Among the things I have been futzing around with — I futz around well — of late have been skimming the Anecdotes of Kim Il Sung’s Life, published by the Foreign Languages Publishing House of, I’m guessing, the Workers Party of Korea, in Pyongyang. They are, thankfully, available as free PDF files here in the archive maintained by Marxists.org.
I read these things so you don’t have to. Think of it as a service.
The anecdotes — there are two volumes, volume one published in English in 2007 and and volume two in 2013 — read like a lot of ancient literature (think the Analects of Confucius, though longer, or the Sayings of the Desert Fathers or the huge corpus of Islam’s hadith literature), short little stories designed to communicate an essential point about Kim Il Sung. And that kind of shocked of me. They read more like fables or fairy tales than they do ideological indoctrination, but that’s an important part of their power.
Because the idea that is designed to come across is not the superiority of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea as a state, or even Juche as a social system, but of Kim Il Sung as a man who cares, knows, understands, and is never wrong.
More importantly, these little stories teach the right emotional response to acts of Kim Il Sung’s caring — he we are to feel. Two examples will suffice as examples:
Rice Sent to the Divisional Hospital
One day in early 1951, Kim Il Sung’s uncle Kim Hyong Rok had a chance to go to the Supreme Headquarters and share a meal with his nephew Kim Il Sung after a long period of separation. Kim Hyong Rok was surprised to see the table spread with cooked millet without a grain of rice, dried cabbage soup and a small bowl of kimchi.
Although he was well aware of his nephew’s frugal way of life, he was still worried as to what would become of the country if the latter’s overwork day and night were to impair his health.
So he expressed his concern about his nephew’s health.
Kim Il Sung said with a smile; “Now that all the people are fighting against the Yankees, tightening their belts, I alone cannot live on white rice, can I? I feel at ease and have a good appetite when I live like the people.” [Bold in original]
Kim Hyong Rok thought it useless to insist. On returning home, he pounded in a mortar a small amount of rice he had kept and picked up grains of unhulled rice one by one. He sent the rice to the Supreme Headquarters with a note requesting that it be served to Kim Il Sung.
Kim Il Sung, however, sent the rice to the divisional hospital located near the Supreme Headquarters.
Informed later of the fact, Kim Hyong Rok said to himself, his eyes brimming with tears: “He would not have done anything else, would he? Even though I knew it…” (Anecdotes, Vol. 1, p.15)
The Leader and a Bare-Footed Boy
One summer day in 1955, some children of Changsong County met Kim Il Sung on their way home from school and gave him the Children’s Union salute. One of them had no shoes on.
The boy coloured with shame and tried to step back when Kim Il Sung looked anxiously down at his bare dusty feet. But the leader laid his hand on the boy’s shoulder.
“Whom do you live with?” he asked.
“I live with my grandmother, mother and younger brothers.”
“What about your father?”
The boy hesitated to reply.
“What about your father?”
“He fell in battle during the war.”
The leader said no more, but hugged the boy. With a worried look, he said to his entourage: “Look here. I haven’t even given him a pair of shoes, but he has greeted me.”
A while later he asked in detail where and how the boy was living. Parting with the children, he promised that he would drop in at their houses some time later.
The boy ran along to his house to inform his family of the good news. When he was half way, he heard a car’s horn hooting behind, and the leader’s car pulled up beside him.
“Get in,” said the leader.
The boy hesitated, looking down at his bare feet.
The leader said, “It hurts to walk on the stony road, doesn’t it? If your feet become sore, you will be in trouble, unable to go to school.”
The boy turned his head away, tears welling up in his eyes. When they reached the house, the leader greeted with the boy’s grandmother and mother. Then he told his aide to take the three brothers and buy them shoes.
It was a long time before they returned with new shoes on. The leader, still standing in the yard, did not feel relieved until he felt the toes and heels of the shoes. The boy was so choked that he could barely stammer out, “Thank you for buying me shoes. I will study hard.” Then he buried his face in the bosom of the leader. (Anecdotes, Vol. 1, p.21-22)
The stories here describe, and designed to provoke, an emotional response. In both, Kim Il Sung demonstrates his virtues to third parties, his uncle and an unnamed shoeless, fatherless boy. In one, Kim Il Sung shares the wartime deprivation of the people, sending his rice to a hospital likely to help wounded soldiers gain the strength to recover. In the other, he stops his car to greet the boy and ends up providing him and his brothers with shoes.
The uncle has “eyes brimming with tears” and the boy is “so choked” he could barely speak. Both are grateful for the leader’s generosity, for Kim Il Sung’s provision, and respond with an intense and overwhelming gratitude and love. Kim Il Sung, who sacrifices himself for the wellbeing of the nation and makes sure all DPRK citizens are provided for. His uncle is grateful to the points of tears, and so is the boy. And so must all who live under such beneficence.
That ends up being the most important point of media in a society where truth or facts no longer exist. Media in such situations exists largely to communicate correct emotional responses and to prompt those responses. And it seems, increasingly, American media is no longer interested in shared truth or affirmed facts, but rather narratives that suggest and provoke emotional responses. No doubt there is plenty of anger and resentment as part of DPRK/WPK propaganda, but that’s not part of these Kim Il Sung stories. These are designed to make the hearer happy, grateful, and feel deeply unworthy of living under such a kind, generous, thoughtful, and self-sacrificing leader.
You could do exegesis on these stories — I have done a little, and I find them fascinating — but that would be unwelcome, since these stories are designed not for scholarly study1, but basic inculcation of values, virtues, and even habits.
Because my guess is that North Koreans who learn these stories talk less about what they might mean than how these stories make them feel. Or are supposed to make them feel.
I doubt our media will evolve to the point where we’re telling stories of the eternally virtuous Donald J. Trump, who made a little boy cry tears of joy and promise to study hard because he gave him shoes, but we are slowly and sloppily slouching that direction. Our political opponents have no virtues, we possess no vices, and we don’t even live in the same world of facts and data anymore. We have facts, they have lies. We have real news, they have fake news. All that’s left in this is the appeal to emotion. To right feelings and proper responses.
This is religious, though of a particularly shallow kind, that doesn’t allow the mind to engage the story critically — even if the story is believed. Because we can no longer really ask questions of the stories we believe. Only our enemies doubt or disbelieve. We can only feel, and then only the right feelings.
All there is here is sentiment. And sentiment … is a harsh and merciless master.
It’s one more sign, for me, that dictatorship of some kind — and one that will insist on barring and banning all competing stories — is coming. A free and democratic society has to be held together by something, and because ours no longer is held together by very much (not even a shared concept of citizenship), someone will at some point decide competing stories and competing meaning and competing facts and competing emotional responses make it impossible to govern a single people.
At which point, we may all have to promise to study hard, and have eyes brimming with tears when prompted.
- Though for a while, I have been considering writing about a distant future where a small community of humans somewhere has turned all of this into a religion. ↩︎