This article originally appeared on VICE Italy
The first thing Andrea Marsiletti does when I arrive in his office in Parma, northern Italy, is put on what appears to be harmless, ambient music. Or so I think. "This is what gets played on the loudspeakers over the streets of Pyongyang every morning at 6AM," Marsiletti says, just as I'm starting to get comfortable.
Marsiletti went to the North Korean capital in 2016 as the head of the Italian delegation invited to an international conference on Juche, the official state ideology developed by the first-ever "Supreme Leader," Kim Il-sung. At the conference, he spoke in front of a number of senior government officials, had dinner with Kim Jong-un's number two and received official leadership loyalty badges.
"I'm one of only two or three people in Italy who has one," he boasts today, showing them off to me. The badges are shaped like a flag, printed with the portraits of Kim Jong-un's grandfather, Kim Il-sung, and his father Kim Jong-il.
The North Koreans consider Marsiletti loyal for several reasons. Firstly, he founded and manages the website KimJongUn.it, dedicated to spreading "North Korean information". Marsiletti manages the site in partnership with the Korean Friendship Association and with the state press agency, KCNA. Over the years, he has become the go-to guy for Italians wanting to travel to North Korea, partly because he's now friends with the North Korean ambassador to Italy.
I contacted Marsiletti a few months ago, when I came across a story that was a sort of version of the film The Grinch, except the Grinch is actually Stalin. It was called Il Natale nell’Italia stalinista (Christmas in Stalinist Italy). The story was an excerpt from Se Mira, Se Kim, Marsiletti's latest novel – a sort of Stalinist propaganda pamphlet hiding behind a love story. I was fascinated by both the book's wild plot and the Marsiletti's ties to the North Korean government, so he agreed to speak with me about both, at his office.
The book is currently being read by the North Korean embassy, where they are considering adding a foreword written by Kim Jong-un himself. The plot, as outlined on its cover, goes as follows:
It's 2021. Mira lives in Parma, in Stalinist Italy. She goes out with a North Korean embassy official called Kim. An international political crisis follows. Meanwhile, at a dinner with school friends, Mira finds out an old school friend whom she was in love with is a Trotskyist. She will eventually make the right choice and be rewarded by Kim Jong-un.
Marsiletti's office is an austere room in a grey building, just off the motorway that leads into northern Parma. The only decoration is a Che Guevara calendar and an endless collection of memorabilia and souvenirs from North Korea – party newspapers, a stamp collection, a pennant and a book with the speech Kim Jong-un gave at the seventh party congress.
"When I began learning more about the regime, seven or eight years ago, I became really obsessed," he says. "This is all I read; nothing else interests me. What fascinates me about socialism is the way ideology can influence behaviour and shape a society in an almost scientific way. And from this point of view, modern North Korea is the last true socialist party in the world."
For Marsiletti, Juche is different from Marxism-Leninism – the ideology of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union – for its emphasis on individuality. For the Marxist-Leninists, the limit of real socialism was that it made man a small cog in a political system. Not so for Juche, where the system, Marsiletti claimed, makes man the maker of their own fate. "Or at least that is the official line of the North Korean government when you ask for an explanation," he says.
This extreme centralisation of power is what's so attractive to Marsiletti – a system based on respecting the country's traditions, ruling party, the army and the leaders as almost one single entity. This is why North Korean society is so regimented, why there's a single-party system and why the country looks upon the Kims like they are practically gods.
Marsiletti sees nothing wrong with any of this. In fact, to him, it's the rest of the world that has a warped outlook. For him, our collective fascination with North Korea as this strange, closed-off land manifests itself because we're all trying to judge the country based on Western standards of democracy.
Marsiletti feels particularly let down by the political left in Itay. "I represent real socialism, but the left here want something else entirely," he tells me. "They've replaced revolutionaries with the Pope, barbed wire with people smugglers, workers with migrants. This is why many North Korea sympathisers vote for the far-right Lega party – they are anti-immigration and pro security."
The tale in Se Mira, se Kim, really kicks off in 1948, after the attempted assassination of former Italian communist leader Palmiro Togliatti. A revolution breaks out and Italy becomes a communist country. From here, the central plot is dedicated to defending the actions of the North Korean regime, accusing dissident communists of being traitors and even defending Pol Pot and other brutal regimes by arguing that their crimes should be seen within the context of protecting their respective revolutions.
From all this, there are plenty of scenes that are particularly troubling. Mira, the main character, is on a bus when "two Africans get on". "So much for Italy closing its borders!" she says, before adding that "migrants are cowards who do not have the courage to fight in their own countries, so escape"; that they are "backward"; and that the government would "do well to defend the Italian borders by placing an electric fence in the sea along the coastlines." I ask Marsiletti about Mira's views. "At most there is a bit of irony," he says, after trying to dodge the question. "But everything I wrote reflects my thoughts and the truth of the facts."
In one scene, Mira goes into a clothes shop and buys the standard turban of the Cambodian Khmer Rouge, "reworked by a Milanese designer" as a way to remind young Italians of the history of the Cambodian communists. "It's important that fashion is functional to ideology," Marsiletti says nonchalantly, as if making an obvious point.
Marsiletti hopes his book will inspire his readers to do their own in-depth research on history's various experiments with socialism. That's why, he says, he devotes so much space to controversial leaders like Pol Pot and his "excessive version of socialism."
This is very important, Marsiletti adds, now that that world is "falling into oblivion", and only one country remains loyal to socialism: North Korea. His admiration for Kim's regime goes to the point of wishing that some of the principles of North Korean society were applied even in Italy.
"Let's be honest, socialist countries maintain total control of their society. You can give your opinion but it's the state who decides." To him, that's a good thing. "And in North Korea, work is a duty. You won't find any cigarette butts on the street because loads of people are employed to keep it clean. Everyone sees North Korea as a country in difficulty, but let’s try and think about what Italy would be in a similar situation, under a years-long embargo like the Korean one: the economy would immediately explode just at the announcement of sanctions."
Before we say our goodbyes, Marsiletti tells me he hopes to go back to Pyongyang soon. "Pyongyang is beautiful, first of all because it is full of ideology. You're in the streets and everywhere you see banners repeating the country's goals. You see building sites surrounded by red flags with people working and patriotic music in the background. Politics is everywhere."
This article originally appeared on VICE IT.