Hagiography of the Kims & the Childhood of Saints: Kim Il-sung

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Kim Il-sung as a child, with his parents. The “Mad Men” of Kim Family hagiography would go to great literary and imaginary lengths to depict this family as the revolutionary founders of the modern Korean nation. | Image: KCNA

In his previous essay for Sino-NK, Christopher Richardson delved into the childhood hagiography of Kim Jong-il, discovering in the manger a “heaven-sent boy” destined to become a General. In this rousing sequel (or is that prequel?), Richardson explores the childhood hagiography of Kim Il-sung, “the master narrative from which all others derive.” From the depths of antiquity to intimations of the future, Richardson explores the role of narrative in the construction of state power in the DPRK, before ruminating upon the nature of totalitarian control in a changing information environment. — Steven Denney, Managing Editor

Hagiography of the Kims & the Childhood of Saints: Kim Il-sung

by Christopher Richardson

“For he is our childhood’s pattern / Day by day, like us He grew…”
— Once In Royal David’s City

In the Beginning: From Genesis to Kim Il-sung | In 1994, as the country descended into famine, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) spent millions of dollars raising a ziggurat atop the Mausoleum of Tangun, founder of the Kojoson Dynasty. Despite the dubious nature of any claims made about a man more shrouded in antiquity than Moses or Lycurgus, there were urgent reasons why it was deemed necessary to commemorate the life of a lawgiver whose reign began in 2333 BC. Unlike later Korean kingdoms, Tangun’s capital was close to Pyongyang. Seoul would have the honor of being capital of Choson, reigning over a united Peninsula for half a millennium until the late 19th Century. And so, in 1994, as the Republic of Korea blazed ahead in the battle for economic and political legitimacy on the Peninsula, the DPRK reached into the past to claim a still greater legitimacy, that of the foundation myth of the Korean nation itself.

It was said Tangun’s father had come to earth from Heaven near holy Mount Paektu, a place later claimed the birthplace of Kim Jong-il, and site of Kim Il-sung’s base of operations for his anti-Japanese guerrilla struggle, despite–as we have seen–all evidence to the contrary. The Dangi Calendar marked time from the founding of Kojoson, but Kim Il-sung’s Korea would come to be dated in the years from his own birth. The now familiar Juche calendar, inaugurated in 1997, recalculated time from the year Kim Il-sung came to earth from Heaven, in 1912. Greater still than Tangun, time did not wait until he had commenced his earthly reign. Like some ancient creation myth newly minted, time itself began, or was renewed, with the birth of Kim Il-sung.

Equally importantly, in 1994 the renovation of Tangun’s Tomb coincided with another multi-million dollar post-mortem renovation, of the Kumsusan Memorial Palace, in which the newly deceased Great Leader would soon be embalmed and displayed, focal point for the preservation of the charismatic authority of the soon to be Eternal President. Creation, decay, rebirth, and eternal life, woven like a thread through Korean time, reaching its apotheosis in Kim Il-sung. The first birth of the Korean race and its renaissance in the Family Kim would be inextricably bound.

The Mausoleum of Tangun, the alleged progenitor of the Korean nation. | Image: KCNA

The Mausoleum of Tangun, the alleged progenitor of the Korean nation. | Image: KCNA

Sun of the East: The Rebirth of a Nation | Yet before he could become a god, Kim Il-sung was born a man named Kim Song-ju. Whilst those gathered at his son’s nativity beneath Mount Paektu at once perceived his birth miraculous, Kim Il-sung’s hagiography describes a more conventional journey from infancy to adolescence. Indeed, for all its revolutionary excesses, the Great Leader’s hagiography is vastly more sophisticated than Kim Jong-il’s, and even–at times–reaches for something resembling verisimilitude. As we shall see, in constructing a new mythology for Kim Jong-un, the state appears to be indulging–perhaps fatally–the extravagances of his father’s bloated biography, at a time when North Koreans are, more than ever, equipped to see through the holograms of power projected from Pyongyang. But before we consider how the erosion of the Kim Family’s mastery of narrative might shape the Korean future, let us return to the revolution’s genesis, exploring in detail the infancy narrative of Kim Il-sung. We do not yet know how and when the song will end, but we know how it began. With a child born on April 15, 1912.

