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     Feb 25, 2010
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Happy birthday, Comrade Kim
By Pepe Escobar

PYONGYANG - It's a cold, crisp, sunny morning in the capital of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK), and there could not be a more important game in town. Billboards bearing the numbers "2.16 [February 16]" - usually decorated with huge red flowers - are all over the place. The flowers are the only splashes of full color against drab grays and browns. They are of course kimjongilia, a modified begonia programmed to bloom exactly on - when else - 2.16.

For Pyongyang's 2 million or so residents, it's time to party. Today is the 68th birthday of the general secretary of the Worker's Party of Korea, chairman of the DPRK National Defense Commission and Supreme Commander of the Korean People's Army - comrade Kim Jong-il.

Kim Jong-il, aka the Dear Leader, has been the maximum leader of North Korea for almost 12 years now. But he's not the president (the titular head of state is the chairman of the presidium of the Supreme People's Assembly, Kim Yong-nam.) A key reason is that he's not very fond of the endless, obligatory diplomatic round of meeting foreign heads of state.

The relentlessly apocalyptic Western media narrative would lead one to believe that on this eventful day the citizens of what is routinely depicted as a "Stalinist/communist/terrorist/totalitarian/insane/rogue/axis of evil gulag" would be one step short of showering a battery of commemorative missiles over South Korea, Japan or the west coast of the US for that matter, not to mention conduct another nuclear test. Reality though bears no "axis of evil" overtones.

Holiday on ice
The day starts with an early morning visit to the imposing bronze statue of president Kim Il-sung - aka the Great Leader, the father of the nation - on top of Mansu hill. It is officially 20 meters high (and certainly looks bigger). At the end of the Japanese colonial period, this site housed the largest Shinto shrine in Pyongyang; thus the Great Leader's statue had to be no-holds-barred imposing.

Everyone and his neighbor seems to have come, bringing flowers, bowing respectfully, and always arriving in neatly arranged groups, from soldiers and high-ranking officials to village elders and the very good-looking traffic ladies in their blue winter jackets. Higher ups arrive with their wives in black Mercedes or Audis, the men in black suits, the women sporting extremely elegant and colorful versions of the Korean national dress.

Then it's off to an international figure skating exhibition - not competition - that includes athletes from England, Switzerland, Ukraine, Belarus and even a Russian, who was a bronze medalist in the 2006 Turin Winter Olympics, a favorite of the crowd. Call it Pyongyang's counterpart to the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics. The real stars though are the locals skaters, kids included, and their apotheosis routine bearing the North Korean flag and the Juche flag - with its hammer, sickle and flame, symbolizing workers, peasants and intellectuals who, according to Kim Il-sung, are "the true masters of society", as "creators of both material and spiritual wealth".

Next stop is the 14th Kimjongilia Festival - a wacky, dazzling flower extravaganza with arrangements offered by everyone from military organs, ministries, national agencies and cooperatives to businesses, overseas Koreans, international organizations and foreign embassies, all featuring the hybrid red begonia (not the national flower of North Korea though; that's the magnolia). The "flower of Kim Jong-il" was created by a Japanese botanist in 1988, symbolizing, according to the official narrative, "wisdom, love, justice, and peace". The Great Leader Kim Il-sung, of course, has his own flower, the Kimilsungia.

The hall is absolutely packed. Everyone seems to have a portable digital camera that somehow materialized from China, and whole families and reams of schoolchildren are eager to pose for a flowery photo of ruby red Kimjongilias enveloping globes, displayed under depictions of high-speed trains, under emblems of the Dear Leader himself and even flanked by mini-replicas of Taepodong missiles.

Then it's time for a mass open-air dance in a square flanked by government buildings - well, not really "mass"; a few hundred couples, the men in dark suits and the women in white, jade green, light pink, cream or black chima (skirt) and jogori (blouse), the "evocative of the fairies in the heavens" Korean national dress. They are all dancing to traditional songs blared to ear-splitting level by what could be dubbed the North Korean version of the Jamaican sound system.

The few steps are very simple, involving a bit of handclapping; the few gaping foreigners are welcomed to join the fun. The locals perform it all stone-faced, although not robotically. Sex in North Korea is not exactly in the air. Schools are segregated by sex. Even holding hands in public is considered very improper behavior. Unmarried single mothers are virtually non-existent (but if it happens, the newborn is meticulously taken care of by the state - just as Korea war orphans were.)

