North Korea is one of the strangest places on earth. While communist states in other parts of the world, from East Germany to Vietnam, have collapsed or allowed their citizens more freedom, the rulers of North Korea keep as tight a grip on power as ever. The country is locked in a Stalinist deep-freeze. North Koreans can be sent to prison for listening to foreign radio, owning a forbidden book or telling a joke about their leaders.
In fact, life there is a like a crazy religious cult centred on worship of three generations of one family: the Kims. After the Second World War, Kim Il Sung came to power in the north claiming to have been a hero of the resistance against the Japanese. He launched an attack on the south, trying to conquer the whole Korean peninsula, but he would have lost disastrously if it hadn’t been for his Chinese allies. When the war ended, Korea was split in two and has remained that way ever since. Kim Il Sung tightened his control in the north and began a personality cult. When he died in 1986, his son Kim Jong Il made the cult even stronger and even crazier.
Now a third generation of the Kim family rules North Korea: Kim Jong Un, the son of Kim Jong Il. But his father and grandfather have never gone away. Their pictures and statues are everywhere and their shared tomb is one of North Korea’s most sacred and most heavily guarded sites. Like the Soviet leader Lenin, Kim the First and Kim the Second have been embalmed so that their bodies can be placed on permanent public display in a huge and