The Kims’ North Korea: Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader: North Korea and the Kim Dynasty by Bradley K Martin

Yoel Sano – The Asia Times

As speculation mounts that North Korea is about to conduct its first nuclear-weapons test, there has seldom been a greater urgency to know about the country and its leaders, the late Great Leader Kim Il-sung and his son and chosen successor, Dear Leader Kim Jong-il. Luckily, Bradley Martin’s Under The Loving Care Of The Fatherly Leader: North Korea And The Kim Dynasty, provides most of the answers.
The two Kims are the only leaders North Korea has ever known since its establishment as a separate state from the South in September 1948. Not only that, but perhaps no leader anywhere in human history has so thoroughly dominated a country as either of the Kims has. As such, Martin’s book is as much a biography of North Korea as it is of the two Kims. The author successfully combines history, society, travel writing and political analysis in a way that makes it totally readable, despite its 800 pages. While Martin’s level of detail will please experienced Pyongyang watchers, the book is nonetheless accessible to even those not acquainted with this Byzantine field.
Writing accurately about North Korea is always a formidable challenge, given the country’s isolation from the rest of the world, the totalitarian nature of the regime and its all-powerful propaganda machine, and the fact that enemies of the country have disseminated disinformation over the years. Yet, through a combination of exhaustive research (with 100 pages of end-notes), countless interviews with defectors and other senior officials, and four visits to the communist state over a 25-year period, Martin has penned what must be the most comprehensive single-volume English-language book ever written on North Korea. (Arguably, the only competitor is the two-volume Communism in Korea by Robert A Scalapino and Chong-sik Lee, written in 1972.)
To his credit, Martin is as objective as can be, given the constraints he faces. As such, he seeks to avoid deliberately or unnecessarily demonizing the two Kims merely for the sake of it, as some anti-Kim writers have done, either out of hatred or for the purposes of sensationalism. For example, Martin acknowledges that from the 1950s to the 1970s, the North Korean economy grew rapidly, bringing about considerable benefits to the population, such as a higher gross domestic product (GDP) per capita, life expectancy and literacy levels. Indeed, it was only in 1976 that South Korea’s GDP per capita overtook the North’s. Nonetheless, Martin’s book cannot help but paint a bleak and even horrific picture of life in North Korea, and indeed, the system formed by the Kims, father and son.
Nightmare world
Most of these bleak stories are relayed through lengthy interviews with defectors. And herein lies a danger: until recently, Northern defectors had been encouraged by South Korea’s intelligence services to portray their homeland in the worst possible light. However, Martin discusses the merits and difficulties of using defector testimony in his end-notes. The scope of defectors is broad, ranging from ordinary citizens to engineers, junior members of the elite and armed forces, prison guards and former intelligence agents. One rare weakness in this book, however, is that most of these interviews were conducted in the early 1990s, and it is not clear why Martin has not interviewed more recent defectors, given that the number has swelled over the past few years.
Nonetheless, from reading these defectors’ tales, as relayed verbatim in Martin’s book, it is hard not to conclude that North Korea is ruled by one very nasty regime. The country’s extreme bleakness stems from the sheer economic hardships faced by the population – especially from the 1970s onwards – and the depth of the regime’s efforts to control its people. On the economic front, long-term malnutrition and mass starvation from the 1990s onwards has taken a heavy physical toll on the population as a whole. In fact, even before the agricultural crisis of the 1990s, North Koreans were hardly well-off.
However, it is the political repression that is most striking to the reader. As a measure of North Korea’s totalitarianism, one North Korean defector who studied in the Soviet Union during the last months of Konstantin Chernenko’s presidency (1984-85) and the early pre-perestroika days of Mikhail Gorbachev described his arrival in the Soviet Union thus: “I saw a wave of individualism. People all dressed differently. Party members weren’t forced to attend every single meeting but could skip some. I like the way the system worked: if you had money, you could buy, unlike the ration system in North Korea.”
This man was one of the lucky few North Koreans who saw the outside world. The regime has had a virtual monopoly on information, meaning North Korean citizens only hear what they are told. All radios are soldered to be permanently tuned to state channels. Anyone suspected of disloyalty – even in a light-hearted manner, through careless jokes about the leadership – may be subject to re-education, along with family members, who are guilty by association. Even those most keen on serving the regime have been prevented from promotion if a relative, past or present, is suspected of disloyalty. Criteria for disloyalty are surprisingly broad, and include historical ties with South Korea before the peninsula’s division or with Japan, Pyongyang’s No 2 enemy after the United States. Worst off, politically and physically, are the hundreds of thousands who have been sent to North Korea’s concentration camps, dotted around the country. Martin’s description of North Korea’s gulag system, through defector testimony, is one of the hardest-hitting aspects of his book.
