Inside the Mind-Numbing Literature of North Korea's Dictators
The Kim family hasn't just ruled the country for three generations—they've also been the Hermit Kingdom's leading authors.
Official portraits via Wikimedia Commons. Right photo by Joseph Ferris III
Kim Il-sung was 79 years old and 43 years into his reign over the more unfortunate half of the Korean peninsula when the USSR ceased to exist in the winter of 1991–92. Kim was in his dotage, and had left the day-to-day running of North Korea to his eldest son, Kim Jong-il, the secretary for organizational affairs. Relieved of the burdens of leadership, the elder Kim was left with abundant time to recollect in tranquility a long life dedicated to the cause of revolution, and to follow the trail blazed by Albanian strongman and memoirist Enver Hoxha, as he gazed within to compose his memoirs, With the Century.
Or at least that’s what it looked like from the outside. In reality, Kim I outsourced the creation of his memoirs to a team of propaganda novelists who drew upon revolutionary novels and films to produce an idealized (and highly fictional) account of his life. In old age, Kim I was able to read and enjoy With the Century, losing himself in a vast and intricate reimagining of his life the way it should have been, which of course became the way it had been, given the primacy of text over reality in North Korea. Alas, Kim I never got to find out how his life story ended: Only eight volumes of a projected 30 were complete by the time he died in 1994. He had been in power for 46 years: it was enough. Now it was time for the Dear Leader to replace the Great Leader as his son Kim Jong-il (hereafter referred to as Kim II, because, well, why not?) took his place on the throne.
Unlike his father, who was a military officer before he was a Stalinist homunculus, Kim II was a PR man before he was the heir apparent.
It was a smooth succession, one that Kim II had been planning for years, even if the North Korean Dictionary of Political Terminologies had in earlier times denounced hereditary succession as a “reactionary custom” belonging to “exploitative societies.” Continuity rather than disruption was key. Kim II loyally maintained his father’s cult after his death: There would be no Khrushchev-style tearing down of the predecessor, no quiet Chinese-style sidelining of the former leader’s ideas. Quite the contrary: Kim I’s mortal remains were embalmed, and his official residence was transformed into a mausoleum, the Kumsusan Palace of the Sun. In 1997 the calendar was revised so that the modern era began with his birth. In 1998 his corpse received a promotion, as the dead leader ascended to the giddy heights of “Eternal President.” And of course his body of work remained in print. Kim II not only kept juche, the quasi-religious state ideology his father had founded, in place but burrowed deep into its vacuity and hatred and then returned, blinking in the sunlight, to deliver weapons-grade assaults on reality via violently untruthful antiprose.
An example of this aggressively dull rhetoric can be found in a 1991 speech to party officials that was later published as Our Socialism Centered on the Masses Shall Not Perish. It was a defiant speech, but also a wholly unoriginal one cribbed from his dad’s worldview. Here’s a taste of the solipsism:
[Juche] has clarified the essential qualities of man as a social being with independence, creativity and consciousness. It has, on this basis, evolved the principle that man is the master of everything and decides everything. The Juche idea has established the viewpoint and attitude of dealing with everything in man’s interests and approaching all changes and developments on the basis of man’s activities. The Juche idea has raised man’s dignity and value to the highest level. Because it is the embodiment of the Juche idea, our socialism is a man-centered socialism under which man is the master of everything and everything serves him.
It is only through juche that the popular masses can realize their desire for independence, only through juche that the masses are protected against the imperialists, who are “working viciously to trample upon the sovereignty of the country and nation.” And so on, and so on. Although a mere 46 pages long, Our Socialism Centered on the Masses Shall Not Perish feels much longer, perhaps because it is in essence a continuation of a very long superspeech, an infinite text that had been generating itself for decades. Radical in its unoriginality, Kim II’s text defies time, an effect heightened by the dehumanized language and stripping out of references to anything outside his closed rhetorical system (bar the timeless abuse hurled at evil imperialists in America). What crisis is he responding to here? Is there a crisis? Will the war ever end? A rhetoric developed by Stalin and his acolytes returns, reheated, recycled, reused, repurposed in a string of self-referential clusters of jargon and grandiose generalities that could be disassembled and reassembled and placed in a different sequence and still hold the same amount of meaning. Thus Kafka’s harrow continued to carve away on the back of a prostrate nation.
