intelligence vessel captured in 1968 – which remains the only American vessel currently in captivity.

The seizure of USS Pueblo is now one of the forgotten episodes of the Cold War. The U.S. claimed it was in the international waters, while the D.P.R.K. insisted that it was in the North Korean waters. Diplomatic and military stand-off that followed was punctuated by a series of photos, films, and letters depicting the crew of the Pueblo enjoying their comfortable captivity.

In reality, however, the crew was being subjected to psychical and psychological abuse. From behind the bars in one of the most isolated places on the planet, the crew nonetheless delivered a master class in political subversion. To undermine the credibility of the letters written home to suggest that they had willingly defected, the crew wrote about the events that never happened. In their press conferences, they used archaic words the Koreans didn’t perfectly understand. Since none of the Koreans knew English well enough to write the confession, the vessel’s commander wrote it himself. They checked the meaning of his words with a dictionary, but failed to catch the pun: “We paean the DPRK. We paean the Korean people. We paean their great leader Kim Il Sung”. (“Paean” is homophonic with “pee on”.)

And almost by accident, they came across the idea behind their greatest coup: in two propaganda movies, the crew noticed people giving the finger were not censored. The crew deduced that the North Koreans didn’t know what the finger meant. In the subsequent propaganda photos of the crew, their middle fingers were firmly extended to the cameraman. When the North Koreans questioned, the crew described it as the “Hawaiian good luck sign.” The ruse went on unnoticed until October 1968, when Time magazine explained the mysterious gesture appearing in many photos as one of “obscene derisiveness and contempt.”

This revelation infuriated the North Korean captors, bringing about a period of severe beatings and torture, and the propaganda letters, photos and videos stopped after this. Yet, it would take two more months for the U.S. to offer a perfunctory apology (retracted afterwards) to ensure the release of 82 crewmen. Diplomatic and morale victory hid the bitter reality that the loss of USS Pueblo was a significant blow to the intelligence services. It is now believed that the Soviets urged the North Koreans to seize the ship so that they can reverse engineer US equipment and codebooks.

Time Magazine never responded to the repercussions that followed its very public explanation, which in its entirely is reproduced below. For more photos, check the link here.