Some notes on North Korea's way
By Eason Jordan
September 16, 1999
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Editor's note: Eason Jordan recently returned from what was his 10th trip to North Korea in the past five years. He wrote these observations for CNN Interactive.
The mysterious one
North Korea's Kim Jong Il is arguably the world's most mysterious leader.
He never meets outsiders. Only once in history has his voice been heard on North Korean radio or television. That occasion came seven years ago when, at a military parade, he was heard saying, "Glory be to the heroic Korean People's Army."
He rules North Korea not as president (his deceased father, Kim Il Sung, is the country's "Eternal President") or as prime minister, but as the chairman of the country's National Defense Commission.
Kim Jong Il is the commander-in-chief of the North Korean armed forces and goes by the titles of "Dear Leader," Great Leader," "General" and "Marshal," but he has never served in a junior role in the military.
He frequently visits North Korean military bases, where he presents his troops with gold-plated machine guns and binoculars. He has an obsession with the media, personally overseeing North Korean TV and movie productions.
His other obsession: potatoes. Although he has no training in agriculture, Kim Jong Il spends weeks at a time in the countryside providing so-called "on-the-spot guidance" to potato farmers. He is convinced a supposedly new type of potato will be his troubled country's savior.
While it's not well known, potatoes recently provided the United States with the key to access to an underground North Korean site the United States suspected was meant to be home to a secret North Korean nuclear facility.
The United States doggedly pushed for months for access to the site. North Korea refused until an enterprising U.S. official with knowledge of Kim Jong Il's potato infatuation offered to share with North Korea private U.S. expertise on potato farming. North Korea quickly accepted the offer, immediately opening the suspect underground site to inspection (it was empty).
The Kim cult
North Koreans are raised from birth to worship Kim Jong Il and his father, Kim Il Sung, who founded North Korea in 1948 and led it until his death in 1994.
Rarely if ever has the world seen such a fanatical national cult of personality. In every apartment, house and office in North Korea are framed pictures of father and son Kim. Over their hearts, North Koreans wear a badge emblazoned with a tiny photo of one or both Kims.
And many North Koreans obtain new clothing only twice a year -- on the birthdays of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il. The government, in the name of Kim Jong Il, presents as a gift a new outfit to every one of the country's 22 million people.
There's a world of difference between North Korea and the rest of planet Earth. Take the calendar, for instance.
This year is 1999 for most of us. In North Korea, however, this year is "Juche 88." That is because North Korea scrapped the A.D. calendar in 1995 and switched to the "Juche calendar."
"Juche" is North Korea's policy of self-reliance, as devised by North Korean founder Kim Il Sung. The calendar was implemented as a tribute after his death. This year is Juche 88 because Kim Il Sung, who died in 1994, was born 88 years ago.
So North Koreans will skip the world's millennium celebration and will mark their calendar year centennial in 2111.
Diplomats say the North Korean leadership recently banned women from riding bicycles in the capital city of Pyongyang because women riding bicycles "offend morality."
There seems to be no explanation for the apparent longtime ban on North Korean women driving cars.
'It's bloody obscene'
So blurted a livid British cigarette salesman after seeing the extravagant Kumsusan Memorial Palace, where every day thousands of sobbing sycophants file past the embalmed remains of "Great Leader" Kim Il Sung.
The salesman (who saw no contradiction in trying to sell "West" brand cigarettes to North Koreans) said it was outrageous that North Korea would devote such significant resources to the so-called "Temple of Juche," Kim Il Sung's Memorial Palace, when millions of North Koreans were dying because of famine (or so he said).
The unlikeliest of heroes
One of the most idolized figures in North Korea is the late Korean professional wrestler Rikidozan.
According to North Korean propaganda, Rikidozan -- "the world's greatest wrestler ever" -- was murdered because he so shamed his "American imperialist" and "Japanese rogue" wrestling opponents.
Rikidozan, while in a drunken stupor one night in Tokyo, was stabbed by one of his many enemies. In the midst of a supposedly miraculous recovery from the stabbing, an unknown man slipped into Rikidozan's hospital room and forced him to drink soda pop, making his delicate stomach explode, killing him. After drinking the killer soda pop, but before dying, Rikidozan's last move was to hold up one of his index fingers.
While those who witnessed Rikidozan's final gesture thought it was a signal asking for one last soda pop, North Korean propagandists say the finger meant that Rikidozan's dying wish was to see Korea reunited.
Rikidozan's heroic exploits are the subject of North Korean books and a TV docudrama series, which is televised again and again. North Korean propaganda sadly notes that Rikidozan never achieved his lifelong goal of mercilessly beating American and Japanese wrestling opponents in the presence of North Korean founder Kim Il Sung.
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