Speaking Kim Jong-il of the dead

What a week in deaths. We already talked about Christopher Hitchens. On Sunday, we learned that the great Czech playwright, revolutionary and president Vaclav Havel died.

On the other end of the spectrum was Kim Jong-il. Or as the Associated Press put it:

Kim Jong Il, North Korea’s mercurial and enigmatic longtime leader, has died of heart failure. He was 69.

“Mercurial and enigmatic longtime leader,” eh? Is that how they spell “murderous Communist dictator” these days? I guess so.

Any religion angles here? Well, see, that’s tricky. Hitchens, commenting on the giant mausoleums and parades of North Korea, said it “seemed to fuse classical Stalinism with a contorted form of the deferential, patriarchal Confucian ethos.”

Apparently the people of North Korea aren’t just starving, they’re subjected to racist and nationalistic propaganda and are confused about their relative position in the world. The food bags countries send them are said to be given to Kim Jong-il out of respect and terror.

I’m reminded of this old piece in The Guardian about the torture chambers Kim’s regime ran:

In the remote north-eastern corner of North Korea, close to the border of Russia and China, is Haengyong. Hidden away in the mountains, this remote town is home to Camp 22 – North Korea’s largest concentration camp, where thousands of men, women and children accused of political crimes are held.

Now, it is claimed, it is also where thousands die each year and where prison guards stamp on the necks of babies born to prisoners to kill them.

The piece goes through the first-hand testimonies from defectors about execution and torture, including gas chambers with chemical experiments run on humans. It tells of whole families put in glass chambers and gassed while scientists take notes.

This is difficult to read, but here are some anecdotes from a worker and prisoner:

He explains how he had believed this treatment was justified. ‘At the time I felt that they thoroughly deserved such a death. Because all of us were led to believe that all the bad things that were happening to North Korea were their fault; that we were poor, divided and not making progress as a country.

‘It would be a total lie for me to say I feel sympathetic about the children dying such a painful death. Under the society and the regime I was in at the time, I only felt that they were the enemies. So I felt no sympathy or pity for them at all.’

His testimony is backed up by Soon Ok-lee, who was imprisoned for seven years. ‘An officer ordered me to select 50 healthy female prisoners,’ she said. ‘One of the guards handed me a basket full of soaked cabbage, told me not to eat it but to give it to the 50 women. I gave them out and heard a scream from those who had eaten them. They were all screaming and vomiting blood. All who ate the cabbage leaves started violently vomiting blood and screaming with pain. It was hell. In less than 20 minutes they were quite dead.’

No one knows how many prisoners were held in various centers but one camp alone held 50,000. And why?

Most are imprisoned because their relatives are believed to be critical of the regime. Many are Christians, a religion believed by Kim Jong-il to be one of the greatest threats to his power. According to the dictator, not only is a suspected dissident arrested but also three generations of his family are imprisoned, to root out the bad blood and seed of dissent.

Mervyn Thomas, chief executive of Christian Solidarity Worldwide, said: ‘For too long the horrendous suffering of the people of North Korea, especially those imprisoned in unspeakably barbaric prison camps, has been met with silence … It is imperative that the international community does not continue to turn a blind eye to these atrocities which should weigh heavily on the world’s conscience.’

That Kim Jong-il was so suspect of Christianity is interesting. A girlfriend of mine who grew up under Communism in Czechoslovakia became a Christian and a protester the same way — via her local congregation.

But the fact of North Korea’s existence and the horrific suffering its people have endured — psychologically, physically and spiritually — is staggering.

As we look at coverage in the coming days, I wonder whether we’ll see more about what really is going on in that country or more descriptions about mercurial, enigmatic, longtime leaders. (And for those curious, please check out this awesomely comprehensive list of all the titles Kim Jong-il bequeathed upon himself. My favorite has to be “Highest Incarnation of the Revolutionary Comradely Love”

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  • http://www.oslofreedomforum.com/speakers/barbara_demick.html Pedro

    Right on; ““Mercurial and enigmatic longtime leader,” eh? Is that how they spell “murderous Communist dictator” these days? I guess so.”

