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Opinion: I visited North Korea and Kim Jong Un is a recreation of the emperors who ruled Korea for centuries

Despite being a product of the Cold War and spouting Marxist and Maoist sounding jargon, Kim is far more of a recreation of the Chosun Emperors than a throwback to Joseph Stalin or Chairman Mao, writes Tom Farrell.

Tom Farrell Freelance journalist and writer based in Dublin

SOME IRISH BRANDS are everywhere. Strange as it may seem Waterford Crystal can even be found in North Korea.

The little souvenir of Ireland is found in the International Friendship Exhibition which is a massive pagoda-like structure in the mountains north of the capital Pyongyang.

The exhibition is guarded by soldiers with silver plated AK-47 (Kalashnikov) rifles.

All cameras are impounded when you go inside the exhibition but during a visit in 2012, I managed to sneak a notebook in with me.

Room after room, on multiple floors, was given over to different nations, and the elaborate gifts bestowed upon Kim Jong Un father and grandfather during state visits by foreign politicians.

The glass cabinet marked ‘Ireland’ was pretty modest compared to most nations, but the tributes were there still: crystal from the chairman of Sinn Fein, dated October 1990 and Royal Tara China from the Workers’ Party from January 1997.

As described in the 2009 book by Brian Hanley and Scott Millar Lost Revolution: the story of the Official IRA and the Workers’ Party, the Workers’ Party sent delegations to North Korea, which was then ruled by Kim’s grandfather, from the early 1980s onward.

While leaving crystal or china might seem like a standard courtesy, the paying of tributes to the leader was standard etiquette in ancient times, when Korea was a Confucian society ruled by a despotic emperor.

And despite being a product of the Cold War and spouting Marxist and Maoist sounding jargon, Kim is far more of a recreation of the Chosun Emperors who ruled Korea from 1392-1910, than a throwback to Joseph Stalin or Chairman Mao.

1928357_7601471956_5700_n (1) A typical sculpture in Pyongyang shows oppressed workers, soldiers and peasants bounding to victory against foreign aggressors.

A recent summit in Vietnam went nowhere, after grand plans to ‘de-nuclearise’ the Korean peninsula and wind down the American military presence in South Korea faltered. 

The plans had been touted for months and so it is unclear where Kim Jong Un goes next.

But one thing is certain: North Korea’s strongman intends staying in power until his gravity-defying black hair has long turned white.  

The demilitarised zone 

Independent travel to North Korea is all but impossible. Visitors are invariably assigned ‘minders.’ These make sure you don’t photograph anything unseemly.

They are also keen to impress upon you that North Korea is an island of plenty in a sea of want, constantly besieged by envious foreign aggressors. There are always at least two minders, so one can keep an eye on the other.

During a visit in the early 2000s, my minders drove me south of Pyongyang to the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), a belt of no man’s land dividing the Koreas, 4km across, 250km long.

On either side of the DMZ are some of the deadliest concentrations of pent-up firepower anywhere on the planet.

Turning off a country road, our vehicle was welcomed by a bluff and burly Colonel named Kang Ho Sok. He escorted us up a winding and wooded path to a vantage point high above the DMZ.

After passing through a small hallway, my ‘minders’ and I stepped outside to a gallery that contained a row of mounted binoculars. Sweeping below were countless hills, crusted in scrub and thickets of spruce trees. In the distance, a tank wall marked the outer limit of South Korea.

Squinting into the binoculars, I could see a fortified encampment on one hill. I could also hear words in Korean squawking out of a loudspeaker.

Through my minder, I asked Colonel Kang what was being said. He shrugged and muttered words to the effect that the South Korean loudspeakers were “too far away.”

I found this rather hard to believe. But I had a fairly good idea what I was hearing: most likely tirades on the awfulness of North Korea. After all, the North had loudspeakers on their side of the DMZ, sending similar tirades in the opposite direction.

A KPA officer stares over the DMZ into South Korea Colonel Kang Ho Sok overlooks the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) between the Koreas

Parallel History

But I’d already had a taste of North Korea’s parallel reality back in Pyongyang. The city was a ghostly grey, almost alien looking metropolis. Beneath reefs of concrete towers, the streets were almost traffic free.

