In a world that has become increasingly uniform along the lines of democracy and free market economics (or at least the pretence of those ideals) it’s somehow comforting to know that there’s one little country out there that just refuses to toe the line. A country that adopts a policy of utter defiance towards the outside world as its number one guiding ideology. A country ruled by a gang of paranoid crazoids who’d sooner let their own people starve to death than accept any kind of assistance from foreign powers. North Korea, which uses the threat of nuclear weapons like Tony Soprano uses the threat of physical violence – to extort cash and resources from terrified foreign states.
Remember those old Asterix books that always started off with a picture of a magnifying glass highlighting a little Gaulish village, surrounded by fortified Roman camps? Y’know, the story about that one village of indomitable Gauls that still holds out against the Roman invaders? Well that little Gaulish village is North Korea, the last outpost holding out against the evil forces of foreign capitalist imperialism. At least, that’s how the North Koreans see things. Pretty much everybody else just hates North Korea. And the reason they hate North Korea, is because it’s one of the few countries left on the planet that is genuinely scary, Freddy Krueger style. Forget the phony dangers Saddam Hussein or the Taliban were supposed to pose to Western civilisation. These guys are the real deal. Welcome to the bizarrely insular world of North Korea, where school children are taught that the Dear Leader, Kim Jong II, came down from a magic mountain to bring paradise to the people.
KIM JONG II
Country of Rule: North Korea
From: Officially, July 1994 – the present day. In effect, however, Kim Jong II was the de facto ruler of North Korea for many years previous to this date.
Official Title: Chairman of the National Defense Commission of North Korea, Dear Leader Kim Jong II.
Demise: Despite frequent rumours regarding his failing health and allegedly having suffered through several strokes, Kim Jong II continues to grip clammily onto the fringes of life, perhaps animated solely by a demonic force of sheer evil.
Death Toll: Anywhere between 600,000 and 3 million North Koreans have died of starvation under Kim Jong II’s rule. There are no reliable figures on the number of North Koreans put to death by the state security apparatus, but it seems likely that it’s at a significant level. It’s estimated that 200,000 North Koreans are currently incarcerated in political detention camps under brutal conditions.
Physical Defects: Apart from having the kind of face that suggests he spent his childhood tormenting small animals and attaching firecrackers to frogs, Kim Jong II suffers from the classic Despot’s curse… yep, you guessed it, he’s so short he struggles to get noticed at the supermarket checkout. Even by diminutive North Korean standards, Kim Jong II’s lowly 5’2” stature practically qualifies him as a midget. So sensitive is the issue of height to the Dear Leader, that he actually wears comically large platform shoes to diplomatic conferences, as shown in the picture with Vladimir Putin below.
Best Fictional Portrayal: So convincing was Kim Jong II’s portrayal in Team America: World Police, that many movie goers were convinced that the Dear Leader had starred in the movie as himself.
Bio: Kim Jong II was raised amid conditions largely divorced from the reality of political turmoil in Korea. His father, Kim Il-sung, was appointed Prime Minister of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea in 1948 and immediately set about ruling the newly formed country with an iron fist. Kim Il-Sung built up an elaborate cult of personality around himself in which he became the central focus of all public life in North Korea. Little Kim Jong II was brought up in a relatively pampered environment while most of the nation’s population was struggling to recover from the devastating fallout of the Korean War.
According to the official history currently taught in North Korean schools, however, Kim Jong II was born atop of the holy Baekdu Mountain. The birth had previously been foretold by a magic swallow, and was accompanied by a double rainbow appearing over the mountain and a new star appearing in the heavens.
When Kim Jong II was five years old, his three year old younger brother drowned to death while they were playing together. According to the book What Kind of Man is Kim Jong II written by Yi Ki-pong, a prominent member of the Workers’ Party of Korea who later defected to South Korea, Kim Jong II was actually responsible for his brother’s death:
“Kim was very mischievous when a child. When he saw an insect, he trampled on it. After Korea’s liberation from Japanese occupation, the Kim II-sung family lived in a house in Mansu-tong, Central District, P’yongyang. In the early summer of 1948, his younger brother, Shura (then three years old) drowned. Kim Jong II was there at the time. I learned later how the accident occurred. The two brothers were playing in the pond right by the edge. Kim Jong II raised his face faster than his brother, and pushed his brother’s face back into water. He did that over and over.”