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie

    So right after I posted this, I read this lede from the Washington Post obit. Compare with the AP line above:

    Kim Jong Il, the strangely antic and utterly ruthless heir to North Korea’s Stalinist dictatorship, died of an apparent heart attack Saturday, North Korea’s state media reported Monday. He was 69.

    During his reign, he menaced the world with his nuclear ambitions and presided over a famine that killed hundreds of thousands of his subjects.

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie

    OK, looks like that AP report is going to be the outlier. Here’s the New York Times:

    Kim Jong-il, the reclusive dictator who kept North Korea at the edge of starvation and collapse, banished to gulags citizens deemed disloyal and turned the country into a nuclear weapons state, died Saturday morning, according to an announcement by the North’s official news media on Monday.

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie

    This is too much fun not to share, paragraphs 2 and 3 from the Boston Herald:

    “A bastard – he really was,” said Brandeis University international relations professor Robert Art. “A guy that was willing to immiserate his people for his own ends and let thousands upon thousands of people starve.”

    “Truly evil,” said John Pike of GlobalSecurity.org. “A really nasty piece of work.”

    Nice use of the Marxist term “immiserate,” no?

  • Jerry

    My #1 surprise and even shock was how Fox news covered his death. Google news first led me to this story with the following that struck me as utterly bizarre:

    Grace Yoo, executive director of the Korean American Coalition Los Angeles, called Kim’s death a symbolic moment for Korean Americans. Many of her friends have welcomed the news on Facebook, she said.

    Hopefully, the new leader will be “someone who cares about their citizens and see everyone deserving of life,” she said. Kim’s legacy will be his ability to not change while the world was changing around him, she said.

    “That’s his strength and it’s also his weakness,” she said.


    Why was that comment about Kim’s legacy was his inability to change rather than the pile of bodies and utter brutality of his regime not paired with someone who has a less charitable view of Kim?

    And Fox news’ main story? That tops the bizarreness of the LA story:

    Kim Jong Il, North Korea’s longtime leader, has died at 69 of heart failure, state TV reported on Monday in a “special broadcast.”

    State media reported that Kim died on Dec. 17 of a heart ailment on a train due to a “great mental and physical strain” during a “high intensity field inspection.” It said an autopsy was done on Dec. 18 and “fully confirmed” the diagnosis.

    “It is the biggest loss for the party … and it is our people and nation’s biggest sadness,” an anchorwoman clad in black Korean traditional dress said in a voice choked with tears. She said the nation must “change our sadness to strength and overcome our difficulties.”


    I have to say that so far Fox wins my vote for their story about the death of the beloved leader of North Korea and the great sadness that all feel at his untimely passing. But they do credit AP as “contributing” to the report so maybe I should ask about the influence of their “contribution”?

  • Dave

    Kim’s successor is by all accounts not the man his father was, and it behooves journalists to be alert for “interesting times” on that unhappy peninsula in the short term.

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie

    NPR decided to one-up the Associated Press:

    Kim Jong Il was maligned by some as a delusional dictator and an eccentric playboy who was responsible for famine at home and terrorism abroad. To others, he was a political survivor who managed to hold his own in a high-stakes game of nuclear poker with big world powers.

    I wonder what sort of “on the one hand, on the other” they had for Hitler’s death …

  • Jeffrey Weiss

    Wonderful headline, Mollie. And I had some of your same reax to the early stories. “Mercurial?” Seriously? I figured that’s the family-media euphemism for, ahem, “batshit nuts.” But I can live with your translation, mostly. Whether he was “Communist” in anything but name is an argument I’ll leave for those more expert. Me, I think he was about as “Communist” as his nation is a “Democratic people’s republic.” The only ideology I can tweeze out of the accounts is one that dictates worship of him and his family. And I commend to everyone’s attention the wonderful Onion piece on this general topic. Headline: “Kim Jong-Un Privately Doubting He’s Crazy Enough To Run North Korea.”

  • Julia

    Maybe these newswriters are using mental pictures of him in the movie “Team America: World Police” while thinking up how to describe him?

