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Kim Il Sung

Sometimes people complain that they were born too late; that they would have enjoyed themselves more in a bygone era. Modern life, with its endless parade of disruptive technologies, is too hectic for them. What these people need is a trip to North Korea. Things are simpler there, far simpler. They only have two television networks. One political party. And the Internet is almost nonexistent there.

North Korea is today the last of the absolute totalitarian states. The government controls everything. Any expression of dissent is illegal. All forms of religious practice are illegal. The two television networks are state-run. Access to the Internet is limited to a single government facility swarming with overseers. There are tight controls over the import of all media: books, magazines, television, movies. Every textbook, newspaper article, and news broadcast regurgitates the authorized history. Censors would only be redundant, since the entire output of the country's media is in fact commissioned or written by government officials.

It's kind of like one of those tourist villages which function as historical re-creations. Except instead of an 18th century colonial settlement, the theme concept here is a Soviet-bloc autocracy. And similar to Colonial Williamsburg's admiration for George Washington, the entire North Korean population expresses their undying devotion to Kim Il Sung, the founder of their repressive dictatorship.

  • Kim Il Sung's birthday is an official national holiday in North Korea.

  • The anniversary of his death is also an official national holiday.

  • The national flower is a hybrid orchid named "Kimilsungia."

  • Everyone -- including foreign tourists -- is required to bow down before statues of the man.

  • In print, the North Koreans refer to dates years using a calendar beginning with Kim Il Sung's birth. Thus, the year 1912 is denoted "Juche 1", 1950 is "Juche 39", and so on.

In the decade preceding World War II, Kim Il Sung led a small band of Communist guerrillas against the Japanese forces occupying Manchuria. But by 1941, the Japanese had overwhelmed the rebels. So Kim and his men retreated to Siberia, where they received espionage training from the Soviet army.

After the Japanese surrendered to Allied forces on August 15, 1945, Stalin ordered his military forces to sweep into the Korean peninsula and capture the Japanese units there. American forces were situated in the south, Soviet troops in the north. When it came time to withdraw from Korea, no agreement could be reached between Washington and the Kremlin as to what form of government would be left in place.

America insisted on a free-market democracy; the USSR demanded that it be a Communist satellite. Which is how they arrived at an arrangement worthy of King Solomon. The region would be split into two countries, separated by the 38th parallel. America would oversee the creation of South Korea and USSR would handle North Korea. Neat and tidy.

Kim Il Sung returned to Korea aboard the Soviet warship Pukachev in September 1945. The Kremlin placed Kim in charge of the provisional government, until he came to power formally as premier of the newly-formed Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) in 1948. Kim's overriding goal from the outset was reunification with the south. There was no question that this objective could be achieved only by conquest. The two Korean nations were diametrically opposed in their political principles. Under the aegis of the United States, South Korea had adopted a capitalist regime.

In March 1949, Kim began to nag Joseph Stalin for permission to invade South Korea. "We believe that the situation makes it necessary and possible to liberate the whole country through military means," Kim pleaded. Stalin disagreed, believing that the North was incapable of prevailing against their adversary. In August and September the North Koreans nagged Stalin again. He still said no. In April 1950, Kim spent the entire month in Moscow lobbying for war. Finally, Stalin agreed. And on June 25, 1950 the Korean War began.

The war lasted three years, ending inconclusively in a draw in July 1953. The border at the 38th parallel was reinforced, with U.S. troops stationed on the South Korean side. Half a million North Korean and 100,000 Chinese soldiers were killed, along with 415,004 South Koreans and 54,246 Americans. In the final analysis, the war had accomplished nothing. (Except rebuilding Japan's economy, re-arming the United States, and providing the setting for the film "M*A*S*H" and its derived television series.)

In the aftermath of the war with the South, Kim Il Sung declared happily: "In the Korean War, the U.S. imperialists suffered an ignominious military defeat for the first time in the history of the U.S." He claimed victory even though he had barely cling to power with the backing of both China and the Soviet Union. The experience had been instructive. Kim had learned two things:

  1. If you draw the U.S. into a showdown, they will eventually give in.
  2. This will grant you a major propaganda coup inside your own regime.
This tendency for brinksmanship has formed the basis for North Korea's "Fuck You" attitude toward foreign policy ever since. They pioneered a trail later followed by other enemies of the United States (such as Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein). Perhaps inevitably, Kim Il Sung embarked on a sustained program to assassinate the South Korean leadership.

On January 21, 1968, 31 men disguised in South Korean military uniforms broke into the Blue House (the South Korean equivalent of the U.S. White House). They were North Korean special forces commandos, equipped with grenades and submachine guns. Their mission was to assassinate the President of South Korea. In the resulting firefight with the South Korean defenders, one of the North Koreans was taken captive. The others were killed.

But that was just the beginning. Like an obsessive compulsive and his handwashing, Kim Il Sung could not stop himself from trying to assassinate his opponents in the South. In 1970, DPRK agents planted a bomb in South Korea's National Cemetery in an abortive effort to kill various South Korean officials. In 1974, an attempt against President Park's life failed when the assassin missed his shot, killing the First Lady instead. In 1981, North Korea paid two Canadian hitmen $600,000 to kill President Chun during his scheduled trip to the Philippines. In 1982, a North Korean agent attempted to kill Chun during a tour of African nations. In 1983, 17 South Korean diplomats were killed by another cemetery bomb, this time in Rangoon, Burma.

But Kim's crowning achievement was probably the hijacking of the USS Pueblo in January 1968. North Korea fired on and boarded the American reconnaissance vessel in international waters. It had been outfitted with antennas and signal-gathering equipment, and tasked with eavesdropping on DPRK military communications. The North Koreans captured the ship and its crew, along with sensitive mission documents and cryptographic equipment. They charged the American crewmen with spying and detained them for eleven months, until Washington finally issued a formal apology. Once again, Kim Il Sung had defied the U.S. and won.

Kim Il Sung died in July 1994. Rumor has it that he suffered a massive heart attack during an animated argument with his son, Kim Jong Il. Whatever the truth, his countrymen dutifully observed a 100-day period of mourning. After which Kim Jong Il assumed the mantle of "Great Leader" and his father was rechristened "Eternal Leader."


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