THE TROUBLE with telling a lie is that you always have to remember it and be able to repeat it when necessary or risk embarrassing inconsistency. Eventually, the lie takes on a life of its own, with consequences that can snowball until they cannot be controlled.
Kim Il Sung is a consummate liar. One of the longest-running examples of his mendacity concerns his country's programme to develop nuclear weapons. North Korea thought it could bamboozle the International Atomic Energy Agency, which is why it agreed a couple of years ago to allow inspections of its facilities. But Kim underestimated modern monitoring techniques. Armed with American satellite intelligence, the agency started asking awkward questions and set a deadline of this month to inspect two facilities that Pyongyang had sought to conceal. Risking discovery, North Korea announced its withdrawal from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and declared a state of 'semi-war', claiming that joint US-South Korean military exercises were a rehearsal for invasion.
The crisis this triggered has abated, but the falsehoods on which North Korea's Communist society have been based continue, swollen to such a degree that they consume the entire country. Everything in North Korea is part of the lie, from stories glorifying Kim Il Sung as a guerrilla leader at the age of 11 to the government's economic statistics, which until recently claimed that North Korea, under the paternal guidance of Kim Il Sung, was the most efficient producer of rice in the world.
Mankind has not seen falsification on such a grand scale before. Rice is exported to friendly African nations as a sign of North Korea's largesse, while there are food riots in the country and the national ration has been reduced to two meals a day. Every big achievement of North Korea's economy has been inspired by Kim Il Sung's alleged on-the-spot expert guidance.
Perversely, there is something almost noble in the effort that has been required to sustain four decades of unremitting adulation of the Great Leader. But there is also something poisonous in North Korea's psychotic version of reality, a tendency to lash out which was shown in the killing of half the South Korean cabinet by a bomb in Rangoon in 1983, and the bombing of a civilian Korean Airlines jet in 1987. And now, if the world's suspicions about the secretive state are correct, Kim Il Sung has finally laid his hands upon nuclear bombs, most dangerous means yet invented of altering reality.
Could the final moment of truth of the lie of Kim Il Sung be the nuclear devastation of the Korean peninsula? It would be a grimly logical finale to four- and-a-half decades of failed leadership. And it would be the ultimate betrayal of the cause that Kim Il Sung has always allegedly represented, but in fact has constantly worked against: the welfare of the Korean people.
Patriotism has been Kim Il Sung's strongest rallying call throughout his career. Born in 1912, two years after Japan began colonising Korea, he fled to China and fought for some time with anti-Japanese guerrillas under Chinese control. Recently discovered documents in China show that he joined the Chinese Communist party in 1931, and that in 1940 he was on a Japanese military wanted list, where he was described as a guerrilla leader, codenamed Tiger. Late that year he took refuge in the Soviet Union and did not return to Korea until September 1945, on a Soviet ship that was 'liberating' the northern part of the country.
His modest resistance role was later inflated, under Soviet guidance, to make him the overall leader of anti-Japanese activity, and hence the man with the best credentials to lead the country. But immediately after the Second World War he was still jostling for power, and it was not until he made a secret trip to Moscow in 1946 that he got the official stamp of approval from Joseph Stalin to take over the leadership of Soviet-backed North Korea. He became head of the self-declared Democratic People's Republic of Korea in September 1948.
On 15 June 1950 North Korea invaded the south, four months after Kim Il Sung had made another secret visit to Moscow to obtain Stalin's approval for a document entitled Korean People's Army Pre-emptive Strike Plan. But in the end it was China that sent troops to counter the US military's support for South Korea, and for most of his life Kim Il Sung played the two Communist giants off against each other in his own interest.
After the war, he launched a series of purges to consolidate his power. And, with the death of Stalin in 1953, he also adopted the title 'Suryong' or Great Leader. Vast industrial projects were established with Chinese and Soviet aid, and for a time North Korea outperformed the South - it was not until the Seventies that South Korea's per capita GNP overtook the North.
The North's economy has not been helped by the enormous waste that has gone into building up the cult of Kim Il Sung. About 50,000 statues of the Great Leader, many in marble and granite, grace towns and countryside. The Museum of the Korean Revolution in Pyongyang was built with 95 halls and three miles of exhibits glorifying the Great Leader's achievements. The celebrations for his 80th birthday last April, for which 100,000 athletes were engaged, probably cost more than pounds 500m.
