Howard W. French
FRIDAY, JULY 22, 2005 – COpyright The International Herald Tribune
SHANGHAI A revealing book has just been published about a closed and secretive East Asian country that devotes a huge portion of its budget to developing nuclear weapons, even as millions of its people starve to death.
Among the many revelations in the book are details of how the country’s leaders ran a lucrative narcotics trade in order to finance their survival. There are equally telling accounts of the development of an all-suffocating personality cult, under which the masses are required to wear pins bearing their leader’s likeness and to recite his words, which are revered as a source of “immense joy to the people of the world.”
Readers should be forgiven for guessing that the book in question concerns North Korea, the hereditary Marxist dictatorship that is frequently described as the world’s most bizarre state. But readers who reached that conclusion, however logically, would have been wrong. The thick and heavily researched book in question is “Mao: The Unknown Story,” by Jung Chang.
Among the book’s numerous anecdotes is the story about a China, reduced to near-African levels of poverty by Mao Zedong’s leadership, that nonetheless invested heavily in lofting a satellite in 1970 to orbit the globe, while warbling the Maoist anthem, “The East Is Red.”
This feat was neatly duplicated nearly three decades later by North Korea’s present-day leader, Kim Jong Il. In 1998, and without warning, he launched a rocket that flew over Japan, ostensibly to place his own paean-warbling satellite into orbit.
Stories like these, of which there are a great many, help drive home a lesson unintended by Chang’s book: That however troubling or reprehensible the North Korean leadership may have been over the years, when seen by the historical standards of its neighborhood, its behavior has been anything but weird.
The North Korean regime’s most obvious bloodlines flow from the Soviet Union of Stalin and the China of Mao in the 1950s and 1960s, with its confrontationist stance and seeming obliviousness to human life. The examples of both these maximum leaders counseled Kim Il Sung that even a country like his could be willed to greatness.
“Factories don’t stress efficiency,” said Li Chunhu, dean of Korean studies at Shanghai International Studies University. “They depend on ideological campaigns, people’s war, to encourage people to work. These were all things we experienced ourselves.”
The often-overlooked third pillar to what appears today to be a unique and unusual system – one characterized by the people’s absolute identification with an all-powerful, quasi-divine leader – is Imperial Japan. North Korea, a colony for 35 years, emerged from the ashes of Japan’s collapsed empire.
Even today, elderly Japanese say the brainwashing of the North Korean populace and the ritual acts of slavish devotion to the Kims, father and son, recall the indoctrination and emperor-worship of Japan in the 1930s and 1940s.
The Japanese ideology of that era was known as kokutai, meaning national polity, but the word became a catchall to describe absolute devotion to a sacred emperor and a sense of being Japanese, distinct and superior to all things foreign.
By 1936, Japan was spending 47.7 percent of its budget on armaments. As in North Korea today, a society “dyed in one color,” according to official propaganda, the kokutai ideology made this kind of abnegation possible by stressing the need for “a structure of unanimity” in national life.
People were urged “to live for the great glory and dignity of the emperor, abandoning one’s small ego, and thus expressing our true life as a people,” wrote Herbert Bix in “Hirohito and the Making of Modern Japan.”
Given a chance, most North Koreans today would readily recognize kokutai as a near twin of their own ruling ideology, Juche. The Korean term, equally a catchword, literally means self-reliance and is meant to draw a firm line between things Korean and everything else.
Howard W. French