As once it appeared over Bethlehem, so too in North Korea: A new star scorched the heavens. A storm broke. Twin rainbows sprung forth. In sonorous human voices, soaring swallows spoke the name. On the face of Mount Paektu, in wreaths of flame, blazed the name.
“Glorious Leader Who Descended from Heaven!” “Highest Incarnation of the Revolutionary Comradely Love!” On February 16th, 1942, The General Kim Jong Il was born, according to his official biography.
“Gunfire and the sounds of revolutionary struggle were his lullaby,” added the beautiful Ms. Song. “And many such natural miracles also happened when The General passed away last year. In the moon, for example, we saw his picture.”
Ms. Song (not her real name) was one of the official monitors assigned to accompany me throughout my stay in North Korea. The government selects only the most attractive women to represent the regime. The face of her country, in style and manner Ms. Song resembled a pint-sized Jacqueline Kennedy.
It was late August of 2012, eight months since the Great Leader had died. All eyes were dry now, though the way everyone had cried after his passing, it seemed like the tears would flow forever. The state had dispatched an army of cameramen to document the sadness of every man, woman, and child as they beat the earth, writhing and convulsing and howling like infants to offer up evidence of their love. The western media saw it largely as a performance piece. The North Korean media itself came close to giving up the game, with self-conscious statements like: “Every citizen is so bereaved that no one even thinks to wipe the tears from his face.” Even so, whether they cried out of grief or fear or joy—whether for their leader or for themselves—there was, in all of it, an almost unimaginable vitality that seduced me immediately.
I made arrangements with a company in China. They would pull all the strings. I needed to present myself in person in Beijing before the North Korean embassy would decide whether or not to issue a visa. They flew me into Pyongyang on an Anatov An-24, a Soviet turboprop last produced in 1979. Beneath its wings: vast fields, low mountains, houses in tight clusters. No dwelling stands alone. The center of every village is marked by the stone pillar that reads:
“THE GREAT LEADERS KIM IL SUNG AND KIM JONG IL ARE FOREVER WITH US!”
Magazines were distributed by the flight attendants. Page one featured an article on the activities of the new 28-year-old leader Kim Jong Un as he toured an amusement park: “He familiarized himself with the operation of Z-Force, Power Surge, Pirate and Volare and called at the electronic amusement hall, kindly asking which apparatus the people preferred and underlining the need to set up the chair plane…”
Page 16 comprised a series of statements by members of the Korean Children’s Union. A young girl, Ri Kuk Hwa: “I felt like in the dream when I, daughter of an ordinary postwoman, presented a bouquet of flowers to Kim Jong Un. When he took my hands in his, I found in him the image of the sun. I will keep in mind his benevolent image and remain faithful to him like a sunflower following the sun.”
At the end of the flight, the attendants returned to collect the magazines. Ms. Song explained that no paper featuring pictures of the leaders is ever thrown away. Instead, they are collected and respectfully stored in vast warehouses for eternity.
So revered are the images and words of the leaders that a girl who drowned during the recent floods trying to save two of their portraits became a national hero. A museum was erected to display the singed clothing of 17 soldier-martyrs who burned to death in a forest fire protecting a stand of slogan-trees on which were written words praising Kim Il Sung. It was said that the soldiers’ blackened arms had to be pried from the trunks.
It was soldiers like these who met me as I disembarked. I glanced down at their drum-tight faces, swaying decorations, halo-high puffed-out visor caps. Informed that I was an American, the senior officer addressed me via translator: “Korea and the American Imperialist Aggressors are still at war. The agreement signed in 1953 was only a cease-fire. The Americans may feel safe, hiding behind a vast ocean, but vaster still is the determination of the Korean people, to whom an ocean is only a puddle. Remember this always.”
At immigration, they feasted on my luggage, waving my shirts like flags, peeking at each other through my glasses. Carefully, they studied my notebook, page by page, line by line, upside-down. And finally, as if it were a trophy he had won, a smirking soldier hoisted my contraband: a ceramic statue I had bought in Beijing. It was Chairman Mao.
The soldier scowled and shook his head.
“Mao,” I said. “That’s Mao.”
“Buddha,” the soldier said, drawing back his lips on the final plosive, luxuriously exposing his teeth. “Mao,” I said.
The soldiers crowded in. I felt a hand grasp my collar. I felt my shirt tighten around my neck. They were shouting for someone. I waited, breathing through my collar, until the young soldiers parted and an old soldier joined me in the center.
“Ah,” he said, appraising the statue. “Mao Zedong.”
The old soldier waved his hand and the pressure around my neck abated. The soldier with the statue, already bored, pushed the idol at me, and quickly turned away.
I was hustled into a van bound for the city center. The curtains were left open, but photographs were not permitted. Photograph no countryside, no fallow field, no tree stump, no barbed-wire, no idle worker, no soldier, no soiled clothing, no empty road, no peeling paint, no checkpoint.
“Why are there so many checkpoints?” I asked Ms. Song.
“For national security - against spy,” she replied. “Didn’t you see the interview of the South Korean spy? They caught her trying to explode a monument. It was on the television station last week.”
“Oh, we don’t get that station back home.”
“Really? I thought all countries get that station.”
We sped through the city center. No traffic to slow us, but traffic girls at every intersection in smart blue-and-white uniforms waving us through. Crowds on the march. Children drilling for torchlight parades. And everywhere, pastel-painted apartment blocks, balconies overflowing with flowers. Now you can take pictures. There were no advertisements, no seductive women pushing products, not even the outline of a breast; only the hand-painted blood-red signs with the white lettering:
“WE WILL DO AS THE PARTY INSTRUCTS!”
“WE HAVE NOTHING TO ENVY IN THE WORLD!”
