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Death of a Dictator

In the Second World War Russia (or the U.S.S.R. as it was then), which had been fighting Germany since the Nazi invasion of 1941, only got round to declaring war on Japan on 8 August 1945. That was three days after the first atomic bomb landed on Hiroshima and one day before the second landed on Nagasaki. The Japanese empire was now squeezed between the vast armed forces of Russia and America, and it disintegrated. Japan had forcibly annexed Korea in 1910, but the Japanese were now driven out. The U.S.S.R occupied the northern half of Korea with its capital at Pyongyang, and the U.S.A. occupied the southern half with its capital at Seoul.

Russia’s ruling clique then favoured state capitalism, while America’s rulers favoured private capitalism. In the south, under American occupation, Syngman Rhee (a Korean who had studied at American universities, had spent the previous twenty years in the U.S.A., and had westernised his name) became the ruler, and private capitalism took over the economy. In the north, Kim Il-sung (a Korean brought up in Manchuria, who had been an officer in the Chinese armies and then in the Russian armies) was hastily tutored in the Korean language, which he had largely forgotten, and was installed in power; the economy was state capitalist. In the south Syngman Rhee instituted a repressive and corrupt regime, jailing and killing any who protested until he was forced to resign by a popular uprising in 1960. In the north Kim Il-sung instituted a repressive and corrupt regime, jailing and killing any who protested, but he was able to rule till his death in 1994.

The two Koreas were very much simply proxies for the great countries that had set them up and supported them. From the first there were many raids and skirmishes between the north and the south, and from 1950 to 1953 there was open warfare, with the Americans (and British) supporting the south and the Chinese supporting the north. The battles swept over the whole country: the front line was at first pushed to the extreme south, then back to the extreme north, and then south again. Korea experienced all the delights of modern war: air raids, great battles, trench warfare, death and destruction, all ranged over the whole peninsula. As in many wars since, no one actually counted the corpses, but one estimate is that there were two million or more Korean civilian deaths, plus of course many Korean, and American, and Chinese, and British soldiers. (One of the writer’s classmates at school, an enthusiastic member of the “cadet corps”, joined the army when he left school and was killed in Korea.)

Kim Il-sung was set up by the state propaganda machine as being virtually divine, a being that, it was pretty strongly hinted, had created the world. A new calendar was inaugurated, in which 1912, when Kim Il-sung was born, was year one. When Kim Il-sung died in year eighty-three - or 1994 - his son Kim Jong-il was put into his place and ruled in the same way as his father had done

North Korea saw itself as part of the state-capitalist bloc, which included Russia and China. It was and is harshly authoritarian. Dissent is met by torture, and North Korea is third in the list of the world’s countries carrying out executions – those condemned are killed publicly by firing squads. In 2004 a Human Rights Watch report said that North Korea was “among the world’s most repressive governments”: there were up to 200,000 political prisoners. It was dubbed the world’s most corrupt country in a “Corruption Index”. North Korea is the thirty-ninth largest country by population, but it has the world’s fourth largest army: in a population of twenty-four million, 1.1 million are military personnel, and 8.2 million active reservists. It has been called “the most militarized country in the world today”; it has the world’s third-largest chemical weapons stockpile, and it possesses its own nuclear warheads.

At the end of last century the state-capitalist bloc had begun to fall apart. In the 1990s Russia dismantled state capitalism in favour of private capitalism, and China took steps along the same road. More and more, North Korea found itself isolated. This was bad news, since capitalism (of whichever variety) operates most profitably by disregarding state boundaries. On top of that, 1995 and 1996 saw disastrous floods in North Korea, and there was a calamitous drought in 1997. The ordinary people suffered grievously. Although detailed figures are hard to obtain in the kind of xenophobic dictatorship that North Korea had become, some reports say that a million North Koreans, or perhaps two million, died of famine. North Koreans have an official salary of £1 or £2 per week, but lucky ones can make more by trading in tolerated private markets.

The twenty-first century saw some steps towards the modification of the system, with private capitalism being allowed a larger share of the economy. 2002 saw the introduction of what North Korea’s rulers called “landmark socialist-type market economic practices”. It is hardly necessary to say that this change had nothing to do with socialism; it was a dilution of the previously prevailing state capitalism with some admixture of the private variety. (And it may be significant that when the North Korean constitution was re-written in 2009, any reference to “communism” was dropped; perhaps a very belated concession to honesty.) The changes of the early twenty-first century allowed foreign firms into the country to operate “manufacturing facilities”. For example, the “Kaesong Industrial Park” was created just north of the demilitarised zone which separates the two Koreas; here South Korean companies were allowed to operate, and by 2010 they employed over 40,000 North Korean workers.

