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Happy birthday, Comrade Kim
By Pepe Escobar
PYONGYANG - It's a cold, crisp, sunny morning in the capital of the Democratic
People's Republic of Korea (DPRK), and there could not be a more important game
in town. Billboards bearing the numbers "2.16 [February 16]" - usually
decorated with huge red flowers - are all over the place. The flowers are the
only splashes of full color against drab grays and browns. They are of course
kimjongilia, a modified begonia programmed to bloom exactly on - when else -
For Pyongyang's 2 million or so residents, it's time to party. Today is the
68th birthday of the general secretary of the Worker's Party of Korea, chairman
of the DPRK National Defense Commission and Supreme Commander of the Korean
People's Army - comrade Kim Jong-il.
Kim Jong-il, aka the Dear Leader, has been the maximum leader of North Korea
for almost 12 years now. But he's not the president (the titular head of state
is the chairman of the presidium of the Supreme People's Assembly, Kim
Yong-nam.) A key reason is that he's not very fond of the endless, obligatory
diplomatic round of meeting foreign heads of state.
The relentlessly apocalyptic Western media narrative would lead one to believe
that on this eventful day the citizens of what is routinely depicted as a
"Stalinist/communist/terrorist/totalitarian/insane/rogue/axis of evil gulag"
would be one step short of showering a battery of commemorative missiles over
South Korea, Japan or the west coast of the US for that matter, not to mention
conduct another nuclear test. Reality though bears no "axis of evil" overtones.
Holiday on ice
The day starts with an early morning visit to the imposing bronze statue of
president Kim Il-sung - aka the Great Leader, the father of the nation - on top
of Mansu hill. It is officially 20 meters high (and certainly looks bigger). At
the end of the Japanese colonial period, this site housed the largest Shinto
shrine in Pyongyang; thus the Great Leader's statue had to be no-holds-barred
Everyone and his neighbor seems to have come, bringing flowers, bowing
respectfully, and always arriving in neatly arranged groups, from soldiers and
high-ranking officials to village elders and the very good-looking traffic
ladies in their blue winter jackets. Higher ups arrive with their wives in
black Mercedes or Audis, the men in black suits, the women sporting extremely
elegant and colorful versions of the Korean national dress.
Then it's off to an international figure skating exhibition - not competition -
that includes athletes from England, Switzerland, Ukraine, Belarus and even a
Russian, who was a bronze medalist in the 2006 Turin Winter Olympics, a
favorite of the crowd. Call it Pyongyang's counterpart to the 2010 Vancouver
Winter Olympics. The real stars though are the locals skaters, kids included,
and their apotheosis routine bearing the North Korean flag and the Juche
flag - with its hammer, sickle and flame, symbolizing workers, peasants and
intellectuals who, according to Kim Il-sung, are "the true masters of society",
as "creators of both material and spiritual wealth".
Next stop is the 14th Kimjongilia Festival - a wacky, dazzling flower
extravaganza with arrangements offered by everyone from military organs,
ministries, national agencies and cooperatives to businesses, overseas Koreans,
international organizations and foreign embassies, all featuring the hybrid red
begonia (not the national flower of North Korea though; that's the magnolia).
The "flower of Kim Jong-il" was created by a Japanese botanist in 1988,
symbolizing, according to the official narrative, "wisdom, love, justice, and
peace". The Great Leader Kim Il-sung, of course, has his own flower, the
The hall is absolutely packed. Everyone seems to have a portable digital camera
that somehow materialized from China, and whole families and reams of
schoolchildren are eager to pose for a flowery photo of ruby red Kimjongilias
enveloping globes, displayed under depictions of high-speed trains, under
emblems of the Dear Leader himself and even flanked by mini-replicas of
Then it's time for a mass open-air dance in a square flanked by government
buildings - well, not really "mass"; a few hundred couples, the men in dark
suits and the women in white, jade green, light pink, cream or black chima
(skirt) and jogori (blouse), the "evocative of the fairies in the
heavens" Korean national dress. They are all dancing to traditional songs
blared to ear-splitting level by what could be dubbed the North Korean version
of the Jamaican sound system.