A ‘Catholic state in the Middle Ages’
At the center of this totalitarian world are Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il, who, along with the country’s juche (self-reliance) ideology, have been likened by some observers to the Holy Trinity of Father, Son and Holy Ghost. Perhaps this is less surprising when one considers that Kim Il-sung was born into a Christian background, on April 15, 1912 (the same day the Titanic sunk, Kim’s critics like to point out), barely two years into Japan’s brutal 35-year occupation of the Korean peninsula (1910-45). At the time, Martin notes, Pyongyang had become something of a “Jerusalem” of the Far East, because of the large presence of Christians converted by American missionaries in earlier years. In fact, a large number of Korean nationalists fighting for independence from Imperial Japan were Christians. While Kim later played down his Christian background, aspects of the religion – albeit extreme – do seem to have had an impact on his life and style of governance.
Although Kim Il-sung’s early life and career as an anti-Japanese guerrilla fighter have been documented by previous authors, Martin nonetheless handles this area with considerable skill, given the mythology that has come to surround Kim. For example, Martin compares what previous historians have uncovered with Kim’s own memoirs, written later in his life when he was (slightly) more objective. The author also explains Kim’s motivations for invading South Korea in 1950, an action driven by ideology and nationalism, but also because of the complementary nature of the mountainous North’s mineral resources and industrial base with the South’s agricultural productivity. After the war ended in stalemate with about 3 million Koreans dead, Kim never abandoned his dream of reuniting the peninsula, either peacefully or by force – if not in conventional combat then through agitation and subversion in the South.
The author also chronicles the succession saga to pass the leadership onto Kim Jong-il with remarkable detail, often supported by defector testimony. Essentially, although the notion of hereditary succession was anathema to the communist system Kim Il-sung created, the de-Stalinization of the Soviet Union under leader Nikita Khrushchev from 1956 persuaded Kim that the only way to preserve his historical legacy was through the succession of his eldest son, Kim Jong-il. Opponents of this plan were gradually purged, while those sympathetic to the idea were elevated to high office. Relatives from the wider Kim family were also appointed to key positions, as were the sons and daughters of Kim Il-sung’s guerrilla comrades. By the 1970s, at which point Kim Il-sung was actively maneuvering his son for the succession, the Kim family and its allies had come to resemble the nobility (yangban) of Korea in the Middle Ages, living a life of secluded luxury in an otherwise poor country.
The existence of the yangban class in North Korea is one of the more interesting aspects of the evolution of the communist state. From reading Martin’s book it becomes apparent that more than being a modern socialist state, North Korea is, and has been, run along the lines of a quasi-medieval kingdom organized through a bizarre mish-mash of Stalinist communism, ultra-nationalism and xenophobia, hyper-elitism of the ruling class, and Confucian principles of filial piety and obedience to rulers taken to the extreme. The irony of course is that Kim Il-sung in his younger years had denounced Confucianism and feudalism in the harshest terms, regarding the two as major obstacles to building a modern state.
With the Kims at the apex of a quasi-theocracy, one European diplomat’s description of North Korea as being akin to a Catholic state of the Middle Ages, in which 90% of the population believes in the regime and its teachings, is less surprising. In this context, it is also unsurprising that many defectors who Martin spoke to still revere and respect Kim Il-sung, instead attributing the country’s more recent hardships to Kim Jong-il.
Reverence for the late Great Leader has not been passed onto his son, Kim Jong-il, despite North Korea’s propaganda machine working at full force. By all accounts, Kim Jong-il grew up lonely after the death of his younger brother Shura in 1948 and his mother, Kim Jong-suk, who died in childbirth in 1949. Kim Il-sung was often too busy with state matters to look after Jong-il, leading the latter to adopt a love-hate relationship with his father. Kim Jong-il also resented his stepmother, Kim Song-ae, and her sons, especially the eldest, Kim Pyong-il. In fact, Pyong-il came to be a possible rival for the top leadership to Jong-il.
Kim Jong-il instead appeared more interested in opera and filmmaking. Martin recounts how Kim essentially took over North Korean cinema – and, consequently, had affairs with many of the country’s leading actresses. One of them, Sung Hye-rim, gave birth to Kim Jong-il’s eldest son and one-time heir-apparent, Kim Jong-nam.
Gangs, goons, and girls
While much of the above has been well documented over the years, Martin’s book ties these stories together in a single volume – something that very few, if any, Western authors have yet done. He also breaks quite a lot of new ground or expands considerably on existing ground for Pyongyang watchers. Chief among hitherto little-discussed topics are analyses of the existence of fighting youth gangs among the elite in the 1970s, gender and sexual relations among North Koreans, the growth of prostitution in the country as the economy fell further into disrepair in recent years, and perhaps most intriguingly, the issue of Kim Il-sung’s “unacknowledged” children through illicit affairs.
Regarding the gangs, one defector recounts how sons of the elite often formed gangs organized through their fathers’ status and fought against gangs of lower-ranked officials’ sons. The gang phenomenon was introduced by returnees from Japan, and while the notion of gang fights may not sound unusual per se, the fact that this was an elite phenomenon and that it happened in a country where there was strict control over all forms of behavior is significant. Eventually, from the mid-1970s, the regime cracked down on gangs when it came to fear they were being manipulated by South Korean intelligence agents to sow discord in the regime. However, it is interesting to speculate that gangs and mafias could return in full force, should the regime collapse or its authority fade.
