Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader

A journalist describes the "cult of personality" that has ruled over North Korea for 50 years.

| Tue Apr. 26, 2005 2:00 AM EDT

The history of North Korea has always been one of isolation—very few people enter, very few leave. In the 19th century, the entire Korean peninsula was known as "The Hermit Kingdom," because it had closed its borders to traders and missionaries from the West. Korea opened its doors briefly, and against its will, to the Japanese occupation from 1910 to 1945, only to be divided up shortly thereafter. While South Korea integrated with the rest of the developed world in the ensuing decades, the North remained isolated under Soviet occupation. Both South Korea and the United States sought to intensify this isolation, believing that it would weaken the regime. For his part, North Korea's "Fatherly Leader," Kim Il Sung, believed that sealing his country off from the rest of the world was the best way to preserve his regime and fend off the influence of foreign propaganda. As a means of holding on to power, it worked, and his son Kim Jong Il has followed his approach.

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As a result of North Korea's isolation, it's been extremely difficult to get any information about what goes on inside the country, apart from the testimonies of defectors. That's why Bradley Martin's book, Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader: North Korea and the Kim Dynasty, is so valuable. Martin, a journalist and professor, has covered North Korea for last 25 years, a lifelong project that has led to his latest book, perhaps the most comprehensive look at the country yet. "I was fascinated from the moment I set foot in Pyongyang on my first visit there in 1979," Martin says.

With the threat of a nuclear North Korea hanging over the heads of the United States, it's important to ask whether the White House really understands its adversary. Are we fully aware of the cultural and psychological factors that underpin the Kim Jong Il regime? Is the current White House approach towards North Korea the right one? In an interview with Mother Jones, Martin sat down to fill in some of the gaps in our sparse knowledge of North Korea, and propose alternatives to our current way of dealing with the country.

Mother Jones: Can you explain how Soviet influences, xenophobia, and other factors came together to create North Korea's unique brand of nationalism?

Bradley K. Martin: It all came together gradually. I don't think Kim Il Sung was xenophobic in 1945. He was a nationalist, with Stalin as his model. He wanted to be the man fully in charge of his people. But anti-Stalinist movements in the Soviet Union in the 1950s and 60s spurred Kim Il Sung to distance himself from his Soviet masters, and he succeeded in this partly by positioning himself between the Soviet Union and China. He used the tension between the two countries to build independence from both.

MJ: In what ways was Kim Il Sung's "personality cult" in North Korea a sort of religion?

BM: Everybody in North Korea is indoctrinated from birth to believe in the tenets of the personality cult. They believe that Kim Il Sung is somehow above the common law of humanity, a special breed, a special kind of being deserving of worship. In that sense, it is very much like the worship of the Judeo-Christian or Muslim God. It is also quite similar to the post-1868 Meiji regime in Japan, which appropriated the Shinto faith and used it to build a state religion focused on the emperor. Kim was part of the Japanese empire and saw this along with the Christian rites that he attended as a child.

Kim Il Sung's father was an organist, his mother a devout Christian. If you look at North Korean propaganda about Kim Il Sung, the pictures that they draw are often very similar to the pictures that I saw as a Sunday school pupil in the southern Baptist church when I was growing up of Jesus and the little children. He rejected Christianity but he certainly didn't reject the idea of these totems, these icons, these methods of getting people fired up about a supernatural figure. It is not all that uncommon that people grow up in one religion and use the trappings of it to build a new one themselves. Stalin was a seminarian who attended a Russian Orthodox Church.

MJ: It's amazing how he got such a strong universal following in his country.

BM: The indoctrination was relentless. Those who didn't like it and were foolish enough to let it be known were either exiled to the poor mountainous regions or sent to concentration camps. Everybody who has not been removed from society buys into the ideology, some with extreme fanaticism and others with more opportunism. When Kim Il Sung died, people were crying and weeping. One of my defectors told me that if you didn't cry enough you were punished. Most people's beliefs in North Korea are based somewhere between coercion and will. Some actually do feel the need to weep, the hysteria. Others felt like if they didn't weep, they would be punished.

