North Korea’s Dr No

Tom Burgis
29 June 2006

Kim Jong-il is not a big bedtime reader. His evenings are spent, we learn from North Korean defectors, guzzling sushi, swilling fine French wine and cavorting with scores of hand-picked nymphets stripped naked for the Dear Leader's delectation.

But it seems that Kim, selected by openDemocracy's readers as the winner of June's Bad Democracy Award, has found time to cobble together a media strategy which owes a good deal to that pair of noted penseurs, Josef Stalin and Aristotle.

Click here to view this month's list of Bad Democrats, and cast your vote today

Stalin, who inspired Kim's father, Kim Il-sung, in fantastically gory communism, was a spinner to make today's adroit press officers cower. "Print," he once remarked, "is the sharpest and strongest weapon of the Party."

All very well, but constructing a cult of personality – especially in our multimedia, drivel-on-demand era – requires the talents of a dramatist.

Here we may imagine Kim, his energies spent and his platform shoes wearily unbuckled, reclining with a last Paekdu Mountain Bulnoju (Eternal Youth, the general secretary's preferred rice-based tipple) and poring over his well-thumbed copy of Aristotle's Poetics.

Emphatically underlined is the sentence that has apparently guided Kim's propaganda campaign, and many others before it: "The poet," instructs the Greek sage, "should prefer probable impossibilities to improbable possibilities."

Few North Koreans – other than those whom the Party has compensated with a set after butchering their relatives – possess a television. Those who do, however, will have witnessed Kim's aesthetic principles at work in a broadcast on a state-controlled channel.

Don't miss the background to our prestigious Bad Democracy awards:



Winner of the first award: Silvio Berlusconi

Winner of the second award: John Howard

Winner of the third award: George W Bush

Winner of the fourth award: Meles Zenawi

Winner of the fifth award: Abu Laban

Winner of the sixth award: Alexander Lukashenko

Winner of the seventh award: Lee Hsien Loong

Over opening shots of a towering, snow-laden mountainside above the humble cabin in which the Dear Leader is officially said to have entered the world in 1942, a stirring chorus trills:

When General Kim Jong-il was born,
The clouds opened up.
And he came down from heaven,
And then there was a huge snowstorm.

Here we cut to the general himself, mounted on a white stallion. Clearly it is a diminutive steed, as the 160-cm Kim looks well proportioned astride it, as he gallops past the camera, his shock of black hair and chunky shades worthy of a Maoist version of Wham!:

When General Kim Jong-il shouts out loud,
Storms always happen,
Huge storms always happen.
"Let's go! Let's go!
"Let's go! Let's go!"
Kim Jong-il shouts to the mountains.

Countless other examples of the stifling fiction that passes for politics in the secret state are pumped out of Pyongyang.

Most recently, the intrepid hacks of the Korean Central News Agency filed their coverage of the sixtieth anniversary celebrations at the University of National Economics. Among the presented papers detailing the latest Korean breakthroughs in the dismal science were such nuanced works as Respected Comrade Kim Jong-il is the Great Leader Who Has Strengthened and Developed the University of National Economics into a Centre for Training Reliable Cadres for the Songun [military first] Revolutionary Cause.

All this is the stuff of dystopian potboilers and would be hilarious were it not for the estimated 3.5 million Koreans who starved to death during the famine of the 1990s. Hundreds of thousands more languish in prison camps with a daily ration of 130g of food, their leader's homage to the gulags of his totalitarian forebears.

Meanwhile the gourmand general has lobsters brought to him as he cruises around the country on a private train. In a revealing book, his former chef disclosed that Kim likes to eat his fish "as its mouth is still gasping".

Quite apart from nuclear brinkmanship that threatens to destabilise the entire region, it is Kim's domestic extravagance that really riles.

Click here to read Mr Jong-il's letter of congratulation from openDemocracy for winning June's Bad Democracy award

It brings to mind the thoughts of the emaciated creatures under the aegis of the ruling clique of pigs and their canine henchmen at the close of George Orwell's Animal Farm: "Neither pigs nor dogs produced any food by their own labour; and there were very many of them, and their appetites were always good."

And thus, undeterred by the propaganda barrage, we turn to the latest procession of fantasists to be subjected to that most fearsome of fates – the judgment of oD's enlightened readers.

Click here to cast your vote for July's worst democrat from a list that includes one of the planet's most serially deluded militaries; an ex-spook convinced he's been deified by the black gold that flows through his country; a king who more or less has been; a devout Catholic under the impression that gays are vampires; a dictator who has hired a spin-doctor to sort out his image; and the Third World's most cantankerous – and perhaps most blundering – poverty campaigner.

We also await your candidates for next month's bad democrats. To be considered, nominations should, as usual, be accompanied by a minimum of two-hundred words on the charm, intelligence, strategic acumen and general omnipotence of the Dear Moderator.

How can Americans fight dark money and disinformation?

Violence, corruption and cynicism threaten America's flagging democracy. Joe Biden has promised to revive it – but can his new administration stem the flow of online disinformation and shady political financing that has eroded the trust of many US voters?

Hear from leading global experts and commentators on what the new president and Congress must do to stem the flood of dark money and misinformation that is warping politics around the world.

Join us on Thursday 21 January, 5pm UK time/12pm EST.

Hear from:

Emily Bell Leonard Tow Professor of Journalism and director, Tow Center for Digital Journalism, Columbia Journalism School

Anoa Changa Journalist focusing on electoral justice, social movements and culture

Peter Geoghegan openDemocracy investigations editor and author of 'Democracy for Sale: Dark Money and Dirty Politics'

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