The few steps are very simple, involving a bit of handclapping; the few gaping
foreigners are welcomed to join the fun. The locals perform it all stone-faced,
although not robotically. Sex in North Korea is not exactly in the air. Schools
are segregated by sex. Even holding hands in public is considered very improper
behavior. Unmarried single mothers are virtually non-existent (but if it
happens, the newborn is meticulously taken care of by the state - just as Korea
war orphans were.)
The highlight of the day is synchronized swimming - in an arena in the sports
village. The elaborate ballets, performed by dozens of teenagers, rival
China's. Kimjongilia panels adorn the arena. Party elders and higher ups get
the best seats. The foreign figure-skating stars are also attending. The
highlight is a stunning aquatic socialist ballet featuring a native siren in
That's it; then socialist formalism dissolves, and the locals are off to dinner
with relatives, mostly using the metro (two lines), or the aging, mobile works
of socialist realism that are the local buses and trams. Some folk may
eventually go bowling in the state-of-the-art Pyongyang Golden Lane Bowling
Alley (45 lanes in fact; a detailed diagram on the wall shows the itinerary
followed by Kim Il-sung on its inauguration day, and even all the spots where
he stood). One fact though stands out; all through these merry proceedings, the
Dear Leader Kim Jong-il himself was nowhere to be seen.
To be or not to be
Kim Jong-il was born on February 16, 1942, in an anti-Japanese guerrilla camp
near Khabarovsk, just across the border from Manchukuo in occupied China. By
this time, both his parents had been fighting the Japanese occupation for no
less than 10 years.
All trap doors in secretive North Korea seem eventually to lead to what is in
fact the royal Kim family - whose Shakespearean saga, if ever brought to a TV
mini-series (maybe a Chinese or Hong Kong investor?) would undoubtedly enthrall
a global audience.
The Dear Leader's father Kim Il-sung, over six feet tall [1.82 meters] and
sporting a broad forehead (a big thing among Korean mothers), was charisma
personified. His mother, Kim Chong-suk, widely revered as the ultimate
anti-Japanese heroine, was less than five feet tall, pear-shaped, always in
guerrilla fatigues, with a round, wide, smiling face, friendly but not very
well educated. Kim Jong-il looks more like mom. And to put it mildly, that has
made him extremely uneasy all his life.
While he was still a boy, Kim Jong-il suffered two terrible traumas; the
accidental drowning of his younger brother in 1947, and the death of his mother
in childbirth in 1949. That's when - sporting a state-issued polyester summer
uniform and plastic shoes - he started going to gender-segregated elementary
Fast forward, and the plot thickens. The focus now is on Kim Jong-nam, Kim
Jong-il's son - and until recently heir not-so-apparent (for years he's been
living in China on and off). And also on Li Nam-ok, Kim Jong-il's daughter,
adopted by him to tutor and play with his beloved son. She is from an
aristocratic landowning family from, well, the enemy, South Korea. And although
she was born - and lived - with a silver spoon in her mouth, inevitably there
would come a day when she would rebel.
The great love of Kim Jong-il's life is and has always been his mistress, the
ravishing - and also Southern aristocrat - Sung Hae-rim, the absolute top North
Korean movie star. She happens to double as Li Nam-ok's aunt. And it gets even
juicier - she is Kim Jong-nam's mother. This means Kim Jong-nam, a possible
future DPRK leader (but by now bypassed by his youngest half-brother Kim
Jong-un) is technically an illegitimate son.
Kim Jong-nam, tall and handsome like his grandfather Kim Il-sung, grew up much
like Pu Yi - the last emperor of China; hyper-protected, hyper-pampered and in
fact cloistered in the most cloistered society on the planet. At first he was
educated by palace tutors, and had a court attending to his every whim.
Meanwhile Li Nam-ok was developing different roles; at first she was his
playmate, then his teacher, till finally she became his sister.
And here lies a crucial plot twist; these brother-and-sister royals lived
virtually their whole early life as strangers in their own land. That's
definitely, deeply imprinted in the psyche of a possible future North Korean
Later as teenagers, both Kim Jong-nam and Li Nam-ok were sent to expensive
secondary schools in Geneva - with the inevitable corollary of partying with
the rich and famous in Paris. That's when la dolce vita made Li Nam-ok
"betray" North Korea. Now she believes that even Kim Jong-il himself regards as
nonsense the monolithic official narrative of post-1912 North Korea - the year
the father of the nation, Kim Il-sung, was born.
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