Inside a closely guarded fortress

Peter McGill June 24 1985

Inside a closely guarded fortress

Peter McGill June 24 1985

Inside a closely guarded fortress



Peter McGill

After 82 years of open hostility, officials from North and South Korea met last month to discuss reuniting families separated by the Korean war of 1950-53. Although Western diplomats were encouraged, few are willing to predict the outcome of discussions, especially given the opaque nature of North Korean politics. Indeed, the nation of 18 million remains one of the world ’s most secretive societies. One thing is certain, however: the absolute supremacy of North Korean President Kim R Sung. At 73, Kim has built a cult of personality rivalling that of China’s Mao Tse-tung at the height of the 1960s Cultural Revolution. Recently, Pyongyang granted Maclean’s correspondent Peter McGill a rare opportunity to visit the modern-day hermit kingdom. His report:

Pyongyang, the capital of North Korea, is a city of grand monuments. Along the broad avenues stand granite and concrete tributes to the rule of President Kim Il Sung, known affectionately among his subjects as the Great Leader. There are monuments to “Liberation” and to the “Martyrs of the People’s Army,” as well as the 220-foot-high Arch of Triumph, a near-replica of Napoleon’s Arc de Triomphe in Paris and

dedicated to Kim. The largest is the Tower of Juche, a 640-foot stone pinnacle from which visitors can survey the sights of Pyongyang. The vista is impressive, but eerily silent. Bicycles are forbidden and private cars do not exist. Excluding Communist party and government officials, North Koreans travel either by bus or on the opulently decorated subway, complete with ornate chandeliers, murals depicting national achievements in industry—and the omnipresent portrait of Kim.

The city’s majestic icons are fitting testimony to a man who has moulded North Korea in his own image. By carefully sealing off the nation from the outside world and turning it into a vast laboratory of social engineering and thought control, Kim claims to have created a “Workers’ Paradise,” where every material and spiritual need is met under his paternal love and guidance. But Kim’s many enemies, particularly those in South Korea, insist that his absolute rule has created a xenophobic society of

Orwellian terror and misery.

Kim claims that what he calls his “paradise” is the result of adhering to a philosophy known as Juche, or self-reliance. An idiosyncratic blend of Marxism-Leninism and Korean nationalism, Juche stresses independence but also unswerving loyalty to Kim and to his son and heir apparent, Kim Jong II, 43. North Korean officials maintain that the concept of Juche was born during Kim’s years as a guerrilla leader fighting the Japanese in the 1920s. In fact, he launched Juche four decades later when his two sponsors, the Soviet Union and China, split and began competing to make North Korea a satellite.

Currently, the personality cult extends into every corner of North Korean society. Even the nation’s kindergartens are decorated with banners exalting the Great Leader. At the spectacular 13-storey Children’s Palace in central Pyongyang, a musical performance features primary school prima donnas, their faces caked in cosmetics, crooning: “We

had the honor to be with our president on New Year’s Eve for three hours. Now we always feel as if we are with our president and feel happy.” The school’s principal, Kim MongChu, stressed,“We are not emphasizing ideological education.” Still, every wall bears slogans from Kim II Sung and his son—known as Dear Leader—urging students to study hard “for society.”

Both at the school and at Kim’s alleged birthplace at Mangyongdae, a compulsory pilgrimage site 10 km outside the capital, North Koreans learn a history of the Korean War which differs sharply from Western accounts. According to Pyongyang, the North did not spark the conflict by its mass invasion of the South on June 25, 1950. Rather, it was the South that launched “an all-out attack” on the North—despite the almost total withdrawal of U.S. forces before the outbreak of hostilities and the ill-preparedness of South Korean troops to mount an offensive.

Similarly, the state-controlled media produce a finely crafted vision of the world compatible with party doctrines. A recent evening’s television programming featured a visit to a Moscow cabaret (the sound track was completely in Russian) and a North Korean movie depicting a smiling young couple enjoying paradise by riding a ferris wheel in an amusement park. News broadcasts lavished attention on Kim and reported growing unrest in South Korea, which it said was a sign of an imminent worker revolution.

