North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and some of his generals. Photo via Flickr user Michael Donovan
As soon as Kim Jong-un re-emerged from wherever he was this month—plump, smiling, with added cane—the question was raised whether it was all real. Certainly, images of Kim limping around the Wisong Scientists Residential District like a freshly neutered puppy were plentiful, and he apparently looked 22 pounds lighter than he did in May.
There were suggestions, even, that the Jong-un on screen was a political decoy, a doppelganger rolled out during times of crisis like when the Dear Leader is so heavy he fractures his ankles. That sort of delicious conspiracy that seems to go hand-in-hand with North Korea, like aliens in Area 51 or groups of wealthy, hooded lizard men at the Bilderberg Conference.
Adam Cathcart’s North Korea Misinformation Bingo sums up the great clusterfuck of assumptions regarding North Korea in a series of over 20 bulletpoints, as well as parodying the nature of the West’s obsession with the country. Without any facts—or any way to legitimately fact check—someone writing about North Korea can spin whatever shit they want.
Cathcart gets at a very crucial argument concerning how the Western media machine profligates (and encourages) hilarious memes and misdirection about North Korea without ever engaging with the country itself. This is why Jong-un’s recent disappearance has served only to increase the rate of stories about him, because without our great star, how can the show go on?
Quirky narratives aside, the country's reality is grim. The UN has pulled the plug on food aid and China. practically the North’s sole trade partner, is extorting them for its own goods while underpaying for the DPRK’s. Even the nation's greatest (or only) ally is fucking them over.
But such is the slippery nature of North Korea (an idea fostered both by the country and the international press) that fiction can be quite easily passed off as fact. Back in 2008, Waseda University professor Toshimitsu Shigemura published The True Character of Kim Jong-il, arguing that the Beloved Father died in 2003 and, to ensure political stability, was replaced by a doppelganger. Satellite imagery, he argues, reveals this new Kim was at least 2.5 centimeters taller than the Supreme Leader.
This is where the doppelganger theory really began: Eager to profligate the idea of North Korea being the loony bin of nations, media outlets like the Telegraph gave Shigemura a nice platform from which to preach his theories.
He later argued at the World Economic Forum in Tianjin, China, that computer analysis of Kim Jong-il’s voice revealed it was a different man (not, of course, the same man simply hungover or suffering from a cold). The logical culmination of all this was that Bill Clinton met a double while trying to negotiate the release of three American prisoners.
A wall painting of Kim II-sung and Kim Jong-iI. Photo via Flickr user yeowatzup
We're told that Kim Jong-il maybe had a stroke in 2008 but then completed 122 separate visits to field sites the following year. We are to assume that either the stroke was a lie or the visits were; or, perhaps more salaciously, that Kim had body doubles doing his resplendent inspections for him. It's all strangely close to some speculative celebrity gossip column.
Shigemura’s argument is not where it gets messy, it’s his sources. It's certainly feasible that Kim Jong-il felt the necessity to have doubles for safety—there have been a few reports of assassination attempts, after all. It's the fact that Shigemura was told by a North Korean agent (who obviously could not be named or traced) that Kim Jong-il had "at least four" doubles—and that, whenever they're rolled out, a high-ranking Pyongyang official is seen behind him, metaphorically pulling the strings—that's an issue.
There's a high degree of gullibility where North Korea is concerned. The same stories are circulated as new again and again. Eight years ago, for instance, "an official" told the Yonhap News Agency that Kim Jong-il had at least two identical decoys who stood in for him during public events. They apparently underwent plastic surgery, were trained how to speak like him and, crucially, were sent out when his health was bad. "They are the spitting image of Kim—the same age, same height and with the same bouffant hairstyle and pot belly," the official said.
But where were these doubles Kim Jong-il disappeared in 2003? Where were they when he disappeared again in 2008? When Kim Jong-un disappeared for a month this year?
It doesn’t take a genius to realize that this is almost certainly bullshit, designed to undermine the country's leadership rather than tackle the realities of its political system. It’s not obstinate to suggest that—if the rumors were true—times of ill health are exactly when a body double should be rolled out. Instead, we got absolutely none because they probably don’t exist. But we still believe.
Rumors about body doubles have abounded throughout history. Hitler had Gustav Weler. Winston Churchill employed Norman Shelley to read his speeches on the radio. Except neither did, really—it’s all unconfirmed conjecture. Joe R. Reeder reckoned Osama bin Laden had a cave's worth of fake Osamas ready to go.
Back in 2008, when Kim Jong-il had suffered a stroke and disappeared from view, Barbara Demick—author of Nothing to Envy—wrote about the state of Pyongyang on the ground. Nobody, she reported, had heard of the Dear Leader’s health issues. The preservation of a healthy ruler is fundamental to smooth operations in Pyongyang, after all.
I spoke to Demick about the possibility of political decoys in North Korea, and she said that she "wasn’t sure" if they were used.
"At least not widely used," she continued. "I believe if there were, Kim Jong-un may not have disappeared for 40 days. The North Korean government most likely didn't like the optics of a limping leader, especially such a young one. There were, by the way, a number of Kim Jong-il impersonators in South Korea. It was a popular party trick."
Photo via Flickr user petersnoopy
With the nature of North Korea being what it is, it’s no surprise that one of the best pieces of writing on the country is Adam Johnson’s novel The Orphan Master’s Son. The book focuses entirely on the shifting nature of North Korea’s government, with characters changing identities and names simply because of the clothes they wear. It’s the perfect facsimile of our perception of the country, but not the country itself.
