Obituary: The god who fed his people a diet of lies: Kim Il Sung
Sunday 10 July 1994
In a century marked by extreme dictatorships, Kim Il Sung achieved the most absolute, the most Orwellian, control of all.
For nearly half a century, he ruled over an austere, isolated and threatening country. At the beginning of his rule he started a war that cost 4 million lives. At the end he was trying to build nuclear weapons that could kill even more. All the citizens of North Korea depended for their very survival on their perceived degree of loyalty to Kim Il Sung. The image of the Great Leader, on statues, portraits and lapel badges, was omnipresent in every town and hamlet in the country.
But on Friday, it was announced, god was dead. At 2am on Friday morning, the 'respected fatherly leader departed from us, to our greatest sorrow', the official news agency announced. Diplomats reported that people were crying in the streets of Pyongyang. The cause of death was said to be a heart attack.
Kim Il Sung was the only leader North Koreans have known since the partition of Korea in 1945. Creator of a unique state, which one critic has described as holding its entire population of 22 million 'in a state of virtual brain death', he defied the United States for more than four decades, and played China off against the Soviet Union with breathtaking hubris.
And while his centrally planned economy began to deteriorate rapidly after the collapse of the communist world and the withdrawal of 'fraternal aid', Kim Il Sung continued to look his enemies straight in the eye and threaten the outside world with 'unimaginable catastrophes' if it provoked him too far.
But his final master-stroke - under which he was apparently planning to finesse greater openness about his secretive nuclear weapons programme against diplomatic recognition and economic aid from the US - was denied him. His death came on the very morning his negotiators were due to meet their US counterparts in Geneva to discuss such a deal. Death cheated him also of the opportunity to play host to his South Korean counterpart, President Kim Young Sam, in the first summit between the two leaders. Was the wily old dictator, who time and again had outwitted the US and the South Koreans with his perfectly timed brinkmanship, really ready to join the real world? We may never know.
Security was one of his overbearing concerns. Security of his country, of his personal political legacy and of the system he created.
In his lifetime Kim Il Sung experienced the brutal colonisation of Korea by Japan, followed by its partition by Soviet and American forces at the end of the war and the virtual annihilation of his army by the US in the Korean war before he was saved by Chinese troops.
Korea, it seemed, was always a victim, and much of Kim's paranoid xenophobia arose from a fear - not entirely unjustified - that the outside world wanted to see an end to his entire regime.
Add to this sense of vulnerability a personality cult that was consciously modelled on Stalin's, and the sense of fear and loathing in Pyongyang starts to fall into place.
Behind all the lies and the deceptions visited on his own people - standard fare in any communist country, but more effective in a totally isolated state such as North Korea - was an overpowering desire just to survive, and to avoid another round of subjugation and international humiliation.
'I hope you have discovered we have no horns,' he told Gary Ackerman, a member of the US House of Representatives, who visited him last October. 'Some people think we are terrible. But we have no horns.'
The lies surrounding Kim Il Sung are many and varied. His name is not even real: he was born Kim Sung Ju in 1912 at Namli in South Pyongyang province. While still a teenager he fled Korea, then under Japanese rule, and went to school in China. In 1931 he joined the Chinese Communist Party, and participated in some anti-Japanese guerrilla activity, though his role as a guerrilla leader has been exaggerated by official propagandists. In 1940 he went to the Soviet Union, and did not return to Korea until after the war.
As Moscow was consolidating its sway over North Korea, it picked Kim as a suitable candidate to head the country's Communist government. His anti-Japanese credentials were inflated, and in 1948 he became Prime Minister of the self-declared Democratic People's Republic of Korea.
Two years later, with the US showing signs of having dropped its guard in Korea, and with the explicit approval of Stalin, Kim Il Sung started the Korean war.
This devastated the country, involved the US and China, and ended with the peninsula being divided along the 38th parallel, in roughly the same place as it was partitioned before the war started.
Undeterred, Kim Il Sung set about a rapid heavy industrialisation of his country, profiting from abundant help from Moscow and Peking.
To his own people, however, he preached the doctrine of 'juche' (self-reliance) as he promised to create a workers' paradise that would be the envy of the starving, disease-wracked South Koreans living as virtual slaves of the US. Things did not work out as he had planned, though it was not until the 1970s that the South Korean economy overtook that of the North.
At the same time, the deification of the Great Leader took on ever more eccentric forms. Some 50,000 statues of him were erected. Desks at which he had sat were covered permanently with white cloth, rooms he once slept in were forever held empty.
The official media issued ever more sweeping eulogies of his wise and benevolent leadership until the announcements became a sort of communist mantra, recited over and over into the political void. Meanwhile, his subjects were beginning to struggle with the food shortages that have led to the official policy of having just two meals a day.
Foreigners who met Kim Il Sung - the most recent was former US president Jimmy Carter, three weeks ago - described him as charming, mentally alert and surprisingly well informed about the outside world. Far from the self-deluding megalomaniac of some accounts, the Great Leader seems to have been all too painfully aware of the shortcomings of his country's economic performance. In his New Year speech this year he referred to the need to change course, and to improve food and energy supplies.
In a cruel sense his death rounds off a lifetime of frustrated objectives: he could not feed his own people, he did not win the longed-for recognition of the US and he did not live to see the Korean peninsula reunited.
In the end, everything escaped him.
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