Heaven's above! What's up with Kim?
By Donald Kirk
NEW YORK - The issue of Kim Jong-Il's health evokes the theological question,
is God dead?
Given the mythic status of the Dear Leader in the North Korean pantheon, the
question may not be irrelevant. There have been reports from mysterious
diplomatic sources that he's not well, we've seen the phony photo of his visit
to a military unit, and then the right-wing Japanese media had everyone on edge
waiting for an "important announcement" from Pyongyang.
Now comes the official North Korean denial via the Korean Central News Agency
that there's nothing wrong with him. The reports by the conservative Yomiuri
Shimbun, Japan's biggest-selling
newspaper, and the right-wing Sankei Shinbun, were big lies, we're told, by
Maybe so, but who knows what to believe when Kim won't make a convincing
appearance, and there's no assurance that he's not on life support while a
cabal of generals maneuver behind the cover of whichever son seems most likely
to take over.
Propping up the mystique of Kim Jong-Il, dead or alive, is an exercise that no
one should ignore, considering who still rules as president of the Democratic
People's Republic of Korea. That would be Kim Jong-il's father, the late Kim
Il-sung, whom the Supreme People's Assembly named as "eternal president" four
years after he departed the real world in July 1994.
Kim Jong-il may not cut quite the same dramatic figure as did Kim Il-sung, but,
like his father, he has definitely ascended to the level of deity in North
Korea. Since a deity is by definition immortal, the assumption is that he's got
to have a presence as well as a title in perpetuity.
Considering that North Korean mystique has been portraying him for many years
as having been born in a cabin in a forest on snow-covered Mount Paektu, it's
safe to assume that the myth-makers are dreaming up a suitable story for his
passing - and his elevation to immortality.
The trouble is, it's hard to come up with a very convincing line in view of the
Dear One's hard-living lifestyle as the spoiled offspring of the founder of the
country. He may be supreme commander, chairman of the National Defense
Commission and author of the "military first" policy that gives primacy to the
armed forces over the government and the party, but has he ever gone through
basic training or fired a rifle?
His father no doubt exaggerated his own feats as a guerrilla fighter battling
the Japanese in Manchuria in the 1930s, but there's no doubt he was roughing it
out there before joining the Soviet army as an officer and spending World War
II mainly around Khabarovsk in Russia, 30 kilometers from the Chinese border,
where Kim Jong-il was born.
How do you make a myth around a man who may never have had to do a push-up, run
a lap or respond with name, rank and serial number to the shouted order of a
sergeant oblivious to his royal heritage - or possibly reveling in the chance
to embarrass one of noble blood as an example to show off the toughness of
Kim Jong-il, moreover, is still in his mid 60s - probably 66 - nearly 20 years
younger than was his father at the time of his passing.
It's not possible to blame the son's sickly condition on much other than a
profligate lifestyle of heavy drinking and eating, womanizing and carousing,
possibly - as some reports say - laced with marijuana, cocaine and pills. In
his lengthiest appearance in recent years, meeting and greeting Roh Moo-hyun,
then South Korea's president, in October 2007, he clearly had the appearance of
a mere mortal, mottled by age, showing his fatigue.
But North Korea's god-king cannot be left to die while the question of his
succession is far from settled. It is for that reason that the Pyongyang
propaganda mill has to maintain the myth overlaying the reality of a palace
struggle that no outside observer can remotely fathom.
The nature of the North Korean cover-up hardly punctures the reports of his
illness, reports spread by the team of Chinese doctors flown in to hover by his
beside in mid-August after the initial collapse. Why he collapsed, from a
stroke, a seizure, whatever, may not be clear, but the rumors, relayed by
diplomatic sources in Beijing, leave the impression the Dear Leader is
No wonder North Korea, no longer on the US list of state sponsors of terrorism,
is denouncing South Korea's conservative President Lee Myung-bak and his
government in ever-more venomous terms. How better to prove the machismo of the
Dear Leader - and distract attention from unwelcome speculation over his
Besides warning South Korea of the direst consequences for assorted offenses,
the Pyongyang propagandists have been at pains to convince everyone that all's
normal in their own small world.
First there was the report, unsubstantiated by photos, that the Dear Leader had
watched a soccer match at Kim Il-sung University. Then there were those photos
showing him on a visit to a military unit - a ruse that was easily disproved by
the unseasonably green foliage in the background.
Finally, there's the denunciation of Yomiuri Shimbun and Sankei Shimbun,
attacked as "ultra-rightist" for talking about the "abnormal health condition"
of the Dear Leader. In a contest between the credibility of these two papers
versus that of the North Korean propaganda machine, it would be difficult to
select a winner.
It's quite possible the Japanese were spreading an unsubstantiated rumor for
the sensational impact of such a report on their deeply conservative readers.
It's even possible their stories were deliberately planted by official Japanese
sources, miffed by their failure to get North Korea to acknowledge all the
Japanese kidnapped from Japanese soil in the late 1970s and early 1980s.
It's equally possible, however, that the Japanese reports have more than an
iota of truth and the North Korean denial is false.
The latest from Pyongyang was noteworthy for failing to include a ringing
affirmation that the Dear One was feeling just great, much less any explanation
of what he has been up to lately.
The nature of North Korean propaganda, though, should refute the view of a
Japanese scholar that Kim Jong-il died some time ago and doubles have been
filling in for him. If that were the case, wouldn't one of the doubles have
been on duty in recent weeks, and wouldn't his picture have been released as
evidence of the Dear One's good health?
No doubt, but the question remains, is God dead, or can God die, and how do you
convince North Koreans that Kim Jong-il is a god whose spirit will live on for
years after he leaves the scene? For all the tall stories, he just doesn't
inspire the adulation his father commanded among millions of fanatic followers
- that is, those who weren't imprisoned or starving or stricken by disease.
If it doesn't prove that Kim Jong-il is in good health or at least alive, the
propaganda does prove to North Koreans that he's a god whose immortality is
assured in story, song and statuary, regardless of potshots from the hated
Japanese against whom his father fought in the runup to World War II. For North
Koreans, it may be reassuring to know god is not dead.
Journalist Donald Kirk has been covering Korea - and the confrontation of
forces in Northeast Asia - for more than 30 years.