It wasn’t all repetition and continuity, however. Kim II also expanded the field of dictator literature. Unlike his father, who was a military officer before he was a Stalinist homunculus, Kim II was a PR man before he was the heir apparent. He was perhaps the most postmodern of all dictators, the knowing architect of his own elaborate structure of lies, who spelled out in his published oeuvre precisely how he created and maintained the deceits that ensnared North Korea’s population.
This was more down to fate than to any arch literary cleverness on Kim II’s part. In 1971, at the start of his career, he had led the Workers’ Party’s Bureau of Propaganda and Agitation, where it was his job to manage Kim I’s personality cult—commissioning the construction of monuments, statues and portraits and overseeing the industrial-scale production of his father’s texts. Through the manipulation of words, music, and the moving image, Kim II had daily asserted an ideal reality in defiance of the physical one the people of North Korea actually lived in. So when it came time to lay the grounds for succession, Kim II’s works on the manufacturing of illusions were just sitting there waiting to be used to establish his authority as a genius without parallel.
Thus, while Selected Works Volume 1, 1964–69 may contain such rote and uninspiring fare as “On Improving the Work of the Youth League to Meet the Requirements of the Developing Situation,” it also includes multiple texts on aesthetics, narrative, and the manipulation of fictions. In fact, of the 46 chapters in the book, 22 are dedicated to literature, music, and film. Kim II delivers general aesthetic advice in short pieces such as “The Structure of Multipartite Works and the Problem of Dramatic Flow” and also provides case studies of specific works of art he helped produce, as in the essay “On Completing the Film The Family of Choe Hak Sin and Making It a Masterpiece Which Contributes to Anti-US Education.”
Kim II also generated books on the art of journalism (Kim Jong-il, the Great Teacher of Journalists) and the opera (On the Art of the Opera). According to the Institute for North Korean Studies, by 1993 his writings on art and aesthetics had mushroomed to an astounding 30 published volumes out of a projected 40. Official figures place the numbers far higher. No doubt he had some “assistance” but, regardless, the direction of his interests was clear. Not since Stalin had there been a dictator as obsessed with aesthetics as the “Dear Leader.”
It’s not exactly Cahiers du Cinéma, but Kim Jong-il’s how-to book actually, well, makes sense.
To stress his refined take on the art of telling monumental lies, Kim II had changed the name of the Department of Propaganda and Agitation to the more elegant Literary and Artistic Department. He loved illusions, and the illusions that fascinated him above all were those that danced upon the screen as a play of shadow and light. Kim II was a film fanatic, and he would famously kidnap a South Korean director (and his ex-wife) in the hope that they might be able to help him boost the quality of North Korean cinema. This resulted in the notorious Pulgasari, a kaiju film (a Japanese term for the genre in which men in rubber suits pretend to be giant monsters) set in the Middle Ages that featured a Godzilla-style monster and lots of oppressed peasants. Prior to this, Kim II had upgraded the Pyongyang Film Studio from a relatively bare-bones operation producing simple propaganda films about noble workers, virtuous peasants and the evil Japanese to a well-funded ten-million-square-foot lot where crews labored day and night to churn out propaganda films about noble workers, virtuous peasants, and the evil Japanese at a rate of 40 per year. Kim II was heavily involved in certain productions, which are known in North Korea as the “immortal classics.” He (allegedly) wrote the libretto for the first immortal classic, an adaptation of the opera Sea of Blood, and made substantial contributions to The Flower Girl, which won the “Prix Special” at the 1972 Karlovy Vary Film Festival in Czechoslovakia. Based on a play attributed to Kim Il-sung, The Flower Girl committed to celluloid the story of a Korean peasant lass much tormented by Japanese imperialists until her brother, a member of Kim Il-sung’s Liberation Army, arrives to save the day: Kim II not only contributed to the script but also worked on the casting, editing, and staging. The Korean War was a perennially popular theme, too, although of course it was never mentioned that Kim I started it or that North Korea would have lost it had it not been for the USSR and China.
