Kim Jong-il: 16 February 1942 – 17 December 2011
Kim Jong-un: b. 8 January 1984 (or maybe 5 July 1984)
A PHENOMENON AS SORDID AND DEPRAVED as North Korea doesn’t grow out of the fertile ground of freedom and light. To understand why something is broken you need to understand how it was built – and both Koreas, North and South, were fashioned from a half-century so unimaginably brutal that, perversely, it is the North that seems to makes sense and the South that looks like some kind of aberration, even a miraculous one. There is surely no better way to illustrate the value of freedom than the comparative plights of the two Koreas since their partition after World War ii, and specifically since the end of the Korean War in 1953. Studying them today is the geopolitical equivalent of studying identical twins separated at birth, one now a prominent member of society, the other a pathological monster.
Between 1910 and 1945 the Korean Peninsula as a whole was a colony of a truly savage master, imperial Japan, its neighbour to the south and east across the narrow Korea Strait. During World War II Japan made a contemptible name for itself in the Western world with its surprise invasion of Pearl Harbour, its kamikaze fighting tactics and the appalling mistreatment of prisoners of war. Today it is seen as redeemed, a paragon of civilisation and progressiveness. But to its East Asian neighbours, Japan’s behaviour both during the war and before is remembered with enduring grievance and anger, largely informed by the appalling treatment of occupied civilian populations. most notable was the mass abduction of tens of thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands, of girls and women for use in ‘comfort stations’, essentially rape camps for the imperial Japanese Army. According to a UN report, ‘the rationale behind the establishment of a formal system of comfort stations was that such an institutionalised and, therefore, controlled prostitution service would reduce the number of rape reports in areas where the army was based.’ That progressiveness was not always admirable.
‘North Korea [is] exactly like a 1984 state. It is as if it was modelled on 1984, rather than 1984 on it. It is extraordinary, the leader worship, the terror, the uniformity, the misery, the squalor.’
– Christopher Hitchens
As a result, there is a long-lingering legacy of bitterness that still shapes the geopolitics of the region. in 2015 a deal was signed between Japan and South Korea in which Prime minister Shinzo Abe offered his ‘most sincere apologies and remorse’. A ¥1 billion fund (about $8.3 million at the time) was donated by the Japanese for the care of surviving comfort women, and the two countries agreed to stop ‘criticising and blaming each other in international society’. it was their first deal on the matter since 1965, but within a year it was already on troubled ground after a statue of a comfort woman was erected outside a Japanese embassy in South Korea, and Tokyo withdrew two diplomats. in June 2017 new South Korean president moon Jae-in cast doubt on the agreement.
The mass rape of Korean women was, we must grimly report, but one of the examples of Japanese abuses in the area. During the Japanese annexation of the peninsula and into the 1930s, Japanese rule became increasingly malevolent, as the occupying forces attempted to eliminate Korean culture, names, religion and language. Then came the war – and things got even worse. The awfulness of the comfort stations, for example, saw girls being forced to ‘service’ 40 soldiers a day and executed if they became infected with diseases.
The dropping of the atom bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, both barely 250 kilometres from Korea itself, brought a decisive end to the reign of Japanese atrocity in the region. With the Soviets advancing from manchuria, to the north of the country, down as far as the 38th Parallel, and the Americans accepting Japanese surrender in the south, Korea suddenly found itself in an uneasy state of peace.
Thus the Korea of 1945 has some quite telling context.
In communist and other totalitarian states history isn’t there for interpretation and learning, but for rampant abuse in order to buttress the status quo. So what we do know is that the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics invaded Korea to oust the Japanese in 1945, and that Russian soldiers were welcomed with open arms by the abused, starved and brutalised Koreans. That’s worth a pause, isn’t it?
Life had been so bad that they welcomed the invasion of Stalin’s soldiers… Anyway, legend then has it that there was a frisson of excitement in the 100,000-strong crowd that had gathered in Pyongyang that October day. A heroic anti-Japanese guerrilla leader, the man who had so bravely fought the colonisers in Korea and in manchuria with such success, would appear before them.
‘Now is the moment,’ a Russian general said from the platform, ‘to introduce you to the new leader of your country, Comrade Kim il-sung.’
And with that, the crowd was perhaps surprised with the presentation of a chubby little thirtysomething guy – not exactly the vision of a hardened war veteran.
Ah yes. Kim il-sung: ‘Kim becomes the sun.’
Real name Kim Song-ju, the first Kim was a lie literally from the moment he appeared in front of the Korean people. His new name may have been appropriated from a genuine Korean freedom fighter to boost his credentials – we can’t be sure. Either way, he was a reinvention for a purpose. He had been born into a comfortable Presbyterian family near Pyongyang, and his parents, Kim Hyong-jik and Kang Pan-sok, had fled to manchuria to avoid famine like many Koreans. Russian propaganda had them taking part in various anti-Japanese activities, but the truth is likely to be far less exciting. it appears that Kim may indeed have involved himself in certain paramilitary activities against the Japanese in manchuria, but the idea that he was in any way a most successful Korean military leader was likely, to use a contemporary term, spin.
Kim had spent the early 1940s safely holed up in a Russian military base, where he’d made the rank of Captain, and where he’d remained for four-and-a-half years. His eldest son, Kim Jong-il, was probably born there. This is hardly the story of a swashbuckling military leader, a man who would return to his homeland triumphant ahead of a column of tanks having thrown out the vile colonialist abusers. No, indeed. He arrived in Korea on a Russian navy ship, was met by nobody and went to a local restaurant to have beer and noodles.
What Kim il-sung really was, critically, was fluent in Russian and willing to play along, both of which are handy if you are the Soviet powers that be and happen to want a puppet president for a puppet regime. in fact, the little schooling Kim had received had been in China, and his Korean was so weak that he required assistance in pronunciation so that he could properly address his newly acquired people. By 1948, he was installed as prime minister of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, while in the South the US-approved strongman Syngman Rhee took the reins of the Republic of Korea. Rhee instituted a bloody and brutal crackdown on communist elements in the country, and pretty much anyone else who didn’t toe the line.