The birth of Kim Song-ju coincided with the zenith of Western and Japanese imperialism. In 1912, as he explains in the first volume of his eight-volume memoir, Reminiscences: With the Century, “successive sensational events took place in many parts of the world.” [1] Including, of course, his birth. In a litany of colonial crimes, Kim recalls how “a US marine corps landed in Honduras, France made Morocco its protectorate and Italy occupied the Rhodes of Turkey.”[2] Closer to home, he laments, “Korea was going through the bitterest period of its national tragedy. Before my birth my country had been reduced to the colony of Japan.”[3] Like the nativity of Christ in the time of Herod and Caesar Augustus, Kim is born into a bloody vortex of native feudalism and foreign imperialism. From the opening lines of Kim’s memoir Korean history is divided, into an era before his birth, a time of subjugation and national humiliation, and a time to come, the era of his anti-Japanese guerrilla struggle and redemption of the Korean race.

Portentously, Kim Il-sung’s birth coincided with an omen of imperialism’s doom, the day Titanic disappeared beneath the waters of the North Atlantic. Capitalizing on the coincidence, Jang Jin-sung recalls how, “Section 1 [of the United Front Department] explained that, ‘As the Sun set in the West, it rose in the East.’”[4] In North Korea’s revolutionary cosmology, there is no such thing as chance. There is only destiny.

According to Kim Il-sung, his great-grandfather Kim Ung U moved from North Jeolla Province, settling his family in Pyongyang. For generations his family labored there, in Mangyongdae, farmers and grave keepers on the land of Ri Phyong Thaek. Their suffering would come to symbolize the Korean nation under feudalism and Japanese imperialism, Kim describing them as “the epitome of the misfortune and distress that befell our people after they lost their country.”[5] As every visitor to the DPRK is well aware, Kim’s home in Mangyongdae remains a place of pilgrimage for North Koreans, indeed for all who visit Pyongyang. A Russian child named Alexei Morozov, camping at the Songdowon International Schoolchildren’s Camp in 2013, is alleged to have visited Mangyongdae, where he proclaimed with impeccable orthodoxy:

Mangyongdae is a holy land where the great sun rose. Kim Il-sung was born at the low-roofed thatched house and grew up, receiving revolutionary education from his parents. He liberated the country and made a great contribution to accomplishing the socialist cause. His feats will shine forever.

Perhaps shackled by the limitations of memoir, even a hagiographic one, Kim Il-sung’s childhood reminiscences lurch from affectations of modesty to statements of eye-watering self-aggrandizement. In his preface, for example, the Great Leader claims that, “I have never considered my life to be extraordinary,” a mere two pages after declaring, “my whole life… is the epitome of the history of my country and my people.”[6] The literary technique of epitome is central to the construction of hagiography. On another occasion, Kim Il-sung insists he was born into “a poor family that was not particularly outstanding or remarkable,” before proceeding to pen a lengthy paean to their revolutionary exploits. Kim even insists it was his own great-grandfather who led the attack on the General Sherman, when it sailed the Taedong into Pyongyang in 1866, achieving one of Korea’s first great victories against Western economic and military might.[7] Thus emerges an uneasy tension between the hagiography’s imperative to sustain a distinction between Korean time before and after Kim Il-sung, with a desire to insist he had, in fact, descended from a long line of revolutionaries. Indeed, the hagiography is careful not to attribute to Kim’s ancestors glories exceeding his own. Instead, like heroes and heroines of the Old Testament, their deeds foreshadow the greater one to come.

International Campers at Mangyongdae | Image: KCNA

International Campers at Mangyongdae | Image: KCNA

To Grow Up Quickly: Like Father, Like Son | Unsurprisingly, in a revolutionary mythology preoccupied with the transfer of authority along patrilineal lines, the greatest influence upon the young Kim Il-sung is his father, Kim Hyong-jik. A charismatic teacher and self-taught physician, Kim Hyong-jik becomes a prophetic figure in the history of his nation. Just as Moses draws final breath within sight of the Promised Land, so Kim Hyong-jik does not live to see Korea free with his own eyes, dying just across the river in Manchuria. Yet his own struggle lays the foundation of his son’s victories against Japan, raising an heir who will return as savior to a liberated homeland. Unlike the relationship between Kim Jong-il and Kim Il-sung in the Dear Leader’s hagiography, Confucian norms are strictly adhered to, the son always learning from the father, not the other way around. Whether this would have continued had Kim Hyong-jik not died at a convenient moment for the hagiography is uncertain.

