In North Korea, Kim Cult Thrives : Leader and His Son Become Stuff of Legend in Monolithic Land

The Washington Post

Mt. Paekdu towers 8,940 feet tall, the highest mountain in Korea. Since ancient times, Koreans have viewed it as a symbol of their nation, the birthplace of Tankun, mythical founder of their race.

Today, it has added significance for the 20 million people of communist North Korea. It is “the holy place of the Korean revolution.”

It was there, schoolchildren learn, that President Kim Il Sung organized heroic guerrilla bands in the 1930s that were to rout the brutal Japanese colonial army. It was there, in a hidden forest encampment, that his son and heir, Kim Chong Il, was born one frosty February morning in 1942.

Legend Doubted


Like Tankun, the Kims were not ordinary men. Kim senior was an “ever-victorious, iron-willed brilliant commander . . . born of the spirit of the sacred Mt. Paekdu,” an official biography says.

His son’s first cry rang out across Paekdu’s snow, a biographer recounts, “as if it was a signal for the attainment of the Korean people’s aspirations.”

Many Western historians believe that the Kims’ exploits on Paekdu have no basis in fact. They depict Kim Il Sung as an obscure guerrilla leader who was placed in power by Soviet troops who swept into Korea in 1945 at the end of World War II. His son, they say, was probably born in exile in Siberia.

If ordinary North Koreans ever heard that, they would scoff. To them the new Paekdu legend is fact.


Through a remarkable fusion of tradition and modern revolutionary ideology, North Korea has created the world’s closest thing to monolithic society. It is 20 million people marching, with hardly a whisper of dissent, to the drums of “Great Leader” Kim Il Sung and “Dear Leader” Kim Chong Il.

Startling Contrasts

It is also a nation of startling contrasts. It boasts of smashing reactionary ways but is celebrating an ongoing transfer of power from father to son, the communist world’s first hereditary succession. It avows atheism, while building reverence for the Kims into a virtual state religion, complete with hymns of praise, idols, a complex iconography and unshakable faith. It preaches international fellowship while keeping out all but a handful of foreigners.

The temptation exists to dismiss North Korea as an absurd little fairyland trapped in some past age. But, from near total devastation after the 1950-53 war with South Korea, it has built a standard of living far ahead of other Asian communist states. It has made major strides in public health, education and agriculture and has virtually wiped away social ills such as drugs and prostitution.


It is also a highly militarized society--its regular armed forces have 885,000 members, Western intelligence agencies estimate--with which the United States might one day go to war. Forty thousand U.S. troops are stationed permanently in South Korea, which the north views as an American colony pining for liberation.

In between is the Demilitarized Zone, snaking across the peninsula to form a border.

North Korea’s ideological bedrock is juche (pronounced joo-chay), usually translated as self-reliance. Like most everything the North Koreans regard as virtue, it is credited to Kim Il Sung. It is as much a state of mind as a philosophy.

It has borrowed heavily from traditional beliefs, including Confucianism, the Chinese cosmic view that shaped much of Korean society during its 2,000-year history. The ideal state is like a well-ordered family: The father is wise and benevolent, granting sustenance to his children, who respond with obedience and labor.


So Wise

The Kims are so wise that they understand the most complex industrial project better than do the engineers in charge. Kim Il Sung, the state media says, personally selected the site for one of the country’s largest irrigation dams 20 years ago. Kim Chong Il is seen in a North Korean film giving instructions on installation of showers in a school.

Everything that North Koreans have flows somehow from the largesse of these two. Last year a North Korean woman interviewed by a foreign television crew gave that explanation for the ribbon in her daughter’s hair.

Most North Koreans wear lapel buttons with the elder Kim’s picture. Throughout the country stand imposing white statues of him, arm outstretched to the future. Wherever he visits, a monument goes up in memory. Magazines publish “hymns” of praise in which Kim senior is “the sun,” Kim junior “the lodestar.”


It is not all explained by Confucianism, however. Where that creed does not fit, it is discarded. Hereditary succession is anathema to Confucian principles of legitimacy through merit. So are statues and self-aggrandizement; the ideal ruler is supposed to be humble, willing to learn.

Heartfelt Outpourings

North Koreans say there is no cult of personality, only the heartfelt outpourings of a people restored to dignity. “He has led us along the correct path. That’s why I follow him. Each time tremendous goals were achieved.” That, says a North Korean living in Tokyo, is the average person’s attitude toward Kim Il Sung.

