BOOKS: by Bill JamesNews Weekly
UNDER THE LOVING CARE OF THE FATHERLY LEADER: North Korea and the Kim Dynasty
, October 8, 2005
Life under Big BrotherUNDER THE LOVING CARE OF THE FATHERLY LEADER:
North Korea and the Kim Dynasty
by Bradley K. Martin
New York: St Martin's Press
Hardcover RRP: $54.95The 14-word title (the first part is taken from a religious opera eulogising the late North Korean dictator, Kim Il-sung) sets the tone. This is a rambling, sprawling, garrulous, discursive, undisciplined, edit-free zone of 868 pages.
It is a work of journalism rather than history, and reads more like a very long magazine article than a book. All sorts of anecdotes, facts and sources are tossed willy-nilly into the mixture, without any sense of their being subordinate to a controlling framework, or serving a conceptual unity.
Those looking for a straight history of North Korea, or a standard double biography of Kim father and son will have to look elsewhere. Martin has read a huge mass of material, visited North Korea a number of times, and interviewed many North Korean defectors. He was obviously determined not to waste a thing.
That being said, Martin has put together what is probably the best available description of day-to-day existence for flesh and blood individuals and families in North Korea. They are all there: labour-camp prisoners; exiles banished from the cities to remote, starving rural hamlets; soldiers; farmers; academics and students; bureaucrats; traders and hustlers; generals; scientists; party officials; entertainers; and the two quasi-deities themselves.
Much of the information comes from interview transcripts of conversations with defectors and, even though allowance must be made for their being out to justify their flight, they remain rare and valuable eye-witnesses of life in the sealed society still known as the "Hermit Kingdom".
(One of the reasons for the relative paucity of defections is the North Korean principle of punishing a defector's parents, spouse, siblings and children by incarceration in one of the lethal and ubiquitous labour camps).
The apotheosis of Kim Il-sung and his son is not unique. The most dogmatically atheistic rulers (Stalin, Hitler, Mao) have demanded and received the most explicitly religious adulation. This paradox is just another illustration of Chesterton's insight that when people reject God they don't believe in nothing, but are prepared to believe in anything.Renouncing Christianity
Kim Il-sung's renunciation of his childhood Protestant Christianity is paralleled in Stalin's jettisoning Russian Orthodoxy, Hitler Roman Catholicism and Mao Buddhism.
Even more bizarre than the grovelling, fanatical cult of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il are Martin's descriptions of attempts by leftist Westerners to justify the totalitarian Pyongyang regime and denigrate the gradual emergence of liberal democracy and prosperity in the South. Even though there are few in the West today prepared to defend North Korea, there are also very few interested in exposing and publicising its inhuman practices.
Unfortunately, it remains true that it is far more fashionable to criticise the blemishes of the West, especially the United States, than to expose the monstrous moral obscenities of communism. As I write this review, North Korea is receiving a great deal of media attention as a result of the six-nation conference on nuclear issues, but the plight of ordinary North Koreans is barely mentioned.
Finally, two of the themes which recur throughout the book are sex and food. Martin is clearly titillated by stories of Kim Jong-il's voracious sexual appetite, and returns repeatedly to the troupes of young women recruited to cater to his needs.
An even more basic drive, for the overwhelming majority of the population, is food. Unlike the tubby Kim Jong-il, most of his subjects are probably too hungry to think about sex.
Interviews with defectors reveal a preoccupation with the minutiae of graded nutrition allocations to various groups in North Korean society, down to the last milligram.
In the end, the utter moral bankruptcy of Kim Jong-il's dictatorship is summed up in the simple statistic that, in a completely controlled economy, at least two million people starved to death.
Another line in the opera from which the book's title is taken goes: "We are completely free from care for food. Our socialist system, which our Great Leader has built, is the best in the world."