When I spoke to Johnson about the possibility of his novel being close to truth, he agreed with Demick. "I’m not aware of any leadership lookalikes for leadership figures, as they were for Saddam [Hussein]," he said.
It all comes from a misunderstanding of what a political decoy is used for—to take bullets, mostly, and to foster the idea of omnipresence. In 2009, Barack Obama was reported to be considering the use of a body double due to the sheer number of threats he received on his life. Weirdly, Ilham Anas, the preeminent lookalike, didn’t want the job because of the whole potentially getting shot thing.
Say what you will about North Korea’s policy towards food, nuclear weapons, or waterslides, but its citizens don’t often shoot their leader. The same wasn't true in Iraq, where Hussein certainly had legitimate reason to be worried. In September of 2002, Dr. Dieter Buhmann of Homberg University announced on German television that he'd studied hundreds of photographs of Saddam Hussein and concluded that the former-president employed at least three political decoys.
This neatly cohered with the pervading opinion that Saddam was a nutcase tyrant who was destabilizing the region. Saddam, eager to profligate the idea of his omnipresence in Iraq, was reported to have bragged about how many doubles he had. Later, his ex-physician claimed that the reports were untrue. But Saddam's use of political decoys is widely believed to be true, and it is certainly the most likely modern scenario.
For a country not unfamiliar with using “fake villages”—like Kijong-dong in the DMZ, reportedly placed there to attract South Korean defectors with visions of economic success—the idea of North Korea’s leaders having casts of doppelgangers to keep up appearances is exciting. But North Korea isn’t exciting. It’s dreadful.
The Leader (be he Dear, Supreme or even Almighty) is broadcast everywhere, all the time; the state doesn’t need physical dummies when the idea of its leadership is more permanent than any physical presence. The government is relatively stable, with few insurgent groups of any real strength.
There is a reason, at least, that the only certified, 100-percent-confirmed political decoys in history were British soldiers M.E. Clifton James and Tex Banwell, who both pretended to be General Montgomery during World War II for Operation Copperhead. That was over 60 years ago, before facial recognition software and satellite imagery could tell whether a man's eyes look slightly further apart than usual from over 20,000 miles away.
The aim of Operation Copperhead was to convince German troops that an invasion of Southern France was incoming, but even then it was fundamentally flawed, as Banwell was far taller than Montgomery and James was a drunk. Banwell was captured and sent to Auschwitz, while James was packaged off to a hotel for the remainder of the war with nothing but the drink for company.
Charlie Chaplin in 1916. Photo via Wikimedia Commons
There’s a great story involving Charlie Chaplin that's reminiscent of how we treat North Korea now. It began in August of 1920, when Lord Desborough, drunk and filled with good humor, decided to tell an anecdote about Charlie Chaplin. Chaplin, Desborough maintained, had entered into a Charlie Chaplin lookalike competition and come in 20th, "a most frightful failure."
This story—like practically every tale involving doubles and doppelgangers—is complete hearsay, but it didn't stop the British, Singaporean, American, and Australian press reporting it as true. Nowadays, it’s essential to the Chaplin mythos, just as creepy theme parks, murdered pop stars, and landing a man on the sun are crucial to the DPRK’s.
Attempting to tackle the source of misinformation around North Korea brings you up against South Korea’s media, whose information and intent about their neighbor is not necessarily always that truthful. There's a decent body of evidence to suggest their press is ruled by authoritarian policies, with the latest fall-out involving Japanese journalist Tatsuya Kato being banned from leaving South Korea for defaming Park Guen-hye. The rules are simple: Do not offend the leader of South Korea, and anything that makes North Korea look bad makes South Korea look good.
The media has a track record of falling for sexy stories about North Korea originating from the region. Two years ago, everyone thought Kim Jong-un was killed in Beijing thanks to a rumor on Chinese social media site Weibo. The ridiculous story of the 120 dogs that were fed the remains of Kim Jong-un’s uncle originated from Hong Kong paper Wen Wei Po and is about as true as the bit about Kim Jong-il once hitting 11 holes in one on the golf course. The rumors that an old guard of political figures founded by Kim Jong-il and led by Pyong So had stopped taking orders from Kim Jong-un is contradicted by the evidence of Kim Jong-il’s personal bodyguard now protecting his son. And so on and so forth.
James Hoare, who served as British Chargé d’Affairs in Pyongyang while Kim Jong-il was in power, describes the possibility of political decoys existing in North Korea as "conspiracy stuff."
"The only lookalike I heard of was an actor who played Kim Il-sung back in the guerrilla days," he said. "I'd imagine, actually, that’s still around for film and TV purposes. I’ve never heard of a Kim Jong-il lookalike. Since he made relatively few public appearances compared to his father and appeared in no films, I would imagine there was no need. But he would have been pretty easy to do—his hairstyle could be seen on many men in the country. Add dark glasses and an anorak and you'd be there."
Reading reports on Kim Jong-il’s last high-profile disappearance is an uncanny adventure into the familiar, like Groundhog Day, will Bill Murray playing whichever Kim is in power at whatever time. According to the South Korean press, Kim Jong-un and Kim Jong-il suffered from precisely the same issues before their disappearances in 2014 and 2003, respectively: diabetes, gout, and obesity. They also disappeared from view in September for almost exactly the same amount of time (40 days for the Dear Leader, 42 for the Supreme).
It’s time to move on from the regime and assess the systems in place, and time to approach the realities of life in North Korea rather than the fiction. It's time, in other words, to get some new material.
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