Upon reaching adulthood, Kim Jong II followed his father into politics and used his family connections to rise rapidly through the ranks of the Workers’ Party of Korea. By 1982, Kim held several prominent offices and was being groomed to succeed his father as North Korea’s supreme leader. The North Korean media worked hard to weave the same cult of personality around Kim Jong II that had been enjoyed by his father, hailing him as “the great successor to the revolutionary cause”.
Kim Il-sung died of heart failure in 1994, handing his son the reins of power. Effectively, however, Kim Jong II was already the de facto leader of North Korea, holding the post of Chairman of the National Defence Commission, the most powerful position in the country.
Kim Jong II inherited a nation that was on the brink of self destruction. The demise of the Soviet Union meant that North Korea had lost its most important strategic ally. Relations with communist China had become increasingly strained over China’s diplomatic overtures to hostile South Korea. This essentially left North Korea totally isolated in the international community with almost no opportunity for significant trade, and therefore, no opportunity for economic development. To make matters worse, North Korea was hit by a series of disastrous floods in 1995 and 1996, followed by several years’ worth of intense draught. These conditions led to the destruction of much of North Korea’s arable land, leading to a period of severe famine. Kim Jong II, however, was unwilling to import goods and foreign aid that might have helped to sustain the population, stating that:
“Imperialist aid is a noose of plunder and subjugation, aimed at robbing 10 and even 100 things for one thing that is given.”
The result was some of the worst levels of famine seen in the modern world, with some observers estimating that as many as 3 million North Koreans (one tenth of the nation’s population) perished over the course of half a decade of steady starvation. Escapees from Kim Jong II’s regime describe North Korea during this period as a nightmare world of abandoned villages, mass graves, dead bodies dumped in the streets and emaciated orphans roaming around scavenging for food. Malnutrition continues to wreak havoc among North Korea’s destitute population today. Stunted growth and mental retardation are the frequent consequences.
Kim Jong II’s response to the crisis was to step up the centralisation of the government and increase the level of autocracy. He held his shattered country together through sheer brute force. The basis of control consisted of two central ideologies, the concepts of Songun (military first) and Juche (self-reliance).
Under the Songun policy, all of North Korea’s resources are allocated to the military, first and foremost. The civilian public makes do on whatever scraps are left over. The emphasis on Songun effectively places the military at the front and centre of North Korean government, guiding both domestic policy and interactions with the outside world, while enforcing Kim Jong II’s grip on power. North Korea is currently one of the most heavily militarised nations on the planet, maintaining a 1.2 million strong standing army (an incredible 20% of the adult male population) and calling on a 4.7 million strong reserve force. The country is criss crossed with a dense structure of enormous military facilities and elaborate air defence systems.
Under the ideology of Juche, North Korea is to remain in a permanent state of isolation. No interference by the outside world is to be tolerated. In fact, any sort of engagement with the outside world at all is strongly discouraged. No trade takes place with outside nations except under the most narrow and limited of conditions. Effectively, North Koreans live in a hermetically sealed bubble, in which their entire lives are shaped around a culture of work, impoverishment and celebration of the Dear Leader. So limited is the scope for outside experience that many North Koreans apparently believe that the weather is dictated by the moods of Kim Jong II. North Korea has become a completely alien landscape, a solipsistic island to which the rest of the world barely exists. North Koreans only have the dimmest conception of the outside world, with the rest of the world having the dimmest conception of what takes place inside North Korea. The wall of isolation is maintained by some of the strictest media, information and censorship controls the world has ever seen in any state at any point in history.
That the madness of this ruling ideology has completely failed the country on every level, and that North Korea remains one of the most poorly developed nations in the world, with a chronically stagnated economy and an impoverished, malnourished population, does not appear to present itself as a particularly pressing problem to Kim Jong II. It’s sufficient to maintain his grip on power, and his lifestyle is one of extravagant opulence.
