Page 2 of 2 PYONGYANG JOURNAL Happy birthday, Comrade Kim
By Pepe Escobar
Arguably the best informed source available anywhere on Kim Jong-il is Li
Nam-ok herself, through her Breaking North Korean Silence: Kim Jong-il's
Daughter, A Memoir, written by Imogen O'Neill. Here one learns that the
Dear Leader is very intelligent and very sensitive - a prudish and rather shy
guy who'd rather stay at home and work in his pyjamas, as indeed he does.
He is not the socializing type - he'd probably rather drop dead than join
Facebook. That in itself would explain why he didn't make a public appearance
on "2.16". Like a grand maestro, Kim Jong-il apparently orchestrates all manner
of North Korean spectaculars but is bored to tears to show up. He also seems to
have a sharp comment about everything - solutions included - and is capable of
mimicking virtually anyone. And - very important - he loves to laugh.
He apparently quit smoking a few years ago and drinks basically at formal
occasions. Surprisingly for many, he is said to be not at all fond of the
non-stop hero worship. In a very Korean manner, he's a family man, whose
company he prefers to anybody else's. He seems to keep Joseph Stalin's
timetable - waking up in the middle of the night, working through the early
morning and sleeping before noon. He used to like partying, when his 20 or so
preferred guests indulged in beer, imported French cognac and ginseng whisky.
But then the system's elite can do the same in selected Pyongyang hotels.
As much as he may dislike the DPRK's massive bureaucracy, he could not but be
acutely aware of his own - and the state's - security; he only trusts his close
relatives. The top commanders in charge of Pyongyang's security are four
brothers who are in-laws to Kim Jong-il's sister. In a nutshell, Kim Jong-il
seems not to suffer fools, nor sycophants, gladly; he'd rather listen to honest
straight-shooters, a rare commodity in his circle.
It comes as no surprise that Kim Jong-il could never be immune from the
seductive soft power of American and Western mass culture. He's an inveterate
fan of Western post-modernity. Thus the array of Sony LED televisions in every
room of his many palatial abodes, which means that Kim Jong-il may tune in to
every trashy offering on Japanese, South Korean and American cable. He surfs
the Internet every day and is very well informed in a variety of issues. He's a
collector with an immense video and DVD library. especially from Hollywood. He
loves classical music but also the Rolling Stones, the Beach Boys and Pink
Floyd (there's a fabulous black and white photo of Kim Jong-il in 1977 with
rebel hair and dark glasses. What would be his Western role model then? Joe
Strummer of The Clash? Would he be listening to White Riot?)
And then there's his fleet of over 20 cars, including American brands but most
of all his now iconic black armored Mercedes S-600 with tinted windows,
sometimes glimpsed in Pyongyang's boulevards (but not on this 2.16).
Whether or not he's the Dr Evil portrayed by Western corporate media, what is
certain is that Kim Jong-il urgently has to sort out plenty of turbulence
rattling the DPRK.
The house the Great Leader built
Close observation of Pyongyang reveals that the North Korean system may be now
like an overlapping maze of Chinese boxes - some more elaborate than others,
but all very circumscribed in trying to defeat the law of gravity and keep
their relative privileges. The "law of gravity" in this case is an economy
that's been in chronic crisis for the past two decades.
Kim Jong-il's official "military-first" policy means heavy weaponry benefits
from 25% to 30% of North Korea's annual budget (well, the US shifts 19% of
federal spending and 44% of tax revenues to the Pentagon; the Iraq and AfPak
wars, both funded by borrowing from foreign powers, have cost each American
family $25,000, according to Canadian media). But the crucial problem is that
the army now has become more important than the Worker's Party, which in a
socialist system spells certified disaster for the toiling, loyal masses. The
party still regiments no less than over a third of the DPRK's adult population.
The massive bureaucracy has acquired a life of its own. The historically
centralized, and bureaucratically planned, supply of goods and services by the
state sometimes breaks down to a halt at the local level. There's a tremendous
generation gap/shock between the old Korean War (1950-1953) revolutionaries and
the baby boomers - the North Korean version.
The only Great Leader that North Korea ever had has been dead for almost 16
years - and the official narrative can be seen as a perpetual
meditation/mourning of this loss. And there's one confrontation after another
with the United States.
Kim Jong-il must think that North Korea definitely is not Somalia; this is a
much more developed and modern economy. But what is it, exactly?
The house the Great Leader Kim Il-sung built from scratch could possibly be
described as an ultra-nationalist, family values, Confucian corporate state. It
is Confucian in its profound respect for the family and its respect for a
supposedly enlightened, learned elite. Chu Hsi, the founder of neo-Confucianism
during the Song Dynasty (960-1279) would arguably feel at home in the DPRK.
As for nationalism, it manifested himself, for instance, by the choice of a
"pure" indigenous language, based on an alphabet invented by King Sejong in the
early 15th century, and thus not contaminated by either English or Japanese.
But the most striking aspect of North Korea's official narrative is that no
less than five millennia of very rich history are condensed and everything is
telescoped to April 15, 1912, the birth date of Kim Il-sung ("the day of the
Sun") and the ground zero of the juche (pronounced chuch'e) idea.
Juche was Kim Il-sung's indigenous remix of Marxism/Leninism/Stalinism
inflected with heavy boosts of Confucianism and metaphysics. On face value, juche
means "self-reliance" and independence, not only in ideology and politics but
also in all matters economic. Juche was in action already in 1955, when
the DPRK declared its independence from the USSR, and again in the mid-1960s,
when it reaffirmed its independence from both the USSR and China. It was to a
great extent by formalizing juche that Kim Il-sung was revered all over
the developing world as one of the great 1950s icons of decolonization.
Bruce Cumings, arguably the best American scholar on North Korea, gets straight
to the point: "The term is really untranslatable; the closer one gets to its
meaning, the more the meaning slips away. For a foreigner its meaning is
ever-receding, into a pool of everything that makes Koreans Korean, and
therefore ultimately inaccessible to the non-Korean. Juche is the opaque
core of North Korean national solipsism."
In his own book On the Juche Idea (1982), a perennial best-seller at the
Foreign Languages Publishing House in Pyongyang, Kim Jong-il seems to break
away from the DPRK's irredeemable solipsism to trace a surefire path for
economic development. He writes that "heavy industry with the machine-building
industry as its backbone is the pillar of an independent national economy".
This in turn will "accelerate the development of light industry and
agriculture", and it must be coupled with "solving the problem of food on one's
own through successful farming".
In sum: "If one is to be economically self-sufficient and develop the economy
on a safe basis and with a long-term perspective, one must depend on one's own
raw materials and fuel sources."
Is it working? Not exactly. Kim Jong-il has roughly a little over two years to
turn things around - amid insistent rumors about his health and his succession
- and, in official terminology, "open the gate to a thriving nation in 2012",
when there will be a massive national party to celebrate the centenary of the
birth of Great Leader Kim Il-sung.
So no wonder in the end he had better things to do than show up for his own
birthday party. But a few nagging questions remain. Considering his background
and his tastes, does he ever feel like escaping from his own fortress? Does
this certified recluse harbor the subversive thought of going to a mall
somewhere in the West and watching a disaster movie in a cineplex, just like
anybody else? Or ultimately would this movie buff - author of the quite decent On
the Art of the Cinema (1973) - rather be the star in an alternative