MJ: What are some of the key pillars of Kimilsungism?

BM: The key belief is called juche. One aspect of it is economic self-sufficiency, but it essentially means Korean-ness. North Korea has tried to export this ideology through seminars all over the world, and there may even be a few places where people have actually tried to translate it into their own local needs, but it is so nationalistic at its core that it hasn't had much success.

MJ: Are other religions allowed in North Korea?

BM: The one religion that is tolerated is called Chundo. Chundoism is a locally created nationalistic religion founded in the early 20th century. It fits really well with juche, and the people who profess Chundoism are given a special status among religious believers in North Korea.

Other religions have not been allowed, although the regime now claims that they are. The government has built several churches, but these are apparently only for show to foreigners. The generation of people who were raised religious before the regime began has mostly died out. A group took me once to what they called a home church. All the people there were middle-aged and older. I later found out that, since children are encouraged to snoop on their parents, it's dangerous to share beliefs remotely different from the regime with one's kids.

There's a fair amount of evidence that people are still persecuted rather severely for their religion. Religious international human rights groups claim that there's a great deal of persecution going on. On the other hand, those groups are also promoting greater evangelization of the North Korean people, so their claims are sometimes dubious.

MJ: Both Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il seem to have successfully branded themselves as the "fatherly" figures with whom the people of North Korea have an interdependent relationship. Does this parallel the Asian concept of children taking care of their parents?

BM: That's right. This is the concept that Kim Jong Il pushed. Basically, they turned Soviet Communism on its head. Stalin was supposed to be the instrument of the working class, whereas in North Korea, by the time they got done with the ideology, everything else was there to serve the leader. Confucianism is really deeply engrained in the hearts and minds of North Koreans, and it offers an extremely hierarchical, family-oriented way of looking at the world.

MJ: Did you see any societal changes over the course of your four visits between 1979 and 2000?

BM: I did see some changes. During the first visit, people seemed to be totally locked down. They had been so prepared for us. There were actors pretending to be ordinary people, playing in the park, and riding on the subway. People would reply only robotically to questions posed. In 1979, North Korean authorities didn't mind being portrayed in that fashion. It all fit in with their unitary way of thinking. By 1989, people seemed to loosen up a bit. One high-ranking official told me that he didn't like how the Westerners called them robots, that they have their own feelings too. There was also a change in how the ideology viewed private enterprise. It was in 1992 that I started to see signs that the regime was thinking of encouraging more market-oriented ways of economic organization. By 2000, of course, they were well along that path. It was in the late 90s that they seemed to have decided that they were going to try to change the economic system and make the ideology conform to those changes.

MJ: Have they been successful at economic reorganization?

BM: No, they have not. They've done it all under duress. They simply had to change it because the Soviet Union collapsed, and their trading system broke down. North Korea was one of the last of the die-hard communist countries, so when their fraternal trading system with the rest of the Communist bloc broke down, it was eventually forced to adjust. Kim Jong Il himself came up as a strong ideological communist, but by his middle years, he had begun questioning whether the system was going to work well or not. He noticed that in foreign countries, service workers were much more responsive than in North Korea because they had incentives. He had begun to think about this, but he did not have the power to change the system until three years after his father died in 1994. His claim to leadership was not his blood ties but that he was the most loyal to Kim Il Sung, and this limited him a lot in terms of what he could do to change the policies and the ideology. In 1998, he began to actually show some signs of changing the system in a more drastic way.

U.S. sanctions pose a huge obstacle to major change. The U.S. is the market that everyone wants to be in. Our national habit is to shop 'til we drop, so if you can't sell to the U.S., then you're at a huge disadvantage. If we wanted to just turn them into a market economy, we could just offer them complete access to our Wal-Marts, and that might make a really big change in their mentality.

MJ: It sounds like Kim Jong Il is actually pretty rational and reasonable, in thinking about balancing loyalty to the ideology with the country's economic interests. Is he really evil and crazy?