Martin’s coverage of women and gender relations in North Korea is also worth noting. Although Kim Il-sung appears to have been at least in part a feminist, in that he sought to bring women’s education up to scratch and elevate their status by involving them in the workforce, he nonetheless possessed a virtual harem of young women selected purely for the purposes of entertaining him and Kim Jong-il. Kim Il-sung’s interest in young women was not just for pleasure, but for rejuvenating himself through absorbing a young virgin’s ki, or life-force, during sex. As such, it was extremely difficult being an attractive teenage girl in North Korea, lest the authorities (schools, in practice) recommend her to recruiters of the so-called “happy corps” (entertainers), or “satisfaction corps” (sexual services). Remarkably, parents were often happy for their daughters to be selected for these corps, for it would confer on them enhanced status, and therefore money. Pleasure girls retired from the corps at 22, after which they were often married off to other members of the elite. The two Kims’ easy-going sex lives were in sharp contrast to the stricter social mores of North Korea’s conservative society, yet another example of the leaders not practicing what they preached.
The next succession saga and the future
As a result of the existence of Kim Il-sung’s “harem” and his ladies’ man reputation, Martin believes the late Great Leader fathered a number of unacknowledged children. One of these may be Kim Jong-su, a seemingly junior official who Martin met on several of his trips and who officially served in North Korea’s cultural affairs department, but who may in fact be a high-ranking member of the intelligence service. Another is Kim Hyon-nam, whose existence was first reported by Japan’s Jiji press in August 2002. That report stated that Hyon-nam was a son of Kim Jong-il, but Martin reckons that Hyon-nam is in fact the senior Kim Il-sung’s son by a nurse. Earlier this year, international news agencies reported that yet another illegitimate son of Kim Il-sung, Kim Jang-hyun, had been involved in an assassination attempt against Jong-il’s oldest son, Kim Jong-nam. If infighting within the Kim dynasty continues, there might be a greater chance of the regime imploding than previously recognized.
For the next succession from Kim Jong-il, Martin sees Jong-il’s daughter Kim Sol-song as the best-suited candidate among his offspring (most speculation has focused on Kim’s younger sons). Sol-song, an economist by training, has reportedly accompanied her father on many of his tours around North Korea and is said to enjoy her father’s trust. With Kim Jong-il increasingly focused on economic reforms, having Sol-song at the helm may offer the regime its best chance of reform – if there is even a chance at all, that is. Here Martin also provides a good overview of North Korea’s tentative economic reforms, which were launched in July 2002, and their possible consequences.
One surprising aspect about Martin’s speculation on the future is that despite having seen North Korea for himself and having heard so many terrible tales from defectors, he still remains cautiously optimistic that Kim Jong-il may emerge as a reformer. Kim may even choose to become a constitutional ruler, using the Swedish or Thai monarchies as examples, if his mention of these two royal systems in conversations with the visiting former US secretary of state, Madeleine Albright, is to be believed.
Indeed, in a best-case scenario, Martin hopes that after receiving a high-ranking US official, possibly US President George W Bush himself, emulating Richard Nixon’s 1972 visit to China, Kim Jong-il gathers his security chiefs together and demands that the regime tears down its concentration camps. Unfortunately, the author may be far too optimistic on this front, and he admits that this is something of a fantasy trip.
Reform or apocalypse?
Nonetheless, dialogue is still better than no dialogue, given that the stakes are getting ever higher. While conventional wisdom holds that the US is unlikely to attack North Korea, in view of Pyongyang’s massive retaliatory capabilities against South Korea and Japan, it is nonetheless discomforting that many defectors interviewed by Martin describe how North Koreans actually want war. So dire has the economic situation become, and so intense is the anti-US propaganda, that the population would prefer death and destruction in a patriotic war to the monotony of daily life and slow death by starvation. These testimonies are over a decade old, and it is impossible to know whether they still stand, but if true, they suggest that there is very little chance that South Korean and US troops will be welcomed as liberators if they ever occupy North Korea, post-regime collapse. Furthermore, some defectors say that younger Korean People’s Army officers are even more hardline than the older revolutionary generation, who are passing from the scene. Kim Jong-il himself was quoted by one defector as telling his father and defense minister that he would “destroy the world” if North Korea lost a new war on the peninsula. With North Korea already reckoned to possess around eight nuclear bombs, no-one can afford not to take the country and Kim Jong-il seriously.
Overall, Bradley Martin has written a truly remarkable book, one that should be read by anyone even remotely interested in North Korea, or more broadly, communist history, totalitarianism and political repression, human-rights abuses, and the ability of human beings to survive under some of the grimmest economic and political conditions ever seen. The topic often makes uneasy reading. Yet it is essential reading to understand where North Korea and the Kims have come from, and where they may be going.
Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader: North Korea and the Kim Dynasty by Bradley K Martin. Thomas Dunne Books, 2004. ISBN: 0312322216 (hardcover). Price: US$33.84, 868 pages.
Yoel Sano has worked for publishing houses in London, providing political and economic analysis, and has been following events in Northeast Asia for many years.
(Copyright 2005 Asia Times Online Ltd. All rights reserved

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