As the body of North Korean leader Kim Jong-il lies in state surrounded by heaps of red Kimjonglilia, the hybrid tuberous begonia created in 1988 to “render” the Dear Leader’s “greatness in floral form” (says the Toronto Star), and intrigue arises about what sort of leader his 27-year-old and complete unknown factor of a son and successor Kim Jong Un will be, South Koran and US intelligence sources are coming under criticism for failing to note any signs of Kim’s demise on December 17, reportedly from overwork and stress.
The intelligence failure underscores the opacity wrapped in enigmas that has been North Korea’s face to most of the outside world since Kim Il-sung, the founder of North Korea and grandfather of the new, inexperienced leader, founded the country in 1948. Many in the west have been unsure about how to view images of North Koreans tumbling down in grief and madly weeping: Are these true expressions of sorrow for an authoritarian ruler? Or are all the public expressions of mourning but propagandistic displays that North Koreans are coerced to perform? Are they indeed, as the New York Times puts it, “an accepted part of Korean Confucian culture, [that] can be witnessed at the funerals of the famous and the not famous alike in South Korea,” though magnified to the nth degree as the deceased is the central character of a cult of personality in which he was “every North Korean’s father”?
Of central concern is Kim Jong Un who, in a navy blue rather than a puce Vinylon suit and sporting a flat-top hairstyle rather than his father’s famous bouffant, seems a bit familiar on the surface, but not really. Educated at a Swiss boarding school, “Kim 3″ as Paul French dubs him in Foreign Policy, “seems to have none of the innate Kim clan show-business pizzazz.” Given that the younger Kim is now, with a coterie of advisers and military men clustering round him, at the head of a country with the capacity to build a complete nuclear reactor (as it secretly did in Syria), not to mention its uranium enrichment facility, the seeming black hole of knowledge surrounding not only “Kim 3″ but Pyongyang and North Korea itself should be disquieting.
Perhaps that it why there has been a bit more than a fascination with what we have known about Kim Jong-il, his curious obsessions, his collection of some 20,000 videotapes; fanatic interest for basketball and other sports, and hyperbolic claims of his own ability (he was said to have shot 11 holes-in-one the first time he ever played golf); his thoroughly gourmand appetite for, among much else “Danish bacon, Iranian caviar, Thai mangos,” Austrian cuisine and Hennessy cognac; his armored train convoy of up to 90 cars plus a few Mercedes; his signature outfit, that puce Vinylon suit, the high-rise hair, the Ray-bans and the six-inch platform shoes. So much for drab Communist austerity in a country where thousands of North Koreans, including scores of children, go hungry after repeated recent food crises following depleted harvests.
Nature abhors a vacuum, ’tis said. To make up for the very little that we know about Kim Jong-il, we’ve collected information about his admittedly odd habits (not to mention numerous other “curiosities” about North Korea). Visiting the country in 2010, two BBC journalists found a country where the grass on the side of the roads was cut with scissors; where children did not know who Nelson Mandela was and considered Stalin and Mao Zedong to be world leaders.
The question is, does all this strangeness make us feel more fearful about North Korea? Or does it rather seem to be just more of the usual baffling details we’ve come to associate with a country so shut off from the world that no one (at least no one supposedly) has access to the Internet?
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