On April 15, the 36-year-old dictator of North Korea, Kim Jong Un, disappeared from public life. Rumors spread, hypothesizing that he was either dead, brain-dead, or otherwise incapacitated. My own theory was that he was self-isolating, fearing the infection, or perhaps doing some heavy drinking. On May 1th, Kim returned to the public eye, but now new rumors are growing, speculating that who we saw was not the real Kim Jong Un but a body double. When I started to prepare this piece, I stumbled upon my old notes and writing from when I visited North Korea in 1999. I thought my notes, which have never been published in English, are worth reading and serve as a good introduction to the second part of this story, which will focus on the real (or fake) Kim Jong Un and his dynasty. Here is the first part
As the old Ilyushin plane began approaching the Pyongyang airport, I noticed pathways leading towards the landing runway. Built for the defense of the airport in case of an enemy attack, they were ready to transport the heavy, concrete barriers and move in tanks, hidden somewhere behind the gentle slopes around the airport. Yet, from the approaching airplane, the nearing landscape looked friendly and soft, the red, fertile terra rossa offering a contrast of colors to the intense greenery. Many Russian-made cargo and passenger planes stood by on the runway, motionless under thick covers, waiting for better times. Our plane stopped in front of a small airport building from which a large portrait of Kim Il Sung stared down upon us. But there was no time to take a closer look at the huge oil painting. Guards quickly pushed us into a small reception area. We first had to go through a metal detector which led us to an even smaller space facing a wooden counter, the kind general stores would have before the era of supermarkets. And what was I buying?
I was surrounded by soldiers dressed in intense brown uniforms. “Do you have a mobile phone?” asked one of my new companions. I had nothing on me, I thought, as I shook my head to the soldier. Following the advice of some Chinese friends in Beijing, who helped me to get me into North Korea, I left anything that could arouse suspicion in Beijing. I carried only my Slovenian passport, two notebooks, two pens, one camera, and a few hastily-packed rags in my travel bag. I even left my shortwave radio at home. The only thing I smuggled in were the pages on North Korea I tore from a Korea Lonely Planet guide. As it turned out, my guardian knew the guide by heart and therefore did not object to it. Suddenly it struck me that I did not stock up on anything that could benefit me when I entered North Korea. I didn’t know the name of the hotel or the names of the people who were supposed to be waiting for me. I trusted that North Korea would be such a totalitarian regime that it would be better to simply go with the flow, which would give me enough time to observe the country undisturbed.
But what if it wasn’t like that? When one of the soldiers asked me, in broken English, where I was from and where my entourage was, I had my moment of epiphany. I had been mistaken! Apart from some abstract idea of the country, I did not have the slightest idea of how things actually worked. I knew nobody in North Korea. I didn’t even have a voucher to prove that I had paid for the travel package in Beijing. Like an idiot, I had let myself be loaded on a plane in Beijing, which dropped me off in an unknown land. The panic lasted a few moments, but it felt like an eternity to me. Suddenly, two young men rushed out from behind the barrier, pointing at me and shouting at the police: “This one is ours!” In an instant, the gate opened; there were no more police, no more soldiers. The younger Kim, an interpreter, exchanged a few words with the guards, and the slightly older Kim introduced himself as the right hand of the first, grabbing the documents I had and pushing me into North Korea. I stood in front of the airport looking around. It was a strange place, I thought. Before even saying hello, they search you with a metal detector, then instead of reviewing your papers, they want to see your entourage, who takes all your documents and, so to speak, forces you to step into the country. I thought I had actually become a prisoner of my two Kims. They now had my passport and they were my guardian angels, my phone, my friends, my family, in short, my North Korea. But the way I see it now, I was not a prisoner. I was their asset.
It was May 1999, the month the U.S. jets bombed the Chinese embassy in Belgrade. Americans never admitted that they did it on purpose to stop the Chinese embassy from helping the isolated Serbian government with communications while fighting NATO forces. Instead, they came up with an awkward story, blaming the maps they had for showing them the building of military procurement and not the Chinese embassy. Do super techno equipped jets to fly with the help of maps? Does launching a missile from 20 thousand feet above the ground require a map to check the target?
The event created a lot of turmoil in Beijing, which made reporters like me very much in demand. All of a sudden we found ourselves in the geopolitical hotspot, as countries like China and Russia became aware of the expansion of NATO beyond the zones of interest established at the Yalta conference in 1945. With the bombing of Belgrade and later Kosovo, the Chinese were getting worried that one day, the Americans might bomb them too. But to my surprise, my Chinese sources in Beijing were not at all worried about the damage done to the Embassy and the journalists killed (it was generally acknowledged journalists working for Xinhua news agency are spies, so killing a spy was a matter of war). They were focused on figuring out how they could take advantage of the mistake that America had made. The Chinese tried the American game, letting the masses take to the streets. First, they sent student demonstrators to the American embassy. After throwing eggs and insults at the building, the students were back on campus by dinner time. The protest was broadcasted without the government intervening. It went on for days. The silence from the authorities inspired more protests. In the end, the protests were taken over by a mob and there was violence. I was not the only one who got kicked on the street and bullied by phone calls from Chinese I had known for years. As a Slovenian I even received anonymous phone calls from Belgrade, cursing me for the betrayal. I never figured out what I did wrong. The situation was deteriorating as authorities were pushing the button of extreme nationalism. The impression was that China could shut the door to the world again. But at the bottom line, we knew that this was a bluff, an act of the game they were playing. As soon as the leadership appeared on TV, and some of them managed to shed a few tears for the victims in Belgrade, the protest was over. The purpose of the performance was to end the protests. The chaos ended instantly.