South Korean officials claim that there are concentration camps near the Chinese border where hundreds of thousands of political prisoners labor in anonymity. Occasionally, reports surface of anti-Kim slogans scrawled in public places. But with few exceptions, foreign visitors to the north leave with an impression of seamless unity. No one whispers pleas to take letters abroad. People seem content, convinced, as their leaders tell them, that they have “nothing to envy” anywhere in the world.


No one can quite explain why this effort at regimentation has succeeded when most other totalitarian states have failed. On the coercive side are political indoctrination from childhood, some police repression and, in the old days, bloody purges. On the positive are genuine improvement of living standards and national pride. Isolation is the key.

“They’ve insulated themselves and built up walls around their society,” says James B. Palais, professor of Korean history at the University of Washington. Ordinary people, he says, “do not have anything that allows them to question what they receive as wisdom.”

U.S. analysts rank the North Korean armed forces today as the world’s sixth largest. “North Korea is not a country in the traditional sense,” comments a U.S. officer in the south. “It is one armed camp from the DMZ up to the Yalu River.” Following the principles of juche , almost every weapon they use, including tanks and heavy rockets, is manufactured locally.

U.S. analysts say its army has 800,000 members and is schooled in the Soviet doctrine of frontal assault and massed firepower. The air force has about 50,000 personnel and 1,100 planes and helicopters. The navy has 35,000 people in uniform and 20 submarines. According to Soviet newspaper reports, the fleet includes the American spy ship Pueblo, which was seized by North Korea in 1968.


The north outnumbers the south by about 40% in soldiers and many times more than that in tanks, field guns and other heavy weapons. But U.S. analysts see a “qualitative” edge for the south. The north’s tanks are 1950s design; the south’s have laser-sighting devices. The north’s warplanes are mostly first-generation models from the vacuum-tube age; the south is backed by the latest from the U.S. air arsenal. The London-based International Institute of Strategic Studies rates the two sides’ military prowess as “roughly equivalent.”

Jump in Production

Juche is also evident in economic strategy. While the south is thriving by tying its future to the world economy, its rival has relatively little foreign trade (about $2.5 billion in 1985, Japanese officials say, compared to the south’s $31 billion). It prefers to make everything it can itself, ignoring economies of scale. Though it could buy them overseas more cheaply, it makes such heavy industrial goods as locomotives, trucks, bulldozers and boring machines in its own factories.

Last year, North Korea reported a 220% increase in gross industrial production between 1977 and 1984. Western analysts generally mark down such claims substantially but agree that the standard of living has gained markedly. Some compare it to that of Eastern Europe. The capital, Pyongyang, is a tree-shaded, sparkling clean city of high-rise, if Stalinesque, architecture.


Visitors say nutrition appears to be uniformly strong. Doctors are in good supply, though it is unclear how much training they get. “Children’s palaces,” facilities that combine day care, schooling and political education, are found throughout the country.

The economy is built on Soviet-style central planning and suffers from some of the same ailments of poor management, shop-floor ideology and mismatched quotas as the original.

The Kims constantly intervene. Their support is critical for getting major projects moving, but no one knows how many have been put on the wrong track by some chance gesture or remark they make during a visit.

In the early 1970s, North Korea went on a buying spree for production equipment in Western Europe, accumulating an estimated $2 billion in debt. It soon defaulted, forcing rescheduling, and Western banks and suppliers remain wary of it. The financial magazine Institutional Investor last year put it last--109th--in a ranking of world borrowers by credit worthiness.


Behind in Technology

Equipment in factories is commonly rated as 20 or more years behind the times. “They need to introduce advanced technology from the West,” says Takashi Uehara, a North Korea-watcher at the Japan External Trade Organization. “But because of foreign-currency shortages, the only help they can expect is from other socialist countries, who do not have it.”

South Korea, meanwhile, is purchasing that new technology helter-skelter. Comparisons of the two economies are difficult, given lack of reliable statistics from the north. The north claims a per capita gross national product of about $2,000, roughly equal to the south’s. South Korean officials laugh--they say theirs is three times higher. Western estimates play down the south’s advantage somewhat but still have it well ahead.

Juche theoretically governs foreign policy too, but often bends for the Soviet Union and China. There would be no North Korea were it not for them. After all, the Soviet troops who arrived in 1945 set up the North Korean state three years later. In 1950, the Chinese army stopped counterattacking U.S. forces that would otherwise have overrun it. Today, it depends heavily on these two patrons for machinery, coal, crude oil and advanced weaponry but in politics has avoided full association with either one.