The highlight of the day is synchronized swimming - in an arena in the sports village. The elaborate ballets, performed by dozens of teenagers, rival China's. Kimjongilia panels adorn the arena. Party elders and higher ups get the best seats. The foreign figure-skating stars are also attending. The highlight is a stunning aquatic socialist ballet featuring a native siren in red swimsuit.

That's it; then socialist formalism dissolves, and the locals are off to dinner with relatives, mostly using the metro (two lines), or the aging, mobile works of socialist realism that are the local buses and trams. Some folk may eventually go bowling in the state-of-the-art Pyongyang Golden Lane Bowling Alley (45 lanes in fact; a detailed diagram on the wall shows the itinerary followed by Kim Il-sung on its inauguration day, and even all the spots where he stood). One fact though stands out; all through these merry proceedings, the Dear Leader Kim Jong-il himself was nowhere to be seen.

To be or not to be
Kim Jong-il was born on February 16, 1942, in an anti-Japanese guerrilla camp near Khabarovsk, just across the border from Manchukuo in occupied China. By this time, both his parents had been fighting the Japanese occupation for no less than 10 years.

All trap doors in secretive North Korea seem eventually to lead to what is in fact the royal Kim family - whose Shakespearean saga, if ever brought to a TV mini-series (maybe a Chinese or Hong Kong investor?) would undoubtedly enthrall a global audience.

The Dear Leader's father Kim Il-sung, over six feet tall [1.82 meters] and sporting a broad forehead (a big thing among Korean mothers), was charisma personified. His mother, Kim Chong-suk, widely revered as the ultimate anti-Japanese heroine, was less than five feet tall, pear-shaped, always in guerrilla fatigues, with a round, wide, smiling face, friendly but not very well educated. Kim Jong-il looks more like mom. And to put it mildly, that has made him extremely uneasy all his life.

While he was still a boy, Kim Jong-il suffered two terrible traumas; the accidental drowning of his younger brother in 1947, and the death of his mother in childbirth in 1949. That's when - sporting a state-issued polyester summer uniform and plastic shoes - he started going to gender-segregated elementary school.

Fast forward, and the plot thickens. The focus now is on Kim Jong-nam, Kim Jong-il's son - and until recently heir not-so-apparent (for years he's been living in China on and off). And also on Li Nam-ok, Kim Jong-il's daughter, adopted by him to tutor and play with his beloved son. She is from an aristocratic landowning family from, well, the enemy, South Korea. And although she was born - and lived - with a silver spoon in her mouth, inevitably there would come a day when she would rebel.

The great love of Kim Jong-il's life is and has always been his mistress, the ravishing - and also Southern aristocrat - Sung Hae-rim, the absolute top North Korean movie star. She happens to double as Li Nam-ok's aunt. And it gets even juicier - she is Kim Jong-nam's mother. This means Kim Jong-nam, a possible future DPRK leader (but by now bypassed by his youngest half-brother Kim Jong-un) is technically an illegitimate son.

Kim Jong-nam, tall and handsome like his grandfather Kim Il-sung, grew up much like Pu Yi - the last emperor of China; hyper-protected, hyper-pampered and in fact cloistered in the most cloistered society on the planet. At first he was educated by palace tutors, and had a court attending to his every whim. Meanwhile Li Nam-ok was developing different roles; at first she was his playmate, then his teacher, till finally she became his sister.

And here lies a crucial plot twist; these brother-and-sister royals lived virtually their whole early life as strangers in their own land. That's definitely, deeply imprinted in the psyche of a possible future North Korean leader.

Later as teenagers, both Kim Jong-nam and Li Nam-ok were sent to expensive secondary schools in Geneva - with the inevitable corollary of partying with the rich and famous in Paris. That's when la dolce vita made Li Nam-ok "betray" North Korea. Now she believes that even Kim Jong-il himself regards as nonsense the monolithic official narrative of post-1912 North Korea - the year the father of the nation, Kim Il-sung, was born.

Continued 1 2  

Pyongyang hails 'iron-willed' Kim Jong-il (Feb 16, '10)

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(24 hours to 11:59pm ET, Feb 23, 2010)


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