By way of background: I visited North Korea, bought all the propaganda there, and then read all the Western books about the country. I used my professional ghostwriter skills to produce Dear Reader: The Unauthorized Autobiography of Kim Jong Il. As all the other books are either very depressing (with good reason) and/or very scholarly, I wanted to write a story that someone can read on the beach and/or in the bathroom—while at the same time giving the audience an understanding of the worst place on Earth. A first-person narrative of Kim Jong Il’s life, Dear Reader functions as a comprehensive (dare I say “fun”?) overview of the nation and its history.
Nowadays I often give talks about North Korea, since so many people are fascinated with the country and so few know anything about it (including, maddeningly, most of the press). One of the most common questions I’m asked is, “Is Kim Jong Un different from Kim Jong Il?” It’s a tricky one to answer. Despite their best attempts to stay the course, sometimes circumstances force leaders—even Dear Leaders—to effect changes that they would prefer not to.
When Kim Jong Il took over from his father, the Great Leader Kim Il Sung, in the mid-1990s, he ran with a campaign slogan of “Do Not Expect Any Change From Me” (I wish I was kidding). Yet things began to hit the fan in a horrific way, forcing the Dear Leader to effectively declare martial law. Despite the claim that his new Songun “military first” philosophy was simply the natural evolution of his father’s Juche (roughly translated as “self-reliance”) idea, formally declaring the army to be the basis of North Korean society was clearly a major political change.
But now I am in a position to answer the question. Pyongyang’s hot new bestseller is Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un in the Year 2012. Released earlier this year, the book informs as to how the Kim Jong Un era differs from that of dad and grandpa.
1. They admit their medical system isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.
“When [Kim Jong Il] had been told that a soldier, who was good at playing the accordion, injured her eye, he had taken measures to send her to a foreign country for treatment.”
Under the Juche idea, everything possible must be undertaken to make North Korea a self-contained whole. This led to bizarre consequences, such as when foreign investors had a difficult time convincing Kim Jong Il to trade in natural resources. After all, that would be like literally selling pieces of Korea herself! The DPRK propaganda has consistently tried to paint the picture that foreign is bad and that the Leaders are essentially quarantining the Korean people from a corrupt outside world. To confess in writing that other nations have better medical care is a rare tacit admission from a country that (successfully) encourages doctors and nurses to donate their own skin for grafts. It signals a recent change in the North Korean messaging.
2. They don’t have running water…
“On September 4 Kim Jong Un, together with his wife [note that she is not named], dropped in on the family of Sim Tong Su, lecturer at Pyongyang University of Mechanical Engineering, who had moved into a new house in Changjon Street. After asking the family when they had moved, if they felt any inconvenience in living and whether water was always on taps, he turned on a tap in the washroom.”
Most North Korean anecdotes about the leaders show them undergoing “field guidance” (i.e., “looking at things.”) This is to show that they’re always on the job, improving life everywhere in the DPRK. The book is mostly full of such anecdotes: Kim Jong Un at the skating rink, Kim Jong Un at a factory, etc. He concerns himself with what is currently an issue with the populace at large. If running water is a concern in the capital, one can only imagine how bad it is in other cities. Kim Il Sung once said, “One should have only to pack a suitcase in a communist society when he moved.” In other words, everyone is screwed, but at least they’re screwed equally.
3. …but they have a dolphinarium…
Kim Jong Un “advised that stuffed animals and specimens to be displayed should be made lifelike, that the flat screen should not present static images alone but animations and static images alternately and that video programs should be supplied regularly.”
The North Korean educational system places little stress when it comes to teaching about biology. My own tour guide had never even heard of a scorpion, for example. Other writers have pointed out that most North Koreans have no knowledge or even interest regarding their native flora and fauna. Plants and animals are still basically regarded as a resource for “the people” to exploit. According to the North Korean press, when Kim Jong Il was informed that a whale shark had been caught, he “looked at the fish closely and said that its spotted skin looked nice and it would be good to make from it bags and other fancy goods for our women.” That the dolphins have water but the people don’t shows the regime’s priority for spectacle over stable living conditions.
4. …and dogs on display at the zoo.
Kim Jong Il himself enjoyed dog soup. During the famine of the 1990s, dogs were eaten—as was anything else edible. As the famine progressed and people were forced to consume toxic weeds and saccharine just to have something in their stomachs, the Dear Leader Kim Jong Il was caught on tape worrying…about the Korean Pungsan and Jindo breeds. “Our people are quite indifferent to the future of our dogs,” he whined. “That is wrong. These dogs belong to Korea and we must preserve them.” That millions of humans were dying was less of problem, of course. After all, Kim said “having too many people in North Korea makes ruling difficult.” Kim Jong Un has followed his father’s wishes. Dogs are now safe and secure in the zoo, while the nation still has chronic food shortages simply due to the regime’s intransigence.
5. The world is obsessed with North Korea.
From the book:
The idea that such attention could be less than positive doesn’t even enter the writer’s mind. Virtually no one in North Korea has access to the Internet, so they would never be able to access “the Google” to see that much of this fascination is based on horror and not admiration. If they could, they’d be able to see the concentration camps and read the reports that describe some of the worst atrocities in human history. Hundreds of thousands of North Koreans are in these camps, with entire families sentenced without trial or even being told of the nature of their crime.
6. Kim Jong Un intends to stay the course.
“Kim Jong Un is a spitting image of President Kim Il Sung; the former, new young leader of north Korea, is astoundingly identical with the latter in gesture, facial features, smile, confident gait and even manner of moving hands, so much so that one almost wonders if the President, founder of north Korea, has come to life again….Anyone who met him says his personality is identical with that of President Kim Il Sung and General Kim Jong Il.” [n.b.: Since the North Koreans regard their nation as half-occupied, they always refer to North and South Korea in lower case.)
North Korea does not regard they fact that they are last Soviet-bloc nation standing as a symbol of their backwardness. Rather, they’re the marathon runners who have outlasted everyone else, even Mother Russia. How is Kim Jong Un different from Kim Jong Il? He has put a shiny, happy smiling face to the regime and persuaded the press to focus on basketball players instead of twenty-four million people living in total, constant oppression.