Apart from a constant barrage of ideological conditioning, control over the population is maintained with the sinister activities of the State Security Department – responsible for identifying possible sources of dissidence and ruthlessly eliminating them. The State Security Department maintains a vast and complex network of secret police, tasked with spying on the civilian population. It’s also responsible for the administration North Korea’s numerous concentration camps, where as many as 200,000 political prisoners are currently detained. The most notorious camp is said to be the secretive Camp 22, built on a complex estimated to be the size of Washington DC. Apart from the administering of sadistic torture, beatings and rape, it’s rumoured that the wardens of Camp 22 are practising bizarre medical experiments on the inmates.
But Kim Jong II’s regime is perhaps best characterised by his bizarrely eccentric personality. He’s had some of the most howling at the moon crazy ideas ever ventured by a political leader. The summaries below provide a highlight reel of some of Kim’s more grotesquely funny escapades:
* Kim Jong II was hit by inspiration when he heard that a guy in Germany was breeding an unusual strain of giant rabbits. Kim reasoned that a giant rabbit breeding program in North Korea would solve the country’s famine problems. So he personally got in touch with Karl Szmolinsky, the world’s foremost authority on giant rabbit breeding, and invited him to North Korea to set up a breeding farm. Despite Szmolinsky pointing out that the rabbits regularly consume more than their own body weight in carrots, lettuce and cabbage, and would therefore be more likely to contribute to North Korea’s food shortages than do anything to alleviate them, Kim was undeterred, and purchased 12 of the giant rabbits at a price tag of $115.00 each. Kim informed Szmolinsky that the rabbits would be kept in a petting zoo, and that he would be flown back into the country in a couple of months to check on their progress. However, a few weeks later, North Korean officials contacted Szmolinsky and cancelled any future arrangements. Apparently bored with the breeding program, Kim had decided to have the rabbits cooked and eaten as part of his birthday celebrations.
* Kim Jong II is an avid film buff and reportedly has a personal library of over 20,000 films. Particularly favourite movies are said to be Friday the 13th and the James Bond series (although Pierce Brosnan’s infiltration of a North Korean military base in Die Another Day must have pissed him off a bit). Kim’s movie fandom reached such heights that back in the seventies he decided to get into the ‘biz himself. Unfortunately, North Korea is not exactly renowned for its highly skilled cinematic technicians, so Kim dispatched a team of secret agents to kidnap Shin Sang-ok – one of South Korea’s biggest directors – along with his wife and top level actress, Choe Eun-hui. The pair were ensconced in Pyongyang, handed several million dollars and ordered to kick-start North Korea’s movie industry. The result was Pulgasari – a Godzilla knock-off featuring pro communist sentiments. Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to track this masterpiece down on DVD, but an excerpt can be viewed on YouTube, here. Shin and Choe were later able to escape Kim’s clutches while joining the Dear Leader on a tour of Europe. Kim was attempting to secure a distribution deal for Pulgasari at the time.
* Getting back to the issue of height, Kim Jong II is apparently so tormented by his lack of it, that he once decided to rid Pyongyang of shortness for all future generations. In 1989, the government issued pamphlets throughout Pyongyang, proclaiming the miracles of a new wonder drug that would “cure shortness”. Short citizens were invited to put their names down for a growth treatment program with the new drug. However, it was all a pretext to round up as many short people as possible and have them sent off to detention camps, in order to prevent their “sub-standard short genes” spreading throughout the population. Nobody who put their name down for the treatment program was ever heard from again.
* According to the Henessey Company of France, Kim Jong II is the biggest consumer of their cognac in the entire world. Apparently, he imports approximately $750,000.00 worth of Hennessey into North Korea for his own personal use every year. Another extravagance involves regularly flying Swedish escort girls into the country for “relaxation purposes”. While Kim is disporting himself with expensive brandy and blonde hookers, the rest of the population gets by on an average income of about $60.00 per month.