At the same time, Kim has established a highly centralised party system, graded citizens into different categories of 'reliability' and sent tens of thousands of 'political prisoners' to concentration camps spread all over the country. His regime even monitors the virginity or sexual activity of female citizens: according to defectors, compulsory physical examinations are carried out at women's workplaces and each time a woman changes residence. Tireless ideological propaganda campaigns praising the wisdom of the Great Leader have approached the level of national brainwashing. No news from outside the country is allowed to circulate.
Gavan McCormack, a scholar at the Australian National University who set out to research the 'pathological nature' of North Korea under Kim Il Sung, arrived at this conclusion: 'Autonomy has been sucked upward in an irresistible vortex from the citizens to the Leader . . . the fruits of the labour of the people are consumed and wasted . . . 20 million people are being held in a state of virtual 'brain death'.'
A fundamental part of the lie is the 'juche', or self-reliance ideology, first mentioned by Kim Il Sung in a speech in 1955. Juche, which was designed to appeal to Koreans' feelings of xenophobia and resentment of foreign interference, espoused an economy that was self-sufficient, built by the heroic efforts of 'shock work troops' who put in long hours out of love for the Great Leader. Behind juche was the substantial aid in machinery, oil and other raw materials being received from China and the Soviet Union, but this foreign aid was underplayed in the official media.
From the early Seventies, the personality cult that deified Kim Il Sung, his parents and grandparents, began to give emphasis to his first son, Kim Jong Il. It became clear that the elder Kim intended to pass on power to his son, born in 1942, in a manner more reminiscent of Oriental dynastic tradition than Marxist-Leninist orthodoxy.
This meant the lie had to be expanded to take in the legendary achievements of the newly named Dear Leader, who, like his father, gave on-the-spot guidance to workers and wrote volumes of philosophy and literary criticism while sheltering war orphans and promoting the country's scientific discoveries.
According to defectors and diplomats who have met him, Kim Jong Il is a pampered brat who lives in a chain of luxury villas, where he takes saunas, frolics with hired beauties and watches videos. He instructs the country's diplomats to procure cognac, caviar and crabs from abroad for his table, and has not shown any overpowering interest in Marxism-Leninism.
The withdrawal of North Korea from the NPT and the placing of the country on a semi-war footing were done in Kim Jong Il's name, and there is some speculation that he is trying to consolidate his position in the face of tacit opposition from the military. But, like other Asian autocrats who have supposedly retired - from China's Deng Xiaoping to Burma's Ne Win - Kim Il Sung will remain the real centre of power until he dies.
He must be a lonely man today. He has shown to interviewers that he is well-informed about international affairs, so he has watched the collapse of Communism and, most galling, the economic and diplomatic successes of South Korea, the 'US puppet state'. The last straw came in August 1992, when his final remaining ally, Peking, announced that it was normalising diplomatic relations with Seoul.
His friends used to include 'Emperor' Bokassa in Central Africa, Mobutu in Zaire, Idi Amin in Uganda, Gaddafi in Libya and Ceausescu in Romania. Most of these figures have been toppled, or at least discredited. His most prominent remaining friend is Prince Sihanouk of Cambodia, who has a palace in Pyongyang and, for his own idiosyncratic reasons, chooses to lavish extravagant - some would say tongue-in-cheek - praise on the Great Leader.
Kim Il Sung probably does not know the full extent of his country's economic problems, which have become critical since the cut-off of aid from China and the former Soviet Union. Accurate economic data would contradict so radically the leadership cult, with its improbable successes in food production and industrial output, that it is unlikely anyone would dare to draw up the real facts. But he does know that his dream of outperforming South Korea is beyond reach.
Kim Il Sung has built his own prison of lies, the walls of which are like fairground mirrors that show a bigger-than-life image of the Great Leader himself. Everywhere he turns he sees his reflection leering at him. All his subjects wear lapel badges with his face on them. An 80ft bronze statue of him dominates the Pyongyang skyline. After a while it all starts to blur, and the only thing he has left is his finger on the nuclear button. The lie has mushroomed into a monster.
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