Setting the pattern for his own heirs to emulate, Kim Il-sung was a precocious child, prepared for his vocation from a tender age. At five, he recalls:

One day [my mother] took me to the Swing Park on Mangyong Hill. As she sat on the swing holding me in her arms, she said… “You must grow up quickly and take revenge on the enemy… you must grow up to be a hero and win back the country.” I answered that I would do so, come what may.[8]

The child playing on a swing in his mother’s arms, vowing to defeat the forces of imperialism–there could be no clearer distillation of North Korean children’s culture, rehearsed to this day via the Korean Children’s Union, and military games in which toddlers and primary school students eviscerate effigies of American and Japanese imperialists. In the revolutionary imagination there exists no dichotomy between warriors and innocents.

Whilst still only five, the young Kim has a further political awakening, visiting his father in a Japanese prison. Quick to learn who and how to hate, he recalls how, “the physical wounds to my father made me feel to the marrow of my bones how fiendish was Japanese imperialism.”[9] The more wicked the tactics of Imperial Japan, the more the young boy’s anguish transforms into revolutionary zeal. When his father is released the following year, the young Kim defies the threat of captivity and torture, and at six-years-old “resolved to follow my father in the fight to destroy the Japanese imperialists.”[10]

Now We Are Six: Kim Il-sung & the March 1st Movement | In the hands of less astute hagiographers, a North Korean history of the March 1st Movement of 1919 might have presented a challenge to the national mythology, in which the liberation of Korea from Japanese control would become the singular achievement of Kim Il-sung and his revolutionaries. Instead, the six-year-old Great Leader simply storms into the fray. As he recalls:

I, then six years old, also joined the ranks of demonstrators in my worn-out shoes and went as far as the Pothong Gate, cheering… when the adults cheered for independence, I joined them. The enemy used swords and guns indiscriminately against the masses… many people were killed…. This was the first time I saw one man killing another. This was the day when I witnessed Korean blood being spilled for the first time. My young heart burned with indignation.[11]

It is, without doubt, an extraordinary portrait, reading more like the memoir of a campus radical, than the recollections of a six-year-old child. As Kim adds:

The shouts for independence which echoed to the whole world… continued ringing in my ears throughout the summer. Those cheers made me mature at an early age. In the street in front of the Pothong Gate, where I witnessed the fierce struggle between the demonstrating masses and the armed policemen, my world outlook leapt into a new phase. It can be said that my childhood ended as I shouted for independence standing on tiptoe squeezed in between the adults.[12]

From that point, the Kim Family’s instinctive resistance to Japanese imperialism becomes increasingly bound to the political vision articulated by the Soviet Union. Kim Il-sung recalls his father’s realization that, “the national liberation movement in our country should shift from a nationalist movement to a communist movement.”[13] Instead of bedtime stories of old Korea, his father teaches Kim of Lenin and the October Revolution.[14]

In a series of semi-comic interludes, the young Kim Il-sung scores early victories against the enemy, setting the model for countless juvenile heroes in North Korean children’s literature. For instance, he recalls, “wrestling with a Japanese boy bigger than me who I got down with a belly throw. If a Japanese boy bullied Korean children, I would not let him get away with it.”[15] In other acts of resistance, Kim lines roads with spikes to tear the wheels of Japanese police bicycles, whilst with a knife defacing Japanese primary school textbooks in protest at Tokyo’s linguistic imperialism.[16] Rather more seriously, whilst joining his family in Manchurian exile, an eight-year-old Kim Il-sung runs gunpowder and ammunition behind enemy lines, avoiding detection by imperial police and customs officers.[17] Indeed, in time, Kim claims, he became known as “the head of the village children.”[18] Such antics are undoubtedly exaggerated, yet the hagiography is careful to limit Kim Il-sung’s proto-guerrilla struggle to plausible feats of childhood derring-do. Unlike Kim Jong-il, he is not depicted as a Napoleonic genius at ten.

Kim Il-sung as a teenager, lecturing his comrades about proper revolutionary etiquette. | Image: KCNA

A young Kim Il-sung, lecturing his comrades. | Image: KCNA

The Hero with a Thousand Ri Journey: On the Road to Liberation | Aged eleven, Kim Hyong-jik sends his son on an odyssey that will define the young revolutionary, forming one of the central events of Kim Il-sung’s hagiography, and a key event in North Korea’s national mythology. Having spent several years in exile in Manchuria, the boy embarks on a thousand-ri journey back to Korea, returning to his hometown of Mangyongdae. With only a hand-drawn map in his pocket, he journeys across the Yalu River, through snowstorms, “over steep, craggy mountains that were virtually uninhabited… [where] even in full daylight beasts of prey prowled about the woods.”[19] The boy suffers injury, hunger, and the terror of a nation besieged. Yet he also encounters acts of kindness from strangers, in a series of parable-like meetings, from Koreans united in a common hatred of Japan. Thus, Kim Il-sung joins a long list of literary and historical heroes seeking enlightenment upon the road.