One of the biggest security issues in the world today involves North Korea’s possession of nuclear weapons and its continued missile testing – carrying veiled threats to deploy the devices. Various intelligence reports claim that North Korea might have 6 – 8 nuclear devices currently stockpiled. Whether or not North Korea has designed or obtained a missile capable of delivering these devices accurately over any sort of distance is another matter entirely. Let’s not forget that the technology behind the atomic bomb is now over 60 years old (and hence not necessarily difficult to obtain) but the technology behind accurate ballistic missiles is much more advanced.
However, North Korea continues to deliberately startle and provoke the outside world by bragging about its nuclear stockpile and testing its launching capabilities (with the tests always declared to be “successful”). It appears likely that Kim Jong II is using the threat of nuclear weapons as a tool of extortion, swaggering out and performing a few missile tests whenever he wants to heat things up a bit and get some attention and / or assistance from outside powers. In this sense, North Korea have become something of a “mafia state” in the international community, brandishing their nuclear arsenal with sociopathic glee in an attempt to extort outside resources (usually barrels of oil).
Negotiation with North Korea, in an effort to bring the country back into the international fold and get it to cease its nuclear programs, is a periodic obsession of whatever US administration happens to be in power. However, the US may have already bungled the opportunity to secure North Korean cooperation.
A disarmament-for-aid package was agreed between the US and North Korea back in October 2007. However, the North Korean government claims that the US failed to comply with their end of the bargain. The US promised to remove North Korea from its terrorist blacklist and provide 1 million tonnes of heavy fuel oil, in return for North Korea disabling its Yongbyon nuclear facility and fully declaring all of its nuclear activities by the end of 2007.
Apparently, North Korea was complying with the agreement and had taken serious steps towards dismantling the nuclear facility. They were receiving the initial shipments of US oil, however, North Korea remained on the official US blacklist of “terrorist” states, which involves trade sanctions and other international restrictions. The crux of the dispute appeared to be the insistence of the US in implementing an “intrusive” verification system, which North Korea claims were fresh demands and not part of the original deal. So the agreement collapsed. North Korea resumed its nuclear programs and carried out a fresh round of missile testing.
Negotiations between the US and Kim Jong II’s North Korean government rarely fail to provide a rich vein of comedy, however. Particularly with North Korea’s utter disregard for tact when dealing with the outside world. Not that the US has proven to be much more polite in this regard. When US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton compared North Korea’s behaviour to that of an “unruly child”, the official response from Pyongyang was as follows:
“Mrs. Clinton is a funny lady. Her words suggest that she is by no means intelligent. Sometimes she looks like a primary schoolgirl and sometimes a pensioner going shopping.”
At the age of 68, Kim Jong II is still clinging onto power, failing health be damned. And when he does die, it appears likely that one of his sons will assume his position, carrying on with business much as before. The reality is, North Korea is no closer to engaging with the outside world on any meaningful level now than they were at the beginning of Kim Jong II’s regime. It remains the most isolated, mysterious, eccentric, oppressive, messed up and outright demented nation existing anywhere on the planet today. In the world’s endless history of despotic states, there’s perhaps never existed a nation so utterly alien to the outside world as North Korea.
Despot Rating: Perhaps the full extent of Kim Jong II’s despotism will not be known until future generations, in same unspecified time, perhaps, when North Korea has opened its doors to the outside world. While we know from refugee and defector reports that a wholesale level of tyranny is going on inside North Korea, we can’t really be sure how many people have been imprisoned or killed. This is a country that practises the strictest censorship and information control on the planet. Not much gets out, apart from vague rumours.
However, based on the information we do have, North Korea would appear to be the most oppressive state in the world today. We know that untold numbers of North Koreans died from famine – caused largely by neglect, bungled economic policies and a refusal to countenance meaningful levels of outside assistance – under Kim Jong II’s regime.
This, combined with Kim Jong II’s extravagant and expensive lifestyle, having his every whim catered to while most of his population struggles to get by on a few scraps of rice, is enough to tell us that the guy is just about the most Despotic leader still around in the modern world.
* 4.5 Hitler moustaches / 5 for Kim Jong II.