The original wooden city was incinerated by US air raids during the Korean war of 1950-3.

The Victorious Fatherland War Museum in Pyongyang was devoted to that horrific conflict. Mi-G and Mustang fighters sat alongside the wreckage of B-29 bombers, captured American munitions, uniforms and all the paraphernalia of a war where Washington twice considered the use of atomic weapons, something North Korea’s rulers have never forgotten.

The piece de resistance though was a large revolving dais surrounded by life-sized reconstructions of battle.

Handsome North Korean soldiers cut down their murderous ‘Yankee imperialist’ adversaries. Communist Chinese soldiers, who saved the North Koreans from certain defeat in the winter of 1950-1 as American forces advanced north, were nowhere to be seen in the display.

Anti-US poster A North Korea propaganda poster depicts US soldiers being slaughtered

My guide was a petite lady soldier, a star on her cap. At one point I asked her how many Americans had been killed in the Korean War.

“At least 400,000,” she replied calmly.

A Google search of reputable sources will usually turn up a figure of 33,686 combat fatalities. I repeated this to the lady soldier.

“Oh no, it was 400,000,” she retorted with a pitying smile for me, the poor deluded soul that I was.

Great Leader

Like any North Korean adult over 14, the lady wore a badge bearing the grinning and spectacled face of Kim Jong Un’s grandfather Kim il-Sung, North Korea’s ‘Great Leader.’

The first Kim had been a guerrilla fighter when Korea was part of the expanding Japanese empire in the 1930s. Taken under Stalin’s wing and installed in Pyongyang in 1945, within three years he ruled North Korea, a rival to a thuggish US-backed southern dictatorship.

Although the ludicrous claim of 400,000 American dead is accompanied by claims that South Korea started the Korean War, both sides were exchanging fire across their shared border for two years before the Northern invasion of South Korea in June 1950.

While all Chinese troops had left North Korea by 1958, American troops have been in the South ever since the 1953 armistice.

Decades before North Korea’s first underground nuclear test in 2006, it was Washington, not Pyongyang that first nuclearised Korea.

That same year Chinese troops left North Korea, the Eisenhower administration abrogated the terms of the armistice to introduce nuclear capable MGR-1 surface to air missiles and M-65 Atomic Canon to South Korea. These were removed by George HW Bush in 1991.

Self Reliance

On my last visit to Pyongyang, I remember the darkened capital by night: high above unlit and unheated skyscrapers loomed the ‘Juche’ beacon, a massive tower surmounted by a glowing red torch.

The word ‘Juche’ translates roughly as ‘self-reliance’ and was first used by Kim Jong Un’s grandfather in a speech in 1955.

At the time, Kim il-Sung was reliant on aid from China and the USSR to rebuild his war-wrecked nation.

self reliance Books on a North Korean bookshelf laud Kim Jong Un's father, grandmother and grandfather. Source: Tom Farrell

But he needed a home-grown ideology to consolidate his growing personality cult, one that fell back on Confucian concepts of discipline, hierarchy and ancestor worship. An uncle of Kim was an Evangelical pastor in the 1920s when Pyongyang was called ‘the Jerusalem of the East.’

And although Christians are brutally persecuted within North Korea today, ‘Juche’ is ripe with Biblical sounding notions of tribulation, a chosen people, paradise and all redeeming saviour.

The world looked on in horror and amazement in late 2011 after the death of Kim Jong-il, under whose watch North Korea was devastated by the last great famine of the 20th century.

The snowy streets of Pyongyang became a sea of wailing, contorted faces, thousands in apparent hysterics as his funeral cortege passed.

But in a society so carefully isolated (remember they have no Internet and movement of people is controlled) the Kim dynasty built up a worldview that appealed to a people humiliated by foreign dominance and traumatised by a war that killed two million civilians.

Kim Jong Un is unlikely to deviate from the ‘Juche’ path. Negotiations on weapons or sanctions may or may not continue. At 35 he can easily play the long game.

His nuclear arsenal keeps his monuments and palaces safe, including those containing Waterford crystal. 

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About the author:

Tom Farrell  / Freelance journalist and writer based in Dublin

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