Welcome to North Korea, “the world’s best socialist paradise on earth”.
It is still warm in my ears, a North Korean greeted me upon my arrival in Pyongyang Airport last year. I was invited to cover the Indonesian delegation attending the anniversary of the Worker Party. It was an intriguing experience to see the most isolated country in the globalization world.
Invitations to visit Pyongyang are rare enough, especially for journalists. I was privileged. North Korea’s government granted me access to visit the last preserves of the communist country in the 21st century. They took me on a two-days “City Tour” to see the greatness of the “Land of Great Leader Kim Il-sung”.
North Korea is poor, isolated, and desperate. It is unpredictable and provocative. But, Pyongyang is a showcase of Kim Il-sung glorious achievement of his megalomaniac desires.
This unique capital city has the neat and orderly apartment complexes, three-lined avenues festooned with colorful banners and flags, no ugly traffic congestion anywhere (because there are virtually no cars and not even any bicycles there), smiling uniformed-clad children singing praises to the “Great Leader” when they march to schools, and more than 100 works of superb architectures.
The North Korean media tirelessly boasts about the various monuments, enormous in size and grandiose in style, which have been erected in Pyongyang in an effort to build the city into a showcase of Kim Il-sung’s Juche (self-reliance) ideology. Even these days, various projects to beautify the city are being vigorously carried out under the ‘direct guidance’ of Kim Jong-il, son and heir-designate of President Kim Il-sung.
Kim Il-sung, who died in 1994, is still the head of state as “president in eternity”. To keep him “alive” and glorifying him as a charismatic leader, North Korea built some 35,000 Kim Il-sung statues. Everywhere you go, you will see the Great Leader’s pictures. Great Leader’s portraits and statues are found in the streets, the buildings, the rice fields, the jungles, and the mountains.
For example, Milyong (secret camp) statue was built in 1987 on the slopes of Paekdu, North Korea’s highest and most sacred mountain. This “revolutionary historical site” was built solely to perpetrate the myth that Kim waged anti-Japanese guerrilla operation there in 1930s.
Kim-cultists have spread the myth that soon after Korea was emancipated from Japanese rule, three stars literally rose over Paekdu mountain: the Great General Star (Kim Il-sung), the Woman General Star (Kim’s wife, Kim Jong-suk), and the Baby General Star (Kim Jong-il).
“Daily approximately 10.000 people, mostly students, have been enduring bitter cold and deep snow to make devoted pilgrimages to this secret shrine in the mountain out of burning desire to express their absolute loyalty to the Great Leader and his son,” the North Korea Central Broadcasting Station reported on various occasion.
Another important statue is in the Kim Il-sung mausoleum complex. Kim’s followers continue to shower his statue with gifts and worship his embalmed body at a mausoleum bigger than Buckingham Palace.
Having visited the fascinating mausoleums of Mao Zedong in China and Ho Chi Minh in Vietnam, I was delighted to pay my respects to the “Great Leader”. Guarded by soldiers with bayonets fixed, I stepped on to a moving walkway and levitated slowly towards a giant portrait of the “Kamerad Kim” hung above the palace entrance. Walking was prohibited on the conveyor belt to the netherworld.
I had to pass a full-body hairdryer where a dozen little jets brushed off dust or insects before I entered the inner sanctum, a Manila cathedral-like space with high ceilings and hymns in the air. In-group of four, we approached the man who had started the murderous Korean War and we were expected to bow deeply. We then walked around the shiny Kim Il-sung body, lit up by red spotlights.
I saw North Korean people mumbled and cried before Kim’s corpse. I felt astonishment over the bizarre cult-worship system that has been erected in North over the past 50 years. An Indonesian diplomat told me on how Kim Il-sung’s pictures, for example, has been revered as “sacred relics” and many devout Kim-cult believers risk lives to save them.
A young painter, who unconsciously sat on the head of Kim Il-sung in the portrait while he was painting, was arrested on charges of defying the “Great Leader” and sentenced to 20 years in prison.
In the meantime, those who sacrificed his or her life to save Kim’s portraits from being damaged by burning flames or water were cited as heroes. Here is a story that appeared in the Rodong Chongnyon on January 10, 1995.
When a big fire broke out in a small-town factory in North Korea, Cho Young-ok, one of the girl workers in the factory, thought first not of her own safety but of rescuing Kim Il-sung’s portraits which were hanging on the walls. She bravely charged into the fire to fulfill her wish to save the portraits. She managed to take down one of them, but unfortunately the building collapsed before she could escape from the scene of the fire. Her charred body was recovered, but miraculously the portrait of Kim Il-sung she was cradling in her arms was undamaged.
The paper praised her selfless courage as the “exemplary conduct of a revolutionary fighter”. She has “shown us the way all of us should follow… We find value in life only when we devote ourselves to Kim Il-sung and the Party”.
In the wake of promoting the personality cult of Kim Il-sung, the North Korean not only built many monuments, but also develops myths of their leaders as “Sun of the People”, “Genius of All Mankind” or “The Great Comrade of the Revolution”.
Thus, having learned almost from birth to praise the Great Leader regularly and without restraint, North Korean are not in practice of complaining about the hardships they face. They are brainwashed as their leaders declare with pride that there are no taxes, no prisons, no pickpockets, no prostitutes, and no social unrest.
“This is our happy land, and it’s all due to the Great Leader,” said Kim Ho-sok, a Pyongyang citizen. “Without his great leadership, our revolution would not be able to move even a step forward,” he added.
My impression after having seen the land of the Great Leader is I was amazed. How the propaganda machines work in the country really amaze me. It has been succeeded to make citizen believe that their nation have achieved paradise on earth, although in reality they are facing food shortages and their children are dying for malnutrition.
If North Korea is a “paradise on earth”, no one should have escaped the land in search for a better world.
Ik-Sang-lee (ed), Recent Developments in North Korea, Naewoe Press, 1991.
Kim Choong-nam, The Uncertain Future of North Korea, Korea and World Affairs Quarterly, 1996.