The Obsessions of Kim Jong Il

New York Times/May 19, 2003
By B.R. Myers

Seoul -- There was a time when the specter of communism frightened Americans into digging bomb shelters in their backyards. Today, improbably enough, the frequent characterization of North Korea as a Stalinist or hard-line Communist nation appears to be having a calming effect, perhaps because it evokes a happy time when all America's enemies were cold-hearted materialists who could therefore be reasoned with.

If it takes misperceptions to get everyone talking, then maybe they're not such a bad thing. But it would be dangerous for America to believe that it has negotiated successfully with Kim Jong Il's kind before. Mr. Kim is not a Stalinist in any relevant sense, and his party's "juche" ideology has nothing in common with the Soviet-style communism his father espoused during the Korean War. Granted, the red-themed birthday parades may look familiar, but the cult of the two Kims is no socialist personality cult. Stalin and Mao were revered for their perfect grasp of dialectical materialism, an omnipotent science that made them omnipotent too. Kim Jong Il and his late father, Kim Il Sung, are revered, like the monarchs they more closely resemble, for their perfect embodiment of national virtues.

Chief among these virtues is "sobak ham," a hard-to-translate Korean term that corresponds closely to the word spontaneity in its Marxist-Leninist sense. The Soviets considered the spontaneity of the common people, especially their tendency to violence, to be a dangerous force unless tempered with political consciousness. In North Korea, the people's spontaneity is seen as one of the country's greatest strengths.

North Korean novels and movies often show the hero casting off the restraints of his book learning in a fit of wild, sometimes suicidal rage against the Japanese or American enemy. This political culture induces officials to tolerate a high level of violence in daily life; North Korean refugees attest that fistfights are the accepted way for men and women to settle even minor differences. While communism was always an internationalist movement, juche (literally, self-reliance) sees the world in ethnic terms. North Korean propaganda makes no distinction between American capitalists and American workers; the entire "Yankee" race is presented as inherently evil, degenerate and ugly. Dictionaries and textbooks suggest that Americans be described with bestial attributes ("snout" for nose, for example).

The central villain of Han Sorya's novella "Jackals" (1951), the country's most enduring work of fiction, tells of an American child who beats a Korean boy so brutally that he ends up in a hospital -- where he is murdered by the American's missionary parents. Since the South Korean government began pursuing its policy of rapprochement, the North's ethnocentric world view has become even more stark; the United States is now presented as being exclusively responsible for all tensions on the peninsula.

This propaganda appears to be effective even among North Koreans opposed to the rule of Kim Jong Il. When I visited a resettlement center for refugees near Seoul last year, many of those to whom I was introduced as an American recoiled in terror or glared at me in hatred.

The glorification of spontaneous violence, sweeping hatred of the American people, and a budding nuclear capacity: the combination is liable, as P. G. Wodehouse would say, to start a train of thought. Perhaps some in Washington can sleep better by believing that Kim Jong Il has an urbane and sensible take on the political culture he inherited from his father in 1994. But none other than Mr. Kim was at the head of the party's propaganda apparatus when it went into overdrive in the mid-to late 1960's. Too much is made of his much-publicized love of pizza and Hollywood videos; while his hedonism may make him a hypocrite, it's highly unlikely that it signifies any real affection for the West.

In short, Mr. Kim stands for more than just a desire to stay in power. America should focus less on his eccentricities and more on his ideology, especially since the anti-Americanism at its core is as heartfelt and popular as the anti-Americanism that led to 9/11 and other terrorist attacks. Diplomacy cannot succeed until the Bush administration begins addressing the historical basis for this hatred. A good start would be a public apology for the excesses of the American air campaign in the Korean War: the saturation bombing of North Korean cities, the use of napalm, the attacks on irrigation dams in order to cause flooding. At the same time, President Bush should call on Mr. Kim to stop posturing about the "axis of evil" remark, which was tame compared with what North Korea's official press has been saying for the past few years about the United States, Pyongyang's main aid donor.

It is time for the president to demand that North Korea's official news media accord the same basic civility to Washington as to Seoul. In an isolated nation dominated by propaganda, this would be a significant sign that Mr. Kim is serious about wanting to improve relations. B.R. Myers, associate professor of North Korean studies at Korea University, is author of "Han Sorya and North Korean Literature."

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