Two years later, his father again arrested by the Japanese, Kim makes the journey back to Manchuria. By the time the thirteen-year-old boy reaches the Yalu at the end of his second thousand-ri journey, he is transformed. As he recalls:

My desire to liberate my country as quickly as possible and turn everything into ours, into Korea’s, burned in my heart.… I looked back at the mountains in the motherland over and again with sorrow and indignation. I thought: My dear Korea, I am leaving you. I know I cannot live even for a moment away from you, but I am crossing the Amnok [Yalu] to win you back.… Wait for me, my Korea.… Picturing in my mind the miserable reality of the motherland, I made a grim resolve not to return before Korea had become independent.[20]

From that moment, his destiny is written. In Manchuria, the young man sits at Kim Hyong-jik’s bedside, receiving from his dying father the gift of pistols that will become a symbol of Kim Family power to the present day. But before he dies, Kim Hyong-jik imparts a final lesson to his son, now fourteen-year-old:

Wherever he may go, a revolutionary must always be prepared for three contingencies. He must be prepared for death from hunger, death from a beating and death from cold; yet he must stick to the high aim he set himself at the outset.[21]

Thus fulfilling his prophetic role, Kim Hyong-jik dies, “under the small roof of a hut in a foreign land, hundreds of miles away from his home, grieving over his lost country.” With his last breath he issues a lament and a command, saying: “I am departing without attaining my aim. But I believe in you. You must not forget that you belong to the country and the people. You must win back your country at all costs, even if your bones are broken and your bodies are torn apart.”[22]

Kim Il-sung, during one of his thousand-ri trips. | Image: KCNA

Kim Il-sung, during one of his thousand-ri trips. | Image: KCNA

Despite his father’s rousing words, Kim Il-sung is still too young, at fourteen, to lead a guerrilla war that many North Koreans, until recently, could still recall from living memory. So before Kim’s war begins, the hagiography permits him time to study in Manchuria, albeit in a Middle School transformed into a revolutionary Hogwarts. As Dae-sook Suh explains, one of many relics from Kim’s early life displayed in Pyongyang is a report card from the Japanese consul-general’s office in Jilin, recording the Great Leader’s membership of a communist youth group at Yuwen Middle School. It is a rare moment in the hagiography of Kim Il-sung where history and mythology align, although Suh disputes the extent to which Kim was the mastermind behind this movement.[23]

Even today, the legend of Yuwen Middle School endures. During Kim Jong-il’s state visit to China in September 2010 he detoured to Jilin, undertaking a pilgrimage to his father’s school. There, according to state television, the Dear Leader became “immersed in thoughts while looking at the precious historic objects that contain the bodily odor of our Supreme Leader from his school years some eighty years back.”[24] It was an exquisite act of political theatre. Only days later, returning to Pyongyang, Kim Jong-il revealed that Kim Jong-un would be his young successor. In his pilgrimage to Yuwen, Kim Jong-il had made two key statements: honoring the revolutionary achievements of Kim Il-sung from his own earliest age, whilst challenging those who feared Kim Jong-un might be disadvantaged by his youth. On the contrary, his father seemed to be saying, it might yet prove his advantage.[25]

A young Kim Il-sung, lecturing his comrades. | Image: KCNA

A young Kim Il-sung, lecturing his comrades at Yuwen Middle School in Jilin. | Image: KCNA

Beloved & Venerated Leader: Kim Jong-un & The North Korean Future | To this day, the childhood hagiography of the Great Leader remains one of the key didactic tools of the North Korean state. The stories of his childhood resound from the walls of “Kim Il-sung Research Institutes” in schools, to the books children enjoy, to the texts electronically loaded on their Samjiyeon tablets. As Kang Chol-hwan explains in The Aquariums of Pyongyang, even his school inside the gulag contained a shrine to the life of Kim Il-sung. He recalls how, “it was forbidden for anyone to enter the room with bare or dirty feet. We had to wear socks–and not just any socks. For this occasion we had to put on the special socks given to us on Kim Il-sung’s birthday, the pair reserved for visiting the holy sites.”[26] Even in the depths of winter, the room was heated, Kang noting, “we and our parents could damn well freeze to death, but Kim Il-sung’s relics, posters, and pictures needed always to stay warm.”[27] Such rooms are a familiar fixture on the tourist circuit through the DPRK, albeit those at Pyongyang Middle School No. 1, not Yodok. Legislating not only correct thought, but correct practice, children still recreate the thousand-ri march of the young Kim Il-sung, constituting a crucial element of their physical and revolutionary formation. As Kim Yong recalls:

