North Korea is the modern ‘hermit-kingdom,’ the land that seeks pariahood as a matter of principle. Since its unsuccessful post World War II invasion of the South, it has demonstrated an ideological rigidity that is unrivaled in modern times, and which resembles rigor mortis. Amidst the collapse of its former enablers, and the Chinese renunciation of doctrinaire Communism, it remains immobile like a scarecrow in a swaying field of wheat. Amidst the facts of famine, industrial collapse and socialist ennui North Korea clings stubbornly to its utopian view of the just society. It may be that North Korea and humanities faculty at American colleges remain the only places where one can find true believers in revolutionary socialism. Ideological purity is about all North Koreans have left to salvage as a point of pride.
While ‘Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader‘ is clearly an important contribution to the genre the superlatives regarding the book are overblown. The author seems to be trying really hard to like the Kim’s. But in the end it describes the cruel regime manufactured by the Soviet Union in the North under their puppet Kim Il-Sung and perpetuated to this day – well, till this past Sunday – by Kim’s son, Jong-Il. As long as the author and veteran journalist, Bradley Martin, sticks to the Q & A interviews from North Korean defectors then one can find much of value. These unedited interviews are enlightening and provide genuine insights into the socialist mentality that produced the little shop of horrors in North Korea.
Martin quotes Kim profusely, and helpfully. For instance Kim Il-Sung, the Fatherly Leader whose four decade power trip imploded in 1994, explains how in socialism children should be educated “to reject individualism and selfishness, love the organization and the collective, and struggle devotedly for the sake of society and the people and the party and the revolution.” (p.167) Those who resist end up in gulags. The Black Book of Communism estimates at least 1.5 million Koreans have perished in those camps. Communist Party members and blood relatives became the favored. The rest became expendable. One escapee from North Korean paradise said,
“North Korea should be called the Feudal State of Korea. It’s like during the Yi Dynasty, when it was the yangban [nobles] against the ordinary people.” (p.589)
The ideologically impure operate on the fringes of a fringe society.
Unfortunately the book is uneven; when Martin begins to give his personal impressions one is faced with a confusing mélange of moral equivalence and sycophancy. He seems to entertain a genuine love-hate emotion towards the regime, perhaps providing an explanation for the ambiguous descriptions found throughout. While clearly recognizing the monstrous regime Martin draws back from calling it evil, reserving some measure of sympathy in his descriptions of the highly strung Il-Sung and his ugly creation.
Martin uncritically repeats the regimes’ version of Christianity as a religion imposed by Americans on Koreans at gunpoint. He omits the important point that South Koreans hold as a point of pride that Christianity was first introduced to the people in the early 1600s by a Korean diplomat to Beijing. By the mid 1800s Christians were a harshly persecuted but growing minority in Korea. By then Christian literature had been spread for a few decades due to the prayerful efforts of Dr. Robert Morrison of the London Missionary Society who was a missionary in China. In the summer of 1832, Charles Gützlaff arrived to become the first foreign (German) Protestant missionary to Korea.
Martin also clearly misrepresents a violent clash in 1866 as the “unhappy beginning of Korean-American relations” (p.13) when in fact the first state representatives arrived on January 28, 1853 when the USS South America, a gunboat based in Hawaii, sailed into Pusan Harbor en route to return two shipwrecked Japanese sailors to Japan. The impression the reader comes away with does not comport with this reality.
One cannot help but wonder whether Martin has fallen under the spell of the Kim’s and believes the propaganda in which he has immersed himself for decades. In one instance the guilt manipulation employed by Kim Jong-Il receives a sympathetic writing:
“You do not know what great pain and burdens our leader has to bear all his life and the hardships he has overcome,”
Martin quotes from the impassioned Jong-Il of his father,
“Our leader has experienced all the trials, sorrows and agonies which man has ever undergone and has risked his life on countless occasions. He has shed many a tear taking in his arms his dying comrades who fell on the road of the revolution and even today he cannot sleep, thinking of them.” (p. 256)
Instead of sympathy one calls to mind the sleepless nights of those murderers with a guilty conscience; “[t]here is no peace, saith the LORD, unto the wicked” (Isaiah 48:22).
The usual slobbering up to dictators has been an historical weakness of the chattering class. Think, for instance, of the love letters written by 20th century newspapers about Stalin or Time Magazine’s ill-advised portrayal of Hitler as its Man of the Year. The New York Times lied about the communist sea of blood for nearly the whole 20th century. Admittedly, Martin tries valiantly to resist painting a sympathetic portrait and recognizes the blood stained canvas as a great wrong. He will surely receive no more invitations to North Korea.
On the one hand Martin writes, “North Korea’s human rights situation piled truly atrocity upon atrocity” (p. 680). On the other hand he tries to apologize for the Kims:
“Missing in the accounts by those who demonized Kim was any hint there might be two sides to the story. Surely there are unrelievedly evil people. Saddam Hussein’s sadistic sons Uday and Qusay perhaps qualified. But I could not fit the real Kim Jong-Il comfortably into the role of total monster. … I would describe him as an often insensitive and brutal despot who had another side that was generous and …charming.” (p. 679)
We affirm that Uday and Qusay were unrelievedly evil and that Kim was sometimes insensitive. But Martin has remarkable trouble applying the same epithet to the Kim’s because he knows enough to see in Kim an appreciation of certain liberal and progressive elements that he admires. For instance, Kim Jong-Il possesses a sensitive artistic touch and is generous in gift giving to his pets.
But surely body count should count for something. The Hussein brothers would not come close to matching the several millions of human lives the Kim’s snuffed out through their dystopian dreams. Martin fails to accept that while we may not have lived the nightmare dream of a Kim Il-Sung or Jong-Il we are nevertheless all intrinsically evil – “there is none that doeth good, no, not one” (Psalm 53:3). We are also all made in the image of God. This alone explains how a sensitive artist in a moment appears on the side of the angels pivots with ease to the side of the devils.
Kim II Sung and his ilk may be great men in the cut of Stalin, Hitler, and Mao. If one were to admire or flatter them it might be for their diligence and labor. Satan himself never gives up. Yet his perseverance is no cause for misplaced sympathy and understanding. There is nothing liberal about tyranny. Kim Jong-Il, like his dad, had a veritable harem to satisfy his lusts. Yet Martin portrays both as devoted fathers. As a boy Jong- II asked, “Papa, is it good?” “Of course,” Kim Jong-Il replied. “Everything tastes good when you are around.”
“[t]here is no peace, saith the LORD, unto the wicked” –
The devil smiles as well. Need one say that a good father is not one who dishonors his wife. Similarly, for one who follows the shining path, the selfless road of socialism, for whom possessions meant little, everything was his possession. Like a good communist Kim denied himself no good thing for the sake of the revolution. Korea was his oyster and devoured ate with gusto.
In an amusing passage Martin fantasizes about meeting Kim face to face as a peace consultant, and offering a way for him to retain honor and face. “Goodbye, Mr. Chairman. May the future bring great things for you and your people.” Indeed, goodbye, Mr. Chairman. Goodbye, and while we grieve your eternal soul – God only knows – a very good riddance. And farewell to Kim 2.0 as well.