It will not surprise anyone to hear that Kim Jong-il (the “Dear Leader” and “Our Father”) who had succeeded his father Kim Il-sung (the “Great Leader” and “Eternal President”) in 1994 was able to protect his own living standards during these tragic times. He had seventeen different palatial residences scattered across North Korea. He was fond of burgundy and bordeaux, and in some years he was the world’s biggest buyer of Hennessy cognac – up to half a million pounds worth of it. His chef went round the world to secure foreign delicacies. When he visited China and Russia (in a special train – he was afraid of flying) fresh lobster was flown to his train every day. Several of his staff were employed to check that the grains of rice served to him were absolutely identical in size and colour. He liked watching films and had a collection of 20,000 videotapes and DVDs. A song glorifying him – “No motherland without you” – was regularly piped from public loudspeakers in Pyongyang. No dictator exists without the support of an upper class, and in North Korea there is a small group at the top who are apparently doing very well, and defying the world’s embargoes and sanctions by importing luxury items through China.

It is very difficult to be sure what was happening in North Korea and what was being said in North Korea because the whole power of the North Korean state was brought to bear to create insuperable barriers between the North Koreans and the rest of the world. But so far as one can work it out the state media of North Korea – and there was no other kind – was endlessly asserting that Kim Jong-il was a most remarkable person. Apparently you might have known that someone special had appeared when he was born because according to the official sources of information his birth (which was foretold by a swallow – I’m not sure how) was marked by the appearance of a double rainbow and a new star in the sky. He began walking at three weeks, and he began talking at eight weeks. (Why did he take so long?)

When he went to university (at Kim Il-sung University, Pyongyang), he wrote 1,500 books over the three years – that’s ten books a week, or about a book and a half every day. Book-writing was not his only achievement. He was also able to compose no fewer than six operas, which, said his official biography, turned out to be “better than any in the history of music”. He also staged a number of elaborate musicals. Sport was no problem. Some reports had him winning gold at every event in the Seoul Olympics of 1988, which was quite an achievement, but it was the more remarkable since – having been born in 1941 – he was then forty-seven years old. So there’s hope for us all. Hostile press reports from foreign countries alleging that North Korea had actually boycotted the Games because they were still officially at war with South Korea can safely be ignored.

Never having played golf before, he strolled on to a golf course one day, picking up some clubs for the first time, and on his first eighteen holes he returned a score of thirty-eight under par – a world record by some considerable distance – having been expert enough to shoot eleven of the holes in one. This cannot be doubted since he had seventeen bodyguards with him, all of whom verified the feat. Perhaps they all stood round each hole that Kim aimed at, willing the golf ball to follow the correct political line. (As politicians and journalists vied with each other to eulogize their leader, the stories improved: some earlier versions of the golfing triumph gave him only a measly five holes-in-one.)

In his spare time he invented the hamburger; and his distinctive style of clothing “led world-wide fashion trends”. Some state media gave the strong impression that he could control the weather. One doesn’t know how he found time for all these activities in addition to supervising the whole government of North Korea, but then one finds that he never had to go to the lavatory, so that must have given him a bit more time. When Kim Jong-il died last December, the reader will not be surprised to hear that “a fierce snowstorm paused” and the sky glowed red above the sacred North Korean Mount Paektu, while the ice on a lake nearby cracked so loud that “it seemed to shake the heavens and the earth”. At the moment of his death a crane was observed to circle a statue of his father Kim Il-sung, before landing on a nearby tree, “its head bowed in sorrow”.

People who have listened to this kind of garbage all their lives (and have never even heard, as it were, any counter-garbage) might well feel desperately sad when such an outstanding figure dies, and that may help to account for the pictures of mass wailing and weeping which emerged from North Korea recently. Even those who have retained enough common sense (which is, of course, very uncommon) to disbelieve the unbelievable might well realize that if they were not sobbing loudly enough, the omnipresent military and security forces might well be tempted to give them something to make them lament in real earnest.

Nonsense knows no national or temporal boundaries, and when Kim Jong-il died on 17 December, the Western world was all geared up for its annual celebrations of another great man whose birth was also marked by the appearance of an extra star in the sky and at whose death a great darkness overwhelmed the earth (Matthew 2-2 and 27-45).

Strangely, when Kim Jong-il died, the man who immediately stepped into his shoes as North Korea’s dictator was his son, Kim Jong-un. He does not appear to have done anything in particular up to now except choose his parents carefully, although his appearance suggests that so far he has successfully fended off famine. However, no doubt the Pyongyang publicity boys will soon come up with something wonderful, so we wait with bated breath.

Before we all split our sides laughing, perhaps we should remember that we ourselves (like the Koreans) live in a system where a small group of people own everything worth owning and live luxuriously on the proceeds, while the great majority (who own very little) spend their lives desperately working so that great amounts of rent, interest and profit can be paid to this small group. Furthermore, the media continually tell us that this system is the best that ever has been, or ever could be, devised. Now, no one would ever believe that, would they?