N. Korea's Kim Buttresses Cult
After decades of strict maintenance of an elaborate personality cult, North Korea's `Great Leader' is revising his own myths
PYONGYANG, NORTH KOREA — NOT far by foot from a giant bronze statue of Kim Il Sung in this capital, close to Kim Il Sung Square and Kim Il Sung Stadium, nearby to a Napoleonic "Arch of Triumph" dedicated to Kim, but a long walk from Kim Il Sung University and Kim's revered birthplace, a visitor can find the state bookstore.
Not surprisingly, the store carries an autobiography, "Kim Il Sung," published in April. (All stores in North Korea are state-run and all have photos of the "Great Leader" on the wall.)
"I have never considered my life to be extraordinary," writes Kim with humility, in the first of his multi-volume "reminiscences" being published this year to mark his 80th birthday.
Normally, such a work might be seen as just another cultish icon, much like the many Kim lapel buttons, Kim murals, operas about Kim, or a commemorative birthday coin made of silver issued this year with the leader's face.
But the autobiography has caught the eye of many North Korea watchers.
"He's worried that his own history might be changed," says Masao Okonogi, a Korea specialist at Keio University in Tokyo. "He's trying to be more realistic."
While the books overwhelmingly follow the official North Korean line on Kim's life, they make a few, rare confessions and deviations from past propaganda.
* For instance, Kim admits that he neglected his mother.
"I did nothing special for my mother after I embarked on the revolution," he writes.
(Kim claims that he began his anti-Japanese activities by age 20, having allegedly mastered the works of Karl Marx and Vladimir Lenin at age 14.)
* Kim also defends Kim Ok Gyun, a pro-Japanese Korean leader of the 19th century, a move that may help him win much-needed aid and recognition from Japan.
* And Kim concedes that he spoke a foreign tongue (Chinese) almost better than his own, and gives far more credit to Chinese Communists for aiding Korean guerrillas, depicting them as mentors.
The fact that the "heroic" and "immortal" Kim admits such things to his own people is the political equivalent of throwing ink on a white shirt.
The small blemishes stand out simply by stark contrast to the near-godlike legend and rhetoric of independence that Kim has bred a whole generation of North Koreans to believe.
Fiction or not, the official past of Kim Il Sung is everyone's present in North Korea. Few people can receive outside information that has not been filtered by the state. TV sets, for instance, have only one channel, the official one.
"These books are his last record," Dr. Okonogi says. "He is trying to be both more defensive and more frank."
Kim cannot afford to be too frank. A big alternation to his history might knock out one of the basic props of propaganda that has sustained his rule for over 47 years.
The heart of Kim's legitimacy inside North Korea rests largely on a legend, which outside historians debate among themselves, that he was a great anti-Japanese guerrilla leader in the 1930s. Kim also maintains that his "guidance" led to the victory over Japan in 1945.
"One reason why Kim has been so successful is by `brainwashing', or indoctrinating, the people," says Dae Sook Suh, a University of Hawaii professor who wrote a biography of Kim in 1988. "People on the street in North Korea are either persuaded of Kim's history or they easily suppress their criticism.
"Now he wants to avoid a de-Stalinization of his name after he dies," Dr. Suh says. "He wants to keep his past record as an anti-Japanese fighter alive."
In comparison to past North Korean works about his life, this new one is far less ideological and more personal, written in a narrative style, something quite unusual for his people to read.
The first two volumes released so far cover only the first three decades of Kim's life from 1912 to 1935, and contain several maps and many pictures of his alleged family, comrades, and historic sites.
Since Kim is now in the twilight of his life, the official historians in North Korea "probably don't want him to tell a lie," Okonogi says. "So the biography is more reasonable than past works."
Also, Kim may realize that new information may emerge from either former Russian colleagues, or eventually his closer Chinese allies, that could reach North Koreans and discredit his official record.
Outside historians particularly await the next volumes, especially the one dealing with the events of 1945, when Soviet troops moved into Korea after Japan's surrender and installed Kim as leader of a puppet government (which is not the official North Korean version).
"He may need to admit more help from the Russians than he has in the past," Okonogi says.
Another new theme can be found in the autobiography: Kim implies that his tactics of revolution may not be appropriate for the next generation, although the goal of revolution should remain the same.
Such a shift may indicate North Korea groping for a new role after the loss of its Soviet alliance and the wavering of support by China.
But more typical of Kim are his efforts to build up his cult status.
"My whole life," he writes in the preface to one of the volumes, "is the epitome of the history of my country and my people."