Children participated in the walking pilgrimage every year – the same distance our leader had covered in his journey at our age. We would post revolutionary maxims of the Great Leader on the knapsack of the student walking in front, so that we could walk and learn at the same time.… It was a great festival for all, even though by the end of the march, our feet were raw and our toenails bruised. But if out Great Leader had done it, so must we – so must all of us if we were to carry out his great legacy and fulfill his wish to unify Korea.[28]

In early 2013, the state disseminated a biography of its new young leader, The Childhood of Beloved and Venerated Leader, Kim Jong-un, replacing another deemed a failure. According to a source from North Hamgyong Province:

Koreans are anxious to read the new book following a blunder in another textbook… used by an elite high school and withdrawn due to “distorted propaganda”… Kim Jong-un’s Childhood, used at the North Korean capital’s Pyongyang Kum Song High School attended by children of high-ranking officials, was withdrawn following criticism that it “distorted and exaggerated” the leader’s growing-up years.…There has been strong criticism about the distorted propaganda of Kim Jong-un’s past.… The regime revised it so ordinary people could accept it.

Despite this setback, the process of constructing Kim Jong-un’s childhood hagiography continues. In 2014, South Korean broadcaster KBS acquired a high school syllabus, revealing North Korean students had commenced a three-year course on the early life of Kim Jong-un. Korean Central Television broadcast a documentary about the leader as a boy, whilst images of the sainted youth were projected as a backdrop to a concert of the Moranbong Band in Pyongyang. In a vision redolent of his father, Kim was presented wearing a miniature uniform of the Korean People’s Army, the documentary emphasizing his “pistol marksmanship at the ripe age of three and his mastery of seven languages.… Kim discovered new geographical features… when he was in his teens, and was a scholar of the achievements of famous generals from around the world.” The message here is clear. Like his father and grandfather before him, Kim Jong-un has been blessed from childhood with a precocious intellect, messianic destiny, and a readiness to advance the revolution at the barrel of a gun.

Kim Jong-un as a child, being taught the ways of a revolutionary. | Image: KCNA

Kim Jong-un as a child, being taught the ways of a revolutionary leader. Or at least dressing like one. | Image: KCNA

Ambiguities of Domination: Reflections & Revelations | If the claims of North Korea’s childhood hagiographies defy the scientific rationalism of socialist modernity and Marxism-Leninism upon which the DPRK was ostensibly founded, what is the ultimate purpose of this instrument? On the one hand, Brian Myers argues in The Cleanest Race that, “while Stalin’s biography… charts the usual socialist realist transition from an unruly childhood to a perfect synthesis of spontaneity and consciousness, [Kim Il-sung’s] life story celebrates the total victory of ‘truly Korean’ qualities.”[29] Yet, on the other hand, he insists, “the propaganda apparatus in Pyongyang has generally been careful not to make claims that run directly counter to its citizens’ experience or common sense.”[30] This seems far from certain.

Herself educated in North Korean schools in Japan, Sonia Ryang proposes that Kim Il-sung, “is seen as the utmost form of existence that every North Korean is supposed to emulate (although everyone at the same time knows that it would not be possible to do so).”[31] The state thus locates its citizens in a space of perpetual striving to meet an unattainable goal. Or, as Jang Jin-sung writes, “[O]ur General’s life is a continuous series of blessed miracles, incapable of being matched even by all our mortal lifetimes put together.”[32] This is undoubtedly true, pointing us to the ultimate purpose of North Korea’s extravagant hagiography, whilst exposing the very nature of totalitarian control.

Lisa Wedeen’s Ambiguities of Domination, a study of the personality cult of Hafiz al-Assad, illuminates the nature of Syrian power. Wedeen describes how the Ba’ath Party ritually bestowed preternatural abilities upon Hafez al-Assad, abilities that would be expected to strain credulity, yet once seemed accepted without question by a majority of Syria’s population. Importantly, Wedeen concludes that the bewildering mendacity of Syrian propaganda did not denote the failure of the regime’s imagination, betraying the unsophisticated minds of unsubtle propagandists. On the contrary, Wedeen concludes that the power of the regime’s control of narrative lay precisely in its nonsensical nature, and that this was consciously cultivated, arguing that, “the regime produces compliance through enforced participation in rituals of obeisance that are transparently phony, both to those who orchestrate them and to those who consume them. Assad’s cult operates as a disciplinary device, generating a politics of public dissimulation in which citizens act as if they revere their leader.”[33] In other words, the greater the lie the population is compelled to consume and repeat, the greater the grip of the state on its people. Fundamentally, as Wedeen continues, “Assad is powerful because his regime can compel people to say the ridiculous and to avow the absurd.”[34] It would be an understatement to suggest this is also true of the DPRK.