“LET US CARRY OUT THOROUGHLY THE BEHEST OF THE GREAT LEADER KIM IL SUNG!”
Every now and again, in black lettering, like a cavity - the word “American” appeared.
“WE WILL DESTROY THE AMERICAN IMPERIALIST AGGRESSORS!”
We passed a mural of American soldiers throwing bound Korean women into a river. There were paintings of dead American soldiers clutching dollars. And, in the amusement parks, over and over, painted onto boards - that man with the beak-nose, the beady bloodshot eyes, the fangs, his limbs blown off, engulfed in flames: The evil American G.I. Shoot a BB through his head and win a prize.
There were these things and then there were the smiling, paternal faces of the leaders. Thousands of Kim Il Sungs and Kim Jong Ils gazing lovingly at us from all directions. Their portraits - in every building and pinned to every chest. They stood larger than life on every block in murals and as statues (never hollow, always solid metal). They pointed into the distance at something we could not see. They galloped stallions over mountain peaks. They guided farmers at their plows. Children streamed into their expansive embraces. They smiled the most compassionate, white-toothed, eye-creasing smiles.
The animals smiled too. The concrete owls, deer, cartoonish bears, frogs in suspenders, accordion-playing rabbits in skirts, laughing and grinning in defiance of anatomy. The menagerie—in parks, in front of buildings—lined the roads. The animals stood among fake miniature mountains and giant toadstools that doubled as parasols for crouching soldiers.
We drove across the nation in our official tourist van. We stepped where the leaders had stepped, footprints carefully inlaid with tile, to waterfalls with heights that echoed their birthdates, to gardens brimming with their namesake orchids and begonias, to nurseries and orphanages where the children sang their praises and danced hoisting models of their nuclear missiles. We laid flowers and bowed before their monuments, their birthplaces, their tombs. We drove upon their roads.
We passed few vehicles traveling down the Young Heroes Motorway. All 42 miles, all ten lanes of it were built at Kim Jong Il’s behest, Ms. Song announced proudly. It was constructed by youths, by hand, and all of it during the height of the famine just to show the unshakable single-hearted unity of the Korean people under adversity.
“The famine is finished now,” she said, as we arrived at the nation’s largest apple orchard. It had been commissioned by The General. He had visited three times, to stand where we stood and look down on the acres of bountiful trees enclosed by high fences, with armed guards every hundred meters, scanning the empty countryside. The trees, in their neat rows, had reminded The General of soldiers on review.
We visited the beach at Nampho. Under playful protest, Ms. Song had donned a frilly one-piece bathing suit and red rubber cap to join me in the surf. We threw a Frisbee back and forth. When it landed short and splashed her, she smiled as she swore, “American imperialist!”
Whenever I teased her, she would laugh and threaten to throw me in jail. On two occasions, she bumped her head as she ducked into the van. I offered to buy her a helmet.
“What kind of helmet do you want?” I asked.
“US Army helmet,” she said.
“You already have plenty of those in the basement of your war museum,” I chided, “down with all the rest of your trophies—the burned out tanks and planes.”
“Those helmets are all worn out,” she replied. “I want a new one.”
We climbed all afternoon and stood on the peak of Mount Paektu. “I don’t care you’re American,” she said finally, breaking the silence.
I didn’t know what to say. I said, “Thank you.”
As we scrambled down like goats across a narrow span back to the trail, she glanced at the valley floor hundreds of meters below. She reached out and grabbed my hand. Just the last three fingers at first. I didn’t see her do it, only felt the rough, calloused skin of her palm, and the firm pressure of her little fingers. I pulled her across and we stepped down onto the trail. I waited for her hand to slip away, but she didn’t let go. I couldn’t understand why she kept holding on, but her hand fit just right and we walked that way a while, winding down the trail. I didn’t look at her. I kept vigilant. I was sure it meant trouble if anybody saw us. My face got hotter with every turn. I started to think that maybe her mind had wandered and she had simply forgotten to pull her hand away, so I let the bounce of my walk jangle my fingers loose a little and she loosened too and we walked with our empty hands at our sides.
“In the west,” I said, “it’s believed that if someone speaks against the government here, they will be badly punished.”
“In the west,” Ms. Song replied, “the people are undisciplined in their mind and heart. Here we have one strength that is not to be found in all the world - that’s the single-hearted unity. The single-hearted unity means one thinking, one ideology. Every people think same. Every people do same.”
“But if they didn’t think the same,” I said, “they would be punished, wouldn’t they?”
She hesitated for a moment before responding. “But, it cannot happen in this country, I think. One cannot have a different idea, because the government that is represented by leader Kim Jong Un, Kim Jong Il, and Kim Il Sung, gives the policy that is very very right and that is very welcomed by the thinking people. It is very natural to the thinking people’s idea. Everybody likes it. For many westerners it’s difficult to understand this reality.”
The apotheosis of this single-hearted unity is perhaps best demonstrated by the Arirang Mass Games. Every autumn, in the world’s largest stadium, 100,000 extravagantly costumed participants perform highly choreographed gymnastic and dance sequences glorifying the regime. Thirty thousand school-children form the backdrop, each holding one of a series of colored boards, deftly swapped to display enormous pictures behind the sea of performers.
The sea—the gymnasts and the dancers—become shapes, become patterns, each one highly skilled. There are no soloists.
As we merged into the river of people streaming out of the Rungrado May Day Stadium, Ms. Song turned to me. “When I was a girl, I danced Arirang,” she whispered dreamily.
“What part did you dance?” I asked.
“I was a leaf,” she said, extending her arms, bending slightly at the waist, this way and that.
“Where?” I asked. “Where were you?”
“Beneath the flower,” she said. “Could you see? Beneath the flower petal is the leaf. Beautiful green dress of the leaf.”