Kim II was not just a producer but also a theoretician of cinema. In his On the Art of Cinema (1973) he advances a comprehensive vision of filmmaking that ranges from technical advice, to the theory of drama and characterization, to how to ram immense quantities of propaganda down the viewer’s throat without causing him to flee the movie theater in great haste. Most of the time, however, he trades in banalities. For example, in the section headed Exacting Standards Should Be Set in Filming and Art Design, Kim II stresses that “a film’s images must look good on the screen.” Reading on, we learn that “cinema is a visual art” and that “when the images are attractive to look at, they can instantly draw people into the world of film.” Obvious perhaps, but which editor would dare criticize the Dear Leader? Surrounded by yes-men, Kim II perhaps felt it necessary to spell out the basics. That said, he does eventually show a little more nuance. Here, for instance, he calls for a subtler application of music to a picture:
Music has its own particular part to play in the scene’s portrayal of the theme. Music plays its part in the general representation through its own peculiar language, and if it is used to explain the content of scenes in a straightforward manner or simply repeats it mechanically, then it is failing completely to meet the specific requirements of film as a collective art form.
When it comes to acting, Kim II endorses something approaching the Method, while allowing for a modicum of distance between performer and role:
The actor should be well-versed in acting techniques which allow him to understand and assimilate in detail the diverse and subtle changes of the character’s ideas and emotions in relation to a particular situation or event, so that the moment he goes on camera, he is quite naturally drawn deep into the world of the character’s life.
An actor who cannot genuinely enter into a character’s state of feeling is not yet an actor. He must enter into this state in order to believe in the character as his own self and to act naturally, as though the scene were reality.
Kim Jong-il also notes that (like their imperialist counterparts) some North Korean directors “attempt to exploit the advantages of the wide screen by presenting nothing but large images of objects and crowding a lot of things into a single frame... thinking of nothing but the scale and form of the screen and ignoring the requirements of the content to be presented on it.” This is an error, says Kim II, for:
[W]hen the form of a piece of work is regarded as good, it is because it matches the content, which has been expressed in an excellent and distinctive fashion, and not because the form itself has some appeal of its own apart from the content... A literary work is not regarded as a masterpiece because of its scale, but because of its content; in camerawork, also, it is not the physical scale but the expression of content that should be broad.
In fact, so intent on the primacy of story is Kim II that the first 111 pages of the book are dedicated to “Life and Literature,” and it is only after he has established that “content is king” that he begins discussing how to turn that material into a cinematic experience. It’s not exactly Cahiers du Cinéma, but Kim Jong-il’s how-to book actually, well, makes sense.
Kim Jong-il died in December 2011 and was succeeded by his son Kim Jong-un. Kim III assumed the title of first general secretary as his dead father was elevated to the rank of eternal general secretary. Now there were two mummies in crystal boxes in the Kumsusan Palace of the Sun, but the regime rolled on without disruption: As Kim III resumed the generation of juche speeches and books, it was as if a single, continuously lying mouth had never stopped talking. So it was that in The Cause of the Great Party of Comrades Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il Is Ever Victorious, Kim III explained that the Workers’ Party of Korea had developed into a juche-oriented revolutionary party, and that seven decades after the state’s founding the revolution was still unfolding, and there were many tasks that needed to be done. Meanwhile, in Let Us Hasten Final Victory Through a Revolutionary Ideological Offensive, Kim III stressed the need to launch “a vigorous ideological offensive aimed at accelerating the struggle to defend socialism” by “concentrating all efforts in the Party’s ideological work on establishing the Party’s monolithic leadership system.”
And on, and on, and on… and now floating online, so that anybody in the world with an Internet connection can read the words of the new leader. Under Kim Jong-un, North Korea remained dedicated to juche, the path of self-sufficiency, while mercilessly rehashing Stalinist formats abandoned practically everywhere else in the world. What else did the regime have to offer but the old lies reheated? In the dying days of world communism, an English doctor named Anthony Daniels passed through North Korea and wrote these words:
Within an established totalitarian regime the purpose of propaganda is not to persuade, much less to inform, but to humiliate. From this point of view, propaganda should not approximate to the truth as closely as possible: on the contrary, it should do as much violence to it as possible. For by endlessly asserting what is patently untrue, by making such untruth ubiquitous and unavoidable, and finally by insisting that everyone publicly acquiesce in it, the regime displays its power and reduces individuals to nullities. Who can retain his self-respect when, far from defending what he knows to be true, he has to applaud what he knows to be false—not occasionally, as we all do, but for the whole of his adult life?
They could just as easily have been written today.
From the book THE INFERNAL LIBRARY: On Dictators, the Books They Wrote, and Other Catastrophes of Literacy by Daniel Kalder. Copyright © 2018 by Daniel Kalder. Reprinted by permission of Henry Holt and Company.
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