Jang Jin-sung’s Dear Leader bears witness to the existence of a political and literary elite in Pyongyang, contriving such myths for mass consumption. These are not ancient holy texts whose authorship is lost in time. Indeed, if North Korean state mythology resembles elements of organized religion, it is more like Scientology, than Christianity, Hinduism, or Islam. As Jang explains, the Great Leader’s own beloved memoir was, in fact, “compiled by a group of First Class novelists from the April 15 Literary Group,” a team of men “whose remit is the revolutionary history of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il.”[35] Indeed, many of the archetypal tropes of North Korean history were developed, not by scholars, but by novelists. As Brian Myers explains, Han Sorya’s novel, titled–ironically enough–History, “was the first long work of fiction to deal with the guerrilla struggle of Kim Il-sung.”[36] Yet it was only after Han’s purge in 1962-1963 that Kim insisted hagiography be compiled in groups like those Jang Jin-sung describes. Following Han’s purge, the state, as Myers notes, was “determined never again to link its legitimatory myths to the name of a single writer.”[37] Thus was born a tradition of revolutionary “Mad Men,” an elite group of writers all too aware of the concocted nature of North Korean history and hagiography… because they were the ones concocting it. In a bleakly funny anecdote, Jang Jin-sung recalls a conversation with another writer, composing the childhood hagiography of Kim Il-sung described above. To Jang he remarks:

You’re the youngest here. Let me ask you something. Our Supreme Leader was born on 15 April 1912. It’s such a significant day that there’s plenty to say about it. But what did he do the next day? I could refer to his mother’s milk as a revolutionary nutrient. But what did the Supreme Leader do himself? In all honesty, what else could a baby do at that age but piss and shit? And how am I going to describe the two years after that?[38]

And yet, as Andrei Lankov writes, “nobody in Korea would dare to suspend one’s disbelief when it comes to claims of the superhuman qualities of Kim’s family,” for fear of retribution.[39] Two of the most interesting reactions to Seth Rogen’s assassination comedy The Interview attacked the film for failing to understand that many, if not most, North Koreans are all too aware of their predicament, trapped between colliding forces of hagiography and history. As Jang Jin-sung elaborates:

[I]t’s not that people really believe all this propaganda about Kim Jong-un, that he’s a god, and need someone to tell them otherwise or show them another way of thinking. North Koreans are people, and they aren’t stupid. In the North Korean system, you have to praise Kim and sing hymns about him and take it seriously, even if you think it’s only a shit narrative. That’s the block, you see? It’s not that people are brainwashed and think he’s God. These are things that people know, but that they don’t dare to challenge.

Or, as Kim Joo-il simply complains, “in this movie it looks like we are too stupid to realize our government is bad.”

For children, perhaps, the equation is less complex. Kang Chol-hwan remembers how, “during my childhood, Kim Il-sung had been like a god to me,” and Kim Yong recalls how, “looking back, never did I doubt that the Kims were invincible gods who single-handedly rescued our homeland from Japanese colonialists and American imperialists.”[40] Park Yeon-mi has even admitted that, as a child, “I had to be careful of my thoughts because I believed Kim Jong-il could read my mind.” Yet increasingly exposed to the material and cultural temptations of the West and South Korea, even children are vulnerable to the lure of heterodoxy.

As the DPRK is now learning, there are perils in extolling the virtues of a leadership beyond the reasonable. A storm of propaganda is an effective strategy whilst it prevails, but can rapidly dissolve as circumstances change. Colonel Gaddafi maintained a similarly bogus cult of personality in Libya, demanding the avowal of extraordinary claims of his revolutionary intellect and virtue. Such was the climate of fear his family engineered that it was difficult to find residents of Tripoli in the months before his demise willing to speak against the dominant state narratives. Yet following Gaddafi’s death, the signs and symbols of the old regime hastily crumbled, the Libyan population free to disavow claims they had been compelled to accept. It is easier, perhaps, to forgive a mortal politician who has failed his people, than to keep the faith when god betrays his children.

The fact the DPRK still exists at all is, in no small part, testimony to the genius of the hagiographies of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il, and the men and women who wrote them. They are the foundation upon which the edifice of North Korean cultural orthodoxy has been raised. Yet the ground beneath is shifting, even as the state seeks new and inventive ways to maintain “domain consensus.” It may, however, be too late. If so, the former things will pass away. And then, as it was in the beginning with Tangun and with Kim Il-sung, Korean time will begin again… with millions of new stories waiting to be told.