In return for the 1999 bombing, China only got a bland Clinton apology. The issue was over with a simple “I am sorry.” As a consequence, fear of American militarism grew deeper. That fear increased in 2001 when George W. Bush declared that the Far East and the Pacific were at the top of American interest. This new geopolitical framework excited then defense secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, who started to plan the idea of founding a defense alliance in Asia, which would be an equivalent of NATO in Europe.
With all this in perspective, in addition to the changes that came later on with the 9/11 attack on American soil, I thought that it was time to visit the last hermit country on Earth. How different could it be from the world that was spinning into globalization? Twenty years ago, it was not easy to get into North Korea. But I desperately wanted to know what was cooking in Pyongyang, so I kind of forced my way in. I needed to lie. The North Koreans wanted me to lie. They knew perfectly well who I was, but they did not want me to say that I was a journalist. We were banned from entering the country. They wanted some extra money for the favor, and I also needed to provide a letter proving that the purpose of my visit was to research the North Korean revolutionary culture. Without visiting North Korea, I could not picture the place that was reportedly going through a horrific famine, killing 15 percent of children under the age of 8 and permanently damaging 60 percent of them. According to U.N. reports from 20 years ago, an entire generation of North Korean children had been wasted by starvation. The repeating floods, the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the biggest sponsor of North Korea, and the death of Kim Il Song in 1994, all contributed to the breakout of this devastating famine. By the time I entered the country, the World Food Program was supplying 70 percent of the starving North Korean population with food. As a reaction to the tragedy caused by starvation, Kim Jong Il, son of Kim Il Sung, tried to turn the rudder of the country into a slightly different direction. The head of the second-generation of the Kim dynasty shrewdly and gradually began to diminish the role of the Korea Workers Party. Kim II realized that the dominant Juche ideology could not resolve the material questions the society was facing, and even less, the reasons that triggered the killing famine. The mythology that gave the status of divinity to the Kims could no longer feed the nation. So Kim II, who was much less charismatic than his father and was considered responsible for the calamity of the nation, simply tried to avoid the masses. He never summoned the congress of the KWP, which was later revived in 2016 after the young Kim Jong Un inherited the country.
Kim II did something different; he slowly lifted the 1.4 million soldiers into more political roles, increasing the military budget and expanding the nuclear program. In 1994, North Korea abandoned the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) but signed an agreement with the U.S. about freezing the North Korean nuclear program, which was supposed to lead to the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. Some analysts at the time believed that North Korea agreed to the freeze primarily because of the U.S. agreement to phase out economic sanctions that had been in place since the Korean War. But because of congressional opposition, the U.S. failed to deliver on this part of the agreement. Then, in the midst of the crisis, after the Americans retreated, there were all kinds of speculations that the regime was in such deep trouble that it might implode. Instead of collapse, in December 1998, when the rest of the world was trying to figure out how to deal with North Korea, the regime fired its first guided missile from its starving belly. The launched rocket caught the security systems of all neighboring countries sleeping. Intelligence reports from the West called the launch a bluff, claiming that it was only a remote-controlled missile. Pyongyang flatly denied this, asserting again and again that on August 31, 1998, North Korea launched its first satellite called Kwangmyongsong-1. It was never known to the U.S. space command, but some experts at the time warned that the North Korean TD-1 rocket was capable of putting a smaller satellite into orbit.
At one of the dinners with my travel angels/custodians in 1999, the conversation touched on the launch of the first rocket. All three Kims, including the driver, who was usually silent, caught fire in an instant. “The Americans don’t know who they are dealing with, they don’t know what we have up there!” they were telling me, all excited. Their enthusiasm left no doubt that the satellite circulating around the earth was a terrifying weapon that would crush the U.S. into dust when the time came. After the bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade, I thought I had learned everything about the hatred towards Americans. But this was different and much much deeper.
Despite the decline of the Juche doctrine, a 170-meter tall tower of the Juche idea is still hovering over today’s much-modernized city. It stands proudly on the bank of the Taedong River, opposite the large Kim Il Sung Square, where all the parades pass. Built out of seventy granite blocks on the occasion of Kim Il Sung’s seventieth birthday, the Juche tower became a temple to which the masses converge, as in Mecca. A year after Kim Il Sung’s death, North Korea introduced its own method of counting, which is not like it is in the West where everything begins with the birth of Christ. The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea was born on the date of the birth of Kim Il Sung, on April 12, 1912–the day the Titanic sank. As experienced by the North Koreans, the idea of Juche was the quintessence of Kim Il Sung’s thought. According to which the leader, thinking, and commanding represents the brain, and the masses are the flesh and bones that uphold the brain and carry out its impulses. Strictly politically speaking, the purpose of Juche was to demonstrate the independence of North Korea from its political sponsors Russia and China. The function of Juche in the era of Kim II and Kim Jong Un was replaced by nuclear weapons and intercontinental missiles that proved to be a more powerful bargaining tool for obtaining independence. In a first pretty complete book on North Korea, Don Oberdorfer wrote that Kim Il Sung once admitted that Juche was not entirely his idea, that he only added a certain emphasis to it. But in a country where 34,000 Kim Il Sung monuments were listed at the end of the 1980s, where every bench on which the great leader sat became a monument, where every word he uttered was recorded and, as reported by Oberdorfer, even his excrement was analyzed, the Juche idea was embraced vehemently. As said before, Kim II started the discussion about including the army among the three strata of the Workers’ Party. The increased militarization of the country continued with the reign of Kim III. But for the time being, the Juche Tower, with its 20-meter high torch, lights up the hearts of Pyongyang residents every night while people from outside are still allowed to visit the tower, which swells like a chimney in the middle of the city.
To be continued.