Still, Kim has managed to make some small improvements in a nation left in charred ruins by the war. The average North Korean worker pays less than five per cent of his monthly income for government-subsidized rent. Pyongyang’s modern apartments are unbearably cramped by Western standards, but superior to the slum dwellings that scar parts of Seoul in the capitalist South. “I’d never dreamed of having such an apartment,” said Mrs. Lee Wol Kae, who lives with her husband and 24-year-old son in a standard high-rise overlooking Pyongyang’s Taedong River. According to Mrs. Lee, the building contrasts with the squalor that Koreans endured after the war.

Lee’s food supply is spartan: the refrigerator contained a plate of bean curd, some eggs, lettuce and onions, as well as old tins of Soviet-made condensed milk and a piece of frozen pork that she was keeping for a special occasion. But despite her surroundings, Lee professed contentment, at least outwardly. “The government is doing its best for the ordinary people,” she declared in the presence of a governmentsupplied guide.

By contrast, privileged Communist party members live in luxurious apartment complexes sealed off by police at

night, dine at special restaurants catering to government officials and foreign visitors, and they travel Pyongyang’s boulevards in a fleet of Mercedes Benz and Volvo limousines. Some North Koreans at times have difficulty rationalizing those disparities to foreigners. “I’ve read of the terrible problem in the United States of the death toll from car accidents, and the terrible pollution,” said Lt.-Col. Li Roh Su. “Here we have no such problems.”

North Korea’s performance on the international stage has been indelibly marked by Kim’s eccentric and often brutal style. It provides Libya, Zimbabwe and other left-wing nations with military aid and training. At the same time, North Korea owes $2 billion in

foreign debt and, at one point, ceased payment even on interest for its foreign loans. And it has embarrassed its own allies in Moscow and Peking with a series of ham-fisted operations. In 1976 its diplomats in Denmark were expelled after they were found smuggling hashish. And nearly two years ago Pyongyang was implicated in a plot to kill the South Korean cabinet during a state visit to Burma. The bomb blast killed four ministers, narrowly missed South Korean President Chun Doo Hwan and led Kim’s Burmese allies to sever diplomatic relations.

Meanwhile, Kim steers a nimble and profitable course between the Soviet Union and China. Peking, particularly, seems anxious to reduce tensions in the Korean peninsula to prevent any instability there from threatening its muchvaunted modernization program. Indeed, during a marathon 13-hour conference last year, Chinese Communist Party General Secretary Hu Yaobang

apparently convinced Kim to scale back his ambitious plan for achieving military superiority over the South. Since the late 1960s the North has embarked on a major arms program which, at one point, drained 25 per cent of North Korea’s GNP.

For their part, Soviet leaders express concern that an alliance may be emerging among China, Japan and the United States. To counter it, the Kremlin is building up Pyongyang’s strength with aid and weapons. Last month Moscow delivered 10 valuable MiG-23 fighter jets to North Korea, equipment it could not afford to buy. At the same time, it has dropped traditional objections to Kim Jong II succeeding his father as president. Moscow had opposed the

son’s ascension because it could create a dynasty and lead to widespread unrest among other Koreans with a claim on power.

Whoever succeeds him will face the urgent need to close the gap between the north and the industrial giant in the south. Kim’s legacy, say critics in Seoul, is little more than personal glorification and showmanship. Indeed, even his urban monuments—such as Pyongyang’s subway system—under close inspection seem sterile. After foreign visitors depart, officials shut off the brilliant chandeliers, shrouding stations in semidarkness. On board the trains, under the obligatory portrait of the Great Leader, passengers sit in complete silence, faces set in grim resignation, enduring a barrage of recorded martial music and sonorous readings of Kim’s instructions. At a nearby exit a lone soldier with a machine-gun slung under his arm patrols, keeping vigilant watch over the North Korean paradise.