[1] Kim Il-sung, Reminiscences: With The Century, Volume One (Pyongyang: Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1994), 4.

[2] Ibid., 4.

[3] Ibid., 3.

[4] Jang Jin-sung, Dear Leader (London: Rider Books, 2014), 13.

[5] Kim, Reminiscences: With The Century, Volume One, 15.

[6] Ibid., preface.

[7] Ibid, 10.

[8] Ibid., 33.

[9] Ibid., 34.

[10] Ibid., 35.

[11] Ibid., 39.

[12] Ibid., 46-47.

[13] Ibid., 51.

[14] Ibid., 48.

[15] Ibid., 59.

[16] Ibid., 92-93; and 86-87.

[17] Ibid, 65.

[18] Ibid., 76.

[19] Ibid., 80.

[20] Ibid., 97-98.

[21] Ibid., 124.

[22] Ibid., 126.

[23] Suh Dae-sook, Kim Il Sung: The North Korean Leader (New York: Columbia University Press, 1988), 7.

[24] North Korean Central Broadcast (Pyongyang), August 30, 2010. Cited in Kwon Heonik & Chung Byung-ho, North Korea: Beyond Charismatic Politics (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2012), 184-185.

[25] Ibid., 184-185.

[26] Kang Chol-hwan, The Aquariums of Pyongyang (New York: Basic Books, 2002), 135.

[27] Ibid., 111.

[28] Kim Yong, Long Road Home: Testimony of a North Korean Camp Survivor (New York: Columbia University Press, 2009), 33.

[29] B.R. Myers, The Cleanest Race: How North Koreans See Themselves & Why It Matters (New York: Melville House, 2010), 135.

[30] Ibid., 13.

[31] Sonia Ryang, Reading North Korea: An Ethnological Enquiry (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2012), 19-20. [italics added]

[32] Jang, Dear Leader, xxiv.

[33] Lisa Wedeen, Ambiguities of Domination: Politics, Rhetoric & Symbols in Contemporary Syria (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999), 6.

[34] Ibid., 12.

[35] Jang, Dear Leader, 4.

[36] Brian Myers, Han Sorya & North Korean Literature: The Failure of Socialist Realism in the DPRK (Ithaca: Cornell East Asia Series, 1994), 105.

[37] Ibid., 149-150.

[38] Jang, Dear Leader, 128.

[39] Andrei Lankov, The Real North Korea (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013), 52-3

[40] Kang Chol-hwan, The Aquariums of Pyongyang, 135-136; and Kim, Long Road Home, 20.

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  1. Posted on the behalf of Paul White:

    Whatever else it is, Kim Il Sung’s Reminiscences is certainly not a hagiography. It is the most important document to have come out of Northeast Asia in the last 100 years, and (I would have thought) impossible to confuse with the admittedly hagiographic potboilers that Pyongyang does churn out. Richardson’s cop-out here is “In the hands of less astute hagiographers…” In other words, “This may not seem like hagiography to you ordinary mortals, but take my word for it, it is.”

    Christopher Richardson doesn’t seem to have progressed beyond P.126 of the first volume. This is a pity, because the whole eight-volume series is a gold mine of history (An index is available). The first four volumes were almost certainly edited by Kim Il Sung himself, and the other four — the “Continuing Edition” edited by others after his death — end in 1945. Any “hagiographer” worth his salt would have extolled the Great Leader’s exploits in volume after volume right to the end. After all, the Collected Works would fill a warehouse.

    Kim introduces dozens of figures, sometimes with photographs, who would otherwise be lost to history. He expresses admiration for the religious figures he encounters, at one point (P. 268) arguing with a comrade against the latter’s blanket condemnation of all religion as the “opium of the people.” No hagiographer’s work this!

    A Japanese lumber mill owner is brought to him a prisoner. Instead of putting this representative of the hated colonial oppressors to death, Kim says, “I was surprised at how well he could speak Korean.” He then decides that he is a good but misguided man, and releases him. No hagiographer’s work this, either!

    I could go on, but I’ve tried your patience far enough already. As for Tangun’s tomb, the site has been known since the 18th century. It was twice desecrated by the Japanese in the 1920s. North Korean archaeologists who excavated the site in the early 1990s claimed to have discovered two skeletons, one male and one female. Why the Japanese didn’t discover them (if they were there at all) I don’t know; perhaps another example of the shoddy work which results from political-agenda-driven pseudo-scholarship?