    At least the Daily News is upfront about it:


  • Julia

    I don’t want to put a link on this website due to a naughty word early in this clip of Kim John Il in “Team America”.
    If you want to see it, go to YouTube and look for:

    “I’m So Ronery”

  • Bill

    “Team America” is often gratuitously gross, but it is also brilliant and scathing satire.

    Kim’s son and successor, Kim Jong Sun is a four-star general with no military experience, which no doubt must please other generals. He is another generation removed from Kim Il Sung. We’ll see how paranoid the competent leadership of people’s democratic state becomes if the succession becomes shaky.

    The barbarous cruelty of the late departed Dear Leader, and the acquiescence of ordinary Koreans is not surprising. We’ve seen it in Russia, China, Cuba, Germany, Iraq, Iran, Uganda, Cambodia and other totalitarian states. Solzhenitsyn observed that such cruelty runs not through any national boundary, but through the human heart. It occurs whenever limited men have unlimited power, and all men are limited. He offered this sobering reflection:

    “And how we burned in the camps later, thinking: What would things have been like if every Security operative, when he went out at night to make an arrest, had been uncertain whether he would return alive and had to say good-bye to his family? Or if, during periods of mass arrests, as for example in Leningrad, when they arrested a quarter of the entire city, people had not simply sat there in their lairs, paling with terror at every bang of the downstairs door and at every step on the staircase, but had understood they had nothing left to lose and had boldly set up in the downstairs hall an ambush of half a dozen people with axes, hammers, pokers, or whatever else was at hand?… The Organs would very quickly have suffered a shortage of officers and transport and, notwithstanding all of Stalin’s thirst, the cursed machine would have ground to a halt! If…if…We didn’t love freedom enough. And even more – we had no awareness of the real situation…. We purely and simply deserved everything that happened afterward.”

  • Nikolaus

    I observes some of the footage of his mourners. They indeed appear to be overwrought with grief; however, I looked closely and saw not one truly tear-streaked cheek. Perhaps they were merely playing out their roles for the camera?

  • http://!)! Passing By

    Ok, I still don’t get the religion angle. Yes, I see the slightest reference to Confucianism, but in the linked article, Hitchens discounts the connection. Yes, I see that Christians are particular targets of the regime, but that because they are considered a political threat.

    One cannot imagine an article about Franco without a mention of the Catholic Church. Islam is often a factor in stores about Middle Eastern politics. Does Kim Jong-il have a religious angle to his ideology?

  • John M

    @Passing By–Kim Jong Il was one of the most anti-religious rulers on the planet. He made the Chinese Communist Party look like devout altarboys by comparison. He repressed Christianity for whatever reason, but repress it he did. And I’ll go ahead and guess that the Islamic dawa guys couldn’t get missionary visas either. This is muscular, militant atheism crossed with a personality cult, using cult in almost every sense. Thus, this is religious news.


  • R9

    Sounds like the sort of situation where it is actually appropriate to call atheism militant. :p

  • http://!)! Passing By

    I was being coy, you might have guessed.

    Having been subjected to a week of hagiography about The Great Hitchens, who taught us that religion is the root of all evil, I found the non-mention of atheism in this case rather telling.

  • http://www.mikehickerson.com Mike Hickerson

    I don’t think that “atheistic” or even “anti-religious” is the right word for Kim Jong-Il’s ideology. Combine the worship of “Eternal President” Kim Il-sung, the all-encompassing Juche ideology, and North Korean propaganda like “No Motherland Without You” (a hymn to Kim Jong-Il – “You pushed away the severe storm / You made us believe, Comrade Kim Jong-il / We cannot live without you / Our country cannot exist without you!”), and you have something very close to a religious movement.

  • John M

    @Passing By–I thought the comment was a bit out of character for you, but apparently I didn’t have the squelch setting on my sarcasm detector set properly. :P


  • http://!)! Passing By

    John M -

    I was aiming more for irony than sarcasm, but that’s a target hard to hit in a blog comment.

    Actually, I got spiked for a rather sharp (read: inflammatory) comment on one of the Hitchens posts, so subtlety seemed a good tactic here. :-)