When a life ends, perhaps it is worth reflecting on its beginning. Kim Jong-Il was, according to the North Korean government, born at the summit of one of Korea’s most beautiful mountains. His birth was announced by swallows, a double rainbow, and the sighting of a new star in the heavens.
In reality, he was born in Stalinist Siberia, in 1941. This bifurcation between myth and reality, propaganda and fact, legend and truth, defined his life. Kim Jong-Il was a monster, and a caricature, the father of a nation and a callous murderer. He was an all-powerful leader and a man trapped within the state his father created. He was portrayed as all of these things, and yet his was a life unknowable, unthinkable, a life lived, from its very beginning, at the very extreme of human psychology.
On the day of his death, we should look past the accounts of his life, the real and the imagined legend, and focus instead on those for whom the myth was created, and for whom the truth had, at all costs, to be kept.
On my bookshelf sits a small collection of North Korean history and journalism. There are accounts of diplomats stationed in Pyongyang, trying to explain how North Korea formed the way it did, and how its decisions are made. There are books by photographers, who, knowing they are being allowed to photograph only the legend, try to reveal truths inside, or alongside, the propaganda they are forced to focus on.
Most of all, there are two books about the citizenry of the hermit kingdom, presented to us by their regime as participants in mass games, or loyal soldiers, or, as today, as true believers.
To us, those citizens might appear the backdrop to the bizarre life of Kim Jong-Il. In reality, their control was its entire purpose. Their displayed grief is intended to be his highest compliment. Their hidden pain is his ultimate indictment.
We are tempted to focus on the life of Kim Jong-Il. His palaces. His private train, his kidnapping of Japanese actresses and film directors. His taste for fine food, and cognac.
The danger is that we ignore Yodok Concentration camp, where Kang Hwol-Chan was sent, aged nine, because his grandfather had been accused of disloyalty. The danger is we forget the public executions he witnessed as a child.
The danger is that we forget Bukchang, or Kaechon, or Camp 22, where tens of thousands of those the regime deems unreliable are sent, and where thousands of them die.
The danger is that we forget that North Korea is a country where a quarter of the population is officially classed as ‘hostile’, and that those in this class are not allowed more than basic education, nor allowed to travel, and, when rations are available, get the least of them.
The danger is that we skate over the Kwanliso prison camps, the kyohwaso labour camps and the so called ‘9/27’ camps for kotjebi (‘swallows’, street children orphaned by the breakdown of families caused by extreme famine), detention camps where Amnesty international reported meals of ‘80 kernels of corn for every meal, or of three to four spoons of corn meal mixed with hot water.’
We know so little of all of these lives, they are so carefully hidden from us, that they fade from view behind the grossness of the dictator.
We do know enough, however, to piece together a populace suffering in a way that few have ever suffered. A police state, repression, public execution, famine, starvation, labour camps, a system of ranking loyalty that dictates every aspect of your life. It is hard to even catalogue the deaths from famine, though we know the numbers who died are in the hundreds of thousands .
Yet, as Barbara Demick has shown, and Sue Lloyd Roberts has reported, the suffering is not total, and those who endure are not automata, or faceless, or unreal. There is sacrifice for families and loved ones. There are people trying to earn a little extra for their families, or hoping to become doctors.
These are lives that are real. Deaths that matter.
In one sense, Kim Jong-Il was fated never to be real. The inheritor of a regime built on the massive lie of human infallibility, he was magnified and distorted by it. We only see him weakly.
To take just one example, did he truly believe, in the midst of the late 1990s famine, that only a third of North Koreans were needed to ensure the reconstruction of society, or was it an attempt to manage the power struggles of the regime? We do not really know. We can only recoil in horror at the idea.
Kim Jong-Il’s death is, in the same way as his life, somehow unreal for those of us fortunate not to be North Korean. We will mark the grief, real and forced, that is displayed. We will discuss the inheritance, debate for how long that the regime Kim Jong-Il was defined by will attempt to lumber on, trying to maintain the impossible, until the impossible refuses to comply.
In the meantime, we should mark the death of a man who who was not real to us by trying one more time to focus on those who his life dominated, and whose sufferings he obscured. We should mark the death of the unreal Kim Jong-Il by remembering those for whom he was all too real.
Hopi Sen is a Labour blogger. He blogs here and tweets @HopiSen
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