- Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader: North Korea and the Kim Dynasty
Since 2001, President George W. Bush has followed policies aimed at toppling the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK). Not many Americans have objected to this dangerous strategy that risks igniting nuclear war because of woeful public ignorance about Korea and its recent history. This thoughtful and informed account may provide a corrective. Bradley K. Martin has been a careful observer of the DPRK since the 1970s as a reporter for the Baltimore Sun and the Wall Street Journal. His descriptive and analytical focus is on Kim Il [End Page 120] Sung and his son, Kim Jong Il, because, quoting Korea scholar Dae-Sook Suh, their "rule 'is the study of North Korea'" (p. 56). "The regime acted as if blood were more important than ideology . . . ," Martin writes. "This, even more than hewing religiously to the personality cult and refusing to adjust an imperfect Marxist vision, may prove to have been the central tragedy of the Kim regime" (p. 302). He writes in an engaging style, maintaining interest with periodic doses of sarcasm and cynicism, as well as colorful comments such as "face it: she was a babe" (p. 312) and "they examined those boys from asshole to appetite" (p. 552). Korea specialists will find valuable information and insights in this thick volume that is not exclusively a historical study, but also an oral history, a personal memoir, and a sensational exposé.
Martin's early chapters profile Kim Il Sung, tracing his activities first as a tough, courageous, and vain guerrilla leader. His evidence comes from interviews with close associates of Kim, as well as official histories and autobiographical sources, "tossing out the preposterous, tentatively accepting the plausible while intuitively making allowance for exaggerations . . ." (p. 12). A patriot before becoming a Communist, Kim Il Sung after liberation in 1945 played "the consummate company man" (p. 49) for his Soviet mentors, eliminating his rivals, gaining greater autonomy, and providing "jobs for a stupefying number of relatives in addition to his offspring" (p. 189). To achieve popular admiration, he lied "about matters big and small" (p. 29) in publicizing his life story. But creating his personality cult owed as much to the state's raising the children of parents who died fighting the Japanese and teaching them to consider Kim Il Sung their father. Kim blamed others for his blunder in igniting the Korean War, but deserved credit for rapidly rebuilding North Korea, which Martin attributes to centralized power, a compact economy, and "an unusual lack of corruption and mismanagement" (p. 97). During the 1960s, he committed inordinate resources to the military, but implemented a strategy of subversion to absorb South Korea because he "saw himself as Korea's Ho Chi Minh" (p. 98). Until he died in April 1994, reunification remained Kim's "unchanging goal, second only to consolidating and maintaining power in the North . . ." (p. 61).
This study excels in presenting new details about the background, personality, and political maneuvers of Kim Jong Il. Nicknamed "Yura" following his birth in 1942 in the Soviet Union, he "had a narrow and sheltered upbringing" (p. 215). Martin describes how Kim Jong Il became an accomplished filmmaker who transformed his 1969 Sea of Blood into revolutionary operas that played a key role in his plan to replace his father. Emerging as "cultural czar," he concentrated on "improving dance, orchestral music, stage drama and novels, among other forms" (p. 255) to develop intensity in glorifying Kim Il Sung. His writings clarified juche—the ideology of self-reliance—to justify adoption of a new constitution in 1972 that ratified the elder Kim's unlimited personal rule. That same year, Kim confirmed his succession, Martin contends, when he [End Page 121] supervised the ostentatious celebration of his father's sixtieth birthday. Thereafter, indoctrination programs trained children in the new orthodoxy, requiring memorization of Kim Il Sung's life story and thought. By...