  2. Dear Paul,

    Thank you for your comments. I’m especially grateful, considering you must have taken time out from your busy schedule translating North Korean literature and propaganda for the Foreign Languages Publishing House in Pyongyang. When last we heard from you, in 2012, you explained to NKNews.org that the DPRK “paid in RMB,” and noted that you, “did, and still do from time to time, some of their English stuff.”


    Are you still on North Korea’s payroll? If so, I’m very much hoping Kim Jong Un’s childhood hagiography will soon be made available in many foreign languages, especially English and Chinese. It only seems fair, with the amount of foreign media flooding into North Korea, that it should flood the other way as well. I’m sure there are still some children who would rather be like Kim Jong Un than James Bond, even in North Korea.

    It’s a shame Kim Il Sung is not alive to hear you describe his memoir as “the most important document to have come out of Northeast Asia in the last 100 years,” as it is high praise indeed. I agree with you, they are extremely fascinating documents, even if we disagree on the nature of their creation. Presumably, you think Jang Jin-sung is lying when he describes the process of literary production in Pyongyang. Yet you admit to never having met Kim Il Sung, “or any other big shot for that matter,” so precisely how you know anything about Kim’s role in the creation of his memoirs, I do not know. Perhaps you can explain. In fact, you all but admit you can’t, when you write that, “the first four volumes were almost certainly edited by Kim Il Sung himself.” What, precisely, does almost certainly mean in this context? And “edited by Kim Il Sung”? What does that entail? That Kim Il Sung edited what others wrote for him, or that he just signed off and nodded his approval?

    Jang Jin-sung, on the other hand, worked in the very heart of the Pyongyang literary establishment, finding favour with Kim Jong Il himself. For now, at least, I will favour the testimony of the writer born in the DPRK, steeped in its political, cultural and literary traditions, over the testimony of a Beijing-based British translation polisher and voice-over artist, however talented. Especially from one who claims that, “NK Economy Watch, Leadership Watch, Tech Watch, and what have you, The Daily NK, One Free Korea, Radio Free Asia, ‘undercover citizen journalists’ (That’s got to be the Orwellian sick joke of the year) … Ninety percent of this stuff is misleading nonsense — I know this for a fact. Basically it’s a propaganda Cold War.”

    I couldn’t agree with you more that “sane and balanced reporting of the DPRK needs to be done,” but I don’t think it’s likely to emanate from the pen of someone who admits to being on Pyongyang’s payroll since 1995. Sino-NK is a great place to start, though, even if they never pay a single yuan. Alas.

    As to the historical accuracy of Kim’s memoir? In a very important sense, you are criticizing the wrong article. The historicity, or otherwise, of Kim Il Sung’s memoir is, in itself, a fascinating subject, but my essay is about something else, namely the role of story-telling and narrative in the construction of political power in the DPRK, the maintenance of the charismatic authority of the Family Kim, and as a disciplinary tool in North Korean society. It is the job of historians to sift through every anecdote and picture to decide what is true, and what is not.

    As indeed they have.

    Concerning the revolutionary exploits of Kim Il Sung’s family, for instance, Dae-sook Suh writes that, “When it comes to his father and mother … none of the assertions about revolutionary activities can be verified in any Korean or other records.” (p5) To the suggestion the Great Leader’s great-grandfather Kim Ung U attacked the General Sherman, Suh replies that this, like other such claims, “are politically motivated fabrications of little importance.” One gets the idea. Indeed, Suh ultimately concludes that, “it is futile to challenge every assertion made by Kim’s sycophantic writers, and their errors are too obvious to warrant detailed refutation.” (p8) Which is why the intention of my essay is not to attempt such a “detailed refutation,” but instead to meet such texts on their own terms, investigating the way they operate within North Korean society.

    As for your remarks about Tangun’s tomb? This is not a journal of Korean archeology. The essay casts no judgment over what may, or may not, lie beneath the mausoleum erected in 1994. The tomb may indeed contain Tangun, or the remains of twenty kirin, for all I know. What is important here is the relevance of the Tangun legend in the DPRK’s revolutionary narrative, and the timing of the Mausoluem’s construction, when the state could scarcely afford to feed its own people.

    As you write so graciously, “I could go on, but I’ve tried your patience far enough already.” I also could go on, but won’t. In sum, I agree with your assertion Kim Il Sung’s memoirs are invaluable historical documents, yet will have to agree to disagree on why.

    Kind Regards,
    Christopher Richardson
    University of Sydney

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