He is the boogeyman in our worst nightmares. Kim Jong-un, absolute ruler, Dear Leader and beloved father of North Korea, is the 30-something tyrant who inherited his seat of power from his father and his grandfather before him.
He rules a rogue nation that presents a real and present danger to our security. Since his ascension to power, Kim has revved up testing of nuclear weapons, threatened our leaders, sanctioned the torture of American prisoners and kept his people in an unrelenting death grip.
President Trump has hurled epithets Kim’s way and belittled his manhood, but that was before. In a bizarre turnabout, Trump is now holding out an olive branch, promising to meet with the dictator in the interest of world peace. Two weeks ago, the president called the dictator an “honorable” man. We know the president is a proven liar, but calling the North Korean madman “honorable” is a whopper.
North Korea has a population of more than 25 million people who are held under rigid control by a national policy of terror, famine and secrecy. The story of a hermit kingdom seems incredible, not possible in this day and age of smartphones and the internet, but the truth of life in North Korea is worse than we can imagine.
How do we get to this truth? By reading fiction, of course: the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel “The Orphan Master’s Son,” by Adam Johnson, a writer who can imagine life in Pyongyang and beyond.
Think of blurring boundaries — the boundary at the 38th parallel that has kept families separated, and ignited conflicts including the Korean War, in 1950, and other boundaries, like the soft edge where truth seeps into fiction, and the other edge, where fiction imagines the hard facts that can’t be verified. The boundary where a child’s love for his parents is subordinated to his devotion to the state, and the boundary where a husband’s devotion to a wife turns into a self-serving need to denounce her.
Johnson explored these boundaries in his 2013 novel, which recounts the lives of a small group of people living under the regime of Kim Jong-il, the father of Un. The book has four narrative voices, moves back and forth in time and features two characters with the same name. Johnson went to North Korea as part of his extensive research. He got permission for only a one-week stay, during which he was escorted 24/7 by minders who controlled and limited his access. What he did notice: no mail service, no fire trucks and, strangely, no wheelchairs. How are disabled people cared for, or aren’t they?
The author said that the most bizarre elements of his novel are not the things he invented; they are the atrocities that actually occur in North Korea. People do not go to prison; they go to labor camps, where they work until they die. Stupid Americans, the Korean leaders say. Why put people in prison and feed them when they do nothing in return? Why not work them nearly to death and then drain their blood for medical transfusions?
Criminal acts against the state include speaking to a foreigner, or not hanging a picture of the Dear Leader over one’s doorway, or not tuning into the constant propaganda piped out to the populace over loudspeakers. Starvation isn’t considered justification for taking a fish from a pond or a chestnut from a tree. People are routinely swept off the streets and sent to the countryside to work in the fields. In Johnson’s book, all old workers are sent to a “beach resort” for their retirement, although no one ever hears from them again.
Since the book’s publication, we’ve learned that Kim Jong-un killed his uncle to consolidate power, and had assassins kill his half-brother in the Kuala Lumpur airport by wiping a nerve agent on his face.
According to Adam Johnson, human decency is nearly extinct in North Korea, destroyed by decades of deprivation and fear that have left the population unable to feel anything they aren’t told to feel.
The state-approved AP coverage of the public mourning of Kim Jong-il in 2011 was a revelation. Millions and millions of people seemed truly grief-stricken, sobbing in the streets, beyond consolation, bereft of their fatherly leader. That is what total isolation, information control, torture and brainwashing can do to a nation.
Johnson said he wrote his book for the people of North Korea, to tell their story and give voice to the silent screams coming from north of the 38th parallel.
Poised as we are at this moment, in the weeks before a Trump-Kim meeting, the ends may actually justify the means. If Trump can secure a complete denuclearization of North Korea, with oversight and ongoing verification in place, I say bravo. It doesn’t make him less of a liar or make Kim less of a monster. But it could give peace a chance, and that passes for encouraging news these days.
Copyright 2018 Randi Kreiss. Randi can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.