Visits by Soviet Fleet

The tilt now is toward Moscow. In July, Moscow pulled out the stops to celebrate the 25th anniversary of a friendship pact with Pyongyang. The Soviet aircraft carrier Minsk, bearing the commander of the Soviet Pacific fleet, headed up a flotilla that steamed into Wonsan port on the east coast. Twelve Soviet MIG-23s flew into Pyongyang for a friendship visit, led by the commander of the Far East air force.

Soviet warships now call routinely, South Korean analysts say, at several east coast ports, partly to avoid ice that closes Vladivostok, their Pacific fleet’s headquarters, during the winter. “In Najin port, we know that at least one pier is used exclusively by the Soviet fleet,” says Kim Chang Soon, chief director of the Institute of North Korean Studies in Seoul.

In 1985, Moscow finally bowed to North Korean requests to upgrade their obsolescent air force with MIG-23 jets. About 30 have been sold already, Western intelligence sources say, with 15 or 20 more expected. In return, analysts say, Moscow’s reconnaissance aircraft have received the right to fly over the north en route to Cam Ranh Bay in Vietnam or on circular missions to spy on the United States, Japan and China.


Wary of Foreign Powers

Chances of a permanent Soviet base in North Korea are seen as slim, however. In the long run, “they do not trust foreign powers,” Palais says, “including the Soviets.”

Western analysts commonly view the tilt as a reaction to China’s coziness these days with the United States and, increasingly, South Korea. With ambitious development plans before it, China is engaged in indirect trade with South Korea worth hundreds of millions of dollar annually. China clearly wants peace on the Korean peninsula and is counseling North Korea in that direction, analysts say.

There is plenty of evidence that suggests North Korea has other plans, however. U.S. and South Korean analysts say that in the past 10 years, it has roughly doubled its military strength and today is systematically moving units closer to the DMZ and building forward airstrips and bomb-proof positions. Its media continues shrill denunciations of South Korean President Chun Doo Hwan as a traitor and “hand-raised stooge” of the United States.


South Feels Threatened

In 1983, four members of the South Korean Cabinet were among 21 people killed in Rangoon, Burma, when a bomb exploded during ceremonies at a mausoleum. The blast was apparently meant for Chun, who was behind schedule and not there. Burma, a neutral country that recognized both sides, later convicted two North Korean military officers and broke off diplomatic relations with Pyongyang.

Current times are especially dangerous, South Korean officials say. The south’s economy and world acclaim has taken off and the north may feel it must attack now or lose its chance forever, they say. It may also want to disrupt the Olympic Games that are to be staged in Seoul in 1988 rather than let the south have the glory of hosting the world, they suggest. U.S. officials tend to discount claims that now is more dangerous than usual but agree Kim Il Sung is unpredictable.

Waging War in Other Ways


There is also ample room to argue that North Korea does believe its claim that any threat is against it. The south has twice its population, growing wealth and well-armed and disciplined armed forces. Also behind it are U.S. troops who, according to frequent reports from Washington, have atomic weapons. The old enemy Japan is firmly in the U.S. camp. China is counseling for what amounts to accepting the status quo and the Soviets at times show impatience with the foibles of their ally.

Peace holds, while the two sides wage war in other ways. They compete for diplomatic recognition (by both sides’ count, the south is slightly ahead). In minor capitals of Africa and Latin America, diplomats are sometimes posted solely because the other side is there. They compete through “economic warfare” and the most venomous propaganda imaginable.

From time to time, they meet to talk peace at Panmunjom, the village in the Demilitarized Zone where the 1953 armistice that ended the Korean War was signed. In 1984, in an unprecedented display of cooperation, the north offered and the south accepted rice and other symbolic aid to victims of an autumn flood.

Not Talking Again


In 1985, they exchanged Red Cross delegations to discuss reunification of war-separated families and put some divided families together for a few hours. In 1986, they are back to not talking at all.

Much of what happens at Panmunjom is a cynical ritual where both sides try to show their people and the world that they yearn for reunification. Neither wants it strongly enough, however, to make any substantive concessions to the other.

For several years, the north has called for three-way political and military talks between itself, the south and the United States. The United States and the south refuse, saying discussions must begin between the Korean parties and make real progress before anyone else gets involved. The north’s real intention, U.S. officials say, is to bypass the south and try to work a separate deal with Washington.

This summer, the north proposed a variation on this three-way formula: a meeting of defense ministers from north and south and Gen. William Livsey, commander of U.S. and Korean forces. It was rejected. “We believe they were trying to create a precedent for dealing directly with Livsey,” says a Western diplomat in Seoul.