If it wasn’t so tragic, the Kim dynasty and its regime would present a comic vision to the world By Michael Ruffles
Two impressive and creepy railway carriages stand entombed inside an Aladdin’s cave of goodies donated by dictators and despots in a museum nestled in Mount Myohyang. Both date back to the 1950s and both are well appointed in ways that befit a communist strongman; each had a bed, desk and space to conduct affairs of state, one had a chandelier. The one on the left with a khaki and green interior colour scheme was a gift from Mao Zedong, the blacker one to the right from Joseph Stalin.
They were presents for North Korean tyrant Kim Il-sung, a man who remains president of the prison-country even as the 20th anniversary of his death approaches. Between the three of them, Stalin, Mao and Kim the first are responsible for so many deaths that historians will probably never work it out to the nearest million. Standing so close to such terrifying history made me suddenly but subtly rebellious. While the North Korean guides weren’t paying close attention, I reached out and touched them.
John Sweeney writes of a similarly trivial act of defiance in his latest book, North Korea Undercover. He gave voice to I’m so Ronery from Team America: World Police, which so remorselessly skewered the late Kim Jong-il. “I dared to sing that in North Korea while no one was listening, and even so it scared the pants off me.”
Such is the mind control at work in what Sweeney calls the world’s most secret state. On an eight-day trip the journalist whose screaming match with a Scientologist went viral online largely kept his mouth shut. He did this in the name of perpetrating a larger act of defiance, filming a documentary undercover for BBC’s Panorama and then publishing a book.
With its one-party state, cult of personality, network of gulags and population control through food, brainwashing and fear, the Democratic People’s Republic’s parallels with Stalin’s USSR and Mao’s China are clear: The two neighbours propped up the regime for decades, and even the 25 years since the collapse of the Soviet Union have seen strategic benefits in tolerating the rogue state. The parallels with Nazi Germany are there too, and not only in the regular restaging of the Nuremberg rallies. Sweeney spells out just how the fervently nationalist and nominally socialist country systematically oppresses, manipulates and kills its citizens.
“The real belief system of the DPRK, the one aggressively fired at its people through television, propaganda posters, the radio and loudspeakers across the nation, is that old black magic: racial purity. There is a subtle difference from Nazi ideology proper: the Koreans of the North are not a master race who must overlord the other races, but pure children who must be protected by the Leaders, Great, Dear and Fat, sorry, Young.”
Sweeney has some great phrases for the absurd aspects of North Korean life and politics: eternal president Kim Il-sung (dead nearly 20 years) and eternal general secretary of the Workers’ Party Kim Jong-il (dead for a little more than two) are the zombie gods and one is a bad Elvis impersonator, the capital Pyongyang is the Big Zombie, new leader Kim Jong-un is Fat Boy Kim.
During Sweeney’s eight-day visit in the guise of an academic they visited a university with no students, a children’s camp without children, a bottling plant with no bottles and a hospital that only looked after patients in the morning. “Not for nothing does former British ambassador John Everard compare the North Korean regime to Kafka, as performed by Dad’s Army.”
It is often, and often glibly, said that North Korea takes George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four as its blueprint. Sweeney asked for a copy while at the Grand People’s Study House in Pyongyang: he’s not the first to try.
The light-hearted moments and occasional tone of incredulity do not detract from the impact of the regime’s brutality — they serve to reinforce the alien nature of what Christopher Hitchens called a “small planet”. It is impossible to separate what seems zany from the outside — Kim Jong-il’s 11 holes-in-one in his first and only round of golf, Kim Jong-un having an ex-girlfriend and her singing troupe machine-gunned over a “pornography scandal” — from the ways the regime oppresses its people; they are one and the same.
“Understanding North Korea is like figuring out a detective story where you stumble across a corpse in a library, a smoking gun beside it, and the corpse gets up and says that’s no gun and it isn’t smoking and this isn’t a library. It’s like nowhere on Earth.”
Restriction of information is essential to maintaining this small world’s order, and Sweeney brings expert analysis to the old question of whether the country has been brainwashed. His conclusion is that it has.
Despite the book cover’s promise of “unprecedented access”, North Korea is not unexplored territory. Reporters have been there, officially and unofficially, and there is much academic, government and NGO literature to draw from. Sweeney cherry-picks from the best of these, even repeating some gags, to provide a broad outline of the county’s history and how it came to be engaged in a game of geopolitical chicken with nuclear weapons while its people starve.
Without the benefit of having last month’s UN Commission of Inquiry report at his disposal, Sweeney outlines systematic human rights abuses from a network of gulags to international kidnappings to state-sponsored starvation. The largest problem is the nagging feeling that North Korea Undercover brings little new to the discussion. The information is as up-to-date as possible in the book-publishing world (it was finished before Kim Jong-un had his uncle executed in December) and compresses many sources and arguments into an easily digestible read. All of it is interesting, and much of it is disturbing, but little of it is groundbreaking.
But that isn’t necessarily the point. When he released the UN report last month, commissioner Michael Kirby said: “At the end of the Second World War so many people said, ‘If only we had known … if only we had known the wrongs that were done in the countries of the hostile forces.’ Well, now the international community does know … there will be no excusing of failure of action because we didn’t know.”
Sweeney’s book adds to that knowledge. And yet the status quo lingers, with the threat of nuclear weapons and Chinese reluctance deterring intervention.
“Part of North Korea’s tragedy is that it cannot evolve into a tyranny less harsh,” Sweeney writes. “The nation lurches on, zombie-like, pitiable, blackly comic and scary in equal measure.”