Death of god
By Kim Kyung-Hoon
Nobody knows when and where death will visit us.
The death of North Korean leader Kim Jong-il shows that this phrase applies to everyone. Death is inevitable, even for an absolute ruler who was believed to be an eternal creature in his reclusive kingdom and who provoked the international community with a nuclear weapons program and brinkmanship.
Hours after the tearful announcement by North Korea state TV of their Great Comrade Dear Leader’s death, I was on a flight from Tokyo to Seoul to reinforce our Seoul bureau. On the flight, I recalled the chaos when North Korea’s founder and Kim Jong-il’s father Kim Il-sung died in 1994. At that time, most Koreans were haunted by fear of a possible outbreak of war. This fear made South Koreans rush to shops to stockpile basic necessities. It also triggered an intense debate between conservatives and pro-unification activists who insisted on a condolence call for the main culprit of the Korean civil war. My mother stayed awake at night worrying about the outbreak of war because I was supposed to go to mandatory military service in just a few months.
However, what I found after landing in Seoul was different from what I had worried about and imagined. There were no empty shelves and no fierce clashes between riot police and pro-unification activists on the streets. Signs of chaos and rejoicing over the death of a mortal enemy were hardly seen in my country as Seoul cautiously responded to the abrupt news that came at the end of 2011.
As I searched for visual subjects to illustrate this calm response, I met several North Korean defectors who had witnessed the death of Kim Il-sung in North Korea and now were viewing his successor Kim Jong-il’s death from the South. Most North Korean refugees who presently live in South Korea are not political asylum seekers but instead escaped from starvation. They said they experienced disbelief when they first heard the news of the death of the dictator but soon the disbelief turned to delight.
An orphan boy who lost his father in a life-threatening escape said he was filled with pleasure as if he finally had revenge for his father’s death. However, most said their joy soon changed to concern as they began to think that the suffering of the North Koreans would continue under the rule of Kim’s son and successor Kim Jong-un. Even though the new young leader has tasted the freedom and wealth of developed and open countries in Europe during his adolescence, this new supreme commander who ordered his troops to be human shields and bombs to defend his rule will hardly take a path of reform or open his kingdom. An uprising from North Koreans who have been brainwashed for more than half a century is beyond imagination, the defectors said.
A 29-year-old defector recalled that as a 12-year-old boy he cried until he fainted when Kim Il-sung died, from the fear formed by indoctrination which made him fear that the cruel U.S. and South Korea would invade his earthly paradise and slaughter the citizens in the absence of their great leader. Defectors told me that the tears of thousands lining the streets in the snow during their leader’s funeral, on which many foreign media casted doubt on its authenticity, were heartfelt.
By means of terror-driven propaganda and severe brainwashing over several decades in the isolated kingdom, Kim’s family has been revered as the equivalent of a god in North Korea, where communists have denied the existence of other gods. One of the refugees who made a strong impression on me was painter named Song Byeok. Song previously worked as a propaganda painter in North Korea and later became a pop-artist satirizing the great leader in his art work in Seoul since his escape.
According to Song, Kim’s death is the same as the death of the Sun god in Pyongyang. He added that North Koreans are aliens who have grown up on a weird planet and it is impossible to judge them with commonly accepted standards and good sense. He said he had not doubted his happiness in North Korea when he proudly worked as a propaganda painter and he was grateful for the benefits he received from his great leader who he worshiped, like most other North Koreans. If there had not been a famine estimated to have killed as many as a million people in the North, he might have kept producing propaganda posters and continued to feel happiness in the great leaders’ bosom. In August 2000, he and his father tried to swim across a river to China in the hopes of getting food but his father was swept away in the swollen river and Song was caught and sent to a forced labor camp. He lost a finger on his right hand from the freezing winter and poor medical treatment in the camp before he was released. At last, he succeeded in escaping in 2002 and started art school when he settled in South Korea. Now, he has overcome the brainwashing he received over so many years and his Dear Leader has become a source of profit for him as a trademark subject of his oriental pop-art. In one of his works, the face of the late despot is placed on the ballooning dress of Marilyn Monroe and in another the dear leader greets African tribes.
This unique artwork painted by a hand with an amputated finger has brought him success and he will have an exhibition in the U.S. in 2012. At the end of the interview, I asked him, “What would happen if you drew pictures in this style of Kim Jong-il in North Korea?” His answer was so simple. “Not only me, but all my family would be executed.”
The last defector whom I met in Seoul was an 11 year-old-girl named Kim Han-mi, one of the most symbolic North Korean defectors since her family ran into a Japanese compound in China seeking asylum in 2002. Ham-mi was in her mother’s womb during her parent’s first escape from North Korea and she was only a two-year-old when their family members tried to run into the Japanese Consulate in Shenyang City, China. Then, Chinese police stopped them and forcefully dragged them out of the consulate. Japan’s Kyodo news agency captured the image of the girl and screaming woman being wrestled to the ground by Chinese police officers at the gate of the Japanese compound, drawing international attention.
The international pressure caused the family to be released from Chinese detention and afterward they settled in South Korea. The girl in the picture gazing at her mother wrestling with Chinese policemen in order to escape from the pinch of hunger and gain freedom, has grown up as an ordinary teenage who likes K-pop music. Han-mi, who was invited to the White House in 2006 as a symbol of North Korean refugees by then U.S. President George W. Bush, barely remembers her family’s escape, and the death of Kim Jong-il is not a matter of interest to her, like other South Korean teenagers.
But when I asked her, “What do you think it would be like if your family had not been able to escape and you had to remain living in North Korea?” She firmly and simply answered, “I would have starved to death.”