BM: Kim Jong Il not an irrational, insane person. He's allegedly guilty of some very cruel acts, and we'll have to wait and see whether those things are true or not. But I don't see any evidence that he wants to kill off his own people, or that he's guilty of "systematic starvation," as Washington likes to call it. The policies have been bad, but his failure to convert to capitalism does not translate into systematic starvation. I believe the country coped within its own parameters. Andrew Natsios of U.S.AID calls this policy "triage" to describe how the ruling class and the military were prioritized when parceling out food rations. I suppose something like that may have happened.

His father did have a rule that three generations of the family of factionalists – those who disagreed with Kim Il Sung – would be rooted out. Many people were sent to concentration camps along with their parents and their children. Quite a lot of people died of overwork, disease, malnutrition, or were killed when trying to escape. The camps still exist, although some have been closed in response to world outrage under Kim Jong Il's rule. To me, that's a positive sign—it means we can get to him, and that if we played the cards right, we might persuade him to close the rest of them. There is an effort underway in Washington to make Kim Jong Il out as a Hitler figure. I don't think he's a very nice guy, I would not like to live under his governance, and I suppose there are quite a few North Koreans that would like to get rid of him. But I don't see him as a Hitler.

MJ: What is wrong with the way the U.S. is currently approaching North Korea?

BM: If our aim is to halt nuclear proliferation, then I think we have made some mistakes. The original 1994 Agreed Framework was working. The plutonium weapons development program was frozen, and we had control over it. But the North Koreans had a smaller program involving uranium enrichment, and when that was discovered, the Bush administration made such a stink about it that the North Koreans unfroze the plutonium program—which is the really dangerous one—and evidently have been building weapons with that since. North Korea has been our enemy for almost 60 years, since the Cold War began, and we shouldn't be surprised when our enemy sells what they've got to our other enemies.

It's pretty dangerous not to deal with that, so my proposal is that we say, is there some way we can actually be friends with this country, and use this influence as friends to try to deal with the human rights abuses? Our first impulse has been to say, this is a really bad regime, so we should go ahead and go to war. But is that going to solve anything? North Korea has a porcupine strategy. It has an enormous military, over a million men, it has artillery ready to destroy the city of Seoul, and it has tunneled military facilities throughout the country. It does not seem like war should be our first choice. What about more sanctions? The North Korean response to sanctions would be that the whole population would be outraged, their hatred and military morale would increase, and everybody would march off and fight if they were instructed to do so. I'm not sure that that's the answer either.

Do we try for regime change? A lot of people in the administration want to do that. Well, we cannot call the shots. And we don't know who would replace Kim Jong Il. There are worse people in the military than him. We really should be careful about trying to control other countries through regime change.

Our president and John Bolton, the nominee for UN ambassador, are uttering very strong words publicly against the Kim Jong Il regime. It would be a good idea to calm down the rhetoric and see if it's possible, through respectful interaction, to work out a deal that would satisfy both sides. We don't have any profound difference of interest—the North Koreans are not about to take over the world, their ideology is not very exportable, and it's just a tiny country. What is to prevent us from just making friends with them and saying, look, we're your friends, now will you just treat your people better, because it's embarrassing for us to have a friend like you who doesn't treat its people better? We have more serious enemies in other parts of the world. If we don't at least try this approach, we're making a big mistake.

MJ: Does Kim Jong Il want peaceful diplomacy with the U.S.?

BM: I'm sure that he would like to have a deal with us. Imagine you were Kim Jong Il, you wake up every morning and you realize that you're targeted by the world's sole superpower. And as soon as they can develop a smart bomb that's smart enough, it'll come down a hole and kill you.

MJ: In an interview you did with the Tavis Smiley show on NPR, you said, "If anybody can resolve (the North Korean nuclear) situation on behalf of the U.S., it's probably a Republican administration." Why?

BM: Any Democrat who tried to do it would be pilloried by the right as a communist sympathizer and a toady and would never get away with it. If Kerry had been elected and tried to form an alliance with North Korea, this would have just been laughed out by the right wing. But if somebody comes from the right and does this, that becomes more acceptable. The example, of course, is Nixon going to China to normalize relations—because he was one of the leading red-baiters in Congress, the right shut up and stood still for it.

MJ: Can the Bush administration do something similar with North Korea?

BM: They could if they wanted to. They just appointed John Bolton as UN ambassador, which suggests that they're going to take a different approach, and that is to try to get the UN to put more sanctions on North Korea. I don't think this will work. So I'm not optimistic that they'll do it.

MJ: Does the U.S. understand the Confucian ideals that are part of North Korean culture?

BM: No, we're not good at that at all. A lot of this would have to be done delicately by someone of considerable maturity. I think the ideal person to handle this for President Bush would be his father. He would be treated with respect by Kim Jong Il because he's old and a former president. He was ambassador to China and director of the CIA. He has not been publicly quoted as saying things like "axis of evil" and "loathsome pigmy." He could smooth the way for his son if his son called upon him, and could also move rather secretly, like Kissinger did in China.

MJ: You say that if the U.S. wants to fight a war with North Korea, we should be fighting an information war. How would such an information war be fought?

BM: Slowly, for one thing. One huge weapon that the North Korean ruler has is the single-mindedness of a highly indoctrinated population. The idea of an information war is to accelerate the efforts to change the minds of the people and take them off the side of the leadership. Currently the U.S. is sending broadcasts in Korean through Radio Free Asia and Voice of America, and there's a new law that will permit dropping some radio receivers over there.

MJ: What do you think will happen if and when there is a handoff of power to Kim Jong Il's son?

BM: Eventually, if they maintain their regime long enough, there will be a succession, and he seems to have signaled that it would be one of his children. Some of them have been educated in Switzerland, and some of them are linguists, as opposed to Kim Jong Il, who refused to go to school abroad. His children are really cosmopolitan in comparison. Also, Kim Jong Il has spoken favorably of the limited constitutional monarchies in Thailand and Sweden. A combination of succession by one of these cosmopolitan youngsters and a shift to a more limited type of rule with greater democratic participation might not be a bad thing for the country. It might be a whole lot better than having some isolated and reclusive zealot coming in from the military.

MJ: If the U.S. does take a more conciliatory approach to North Korea, do you think North Korea will respond in an amenable way?

BM: More or less. Of course, we would need to build in all sorts of verifications on the crucial issue of proliferation. We would need to have a very thorough system of inspection and monitoring to make sure that they don't go out and sell this stuff.

MJ: Do you think the opening up of North Korea and reunification with the South, if and when it happens, will go smoothly?

BM: If North Korea were suddenly merged with South Korea now, it would be a horrible disaster. The North Koreans are not at all ready to be part of the same kind of society as the South. The South Koreans know this; they do not want reunification right now. They cannot afford to pay welfare to all these people and keep them happy by providing them with decent jobs. The best solution from the point of view of the South Koreans is for North Korea to reduce its military spending, focus on its economy, and have many years of the kind of rapid growth that brought South Korea to where it is today. Then you'll have two countries that can talk to each other a whole lot better. If North Korea could divert some of its enormous military expenditures on building a market economy, then it could get much closer to the point where reunification would be possible.

MJ: But they won't do that until the U.S. stops threatening them.

BM: No, of course not. Kim Jong Il knows very well that he would be dead meat if the people in Washington had the tools, they'd use them on him personally.

MJ: You've outlined possible solutions to the North Korea situation. How likely is it that the U.S. will actually follow your guidelines?

BM: Washington is a place that gets consumed with its own concepts of what's happening in the world, and people just all charge off in the same direction. The present mindset is hatred of North Korea and the push for regime change. I gave the example earlier of Nixon in China, but Bush wants to be Reagan at the Berlin Wall. Bush and the people around him have this dream of becoming democratic liberators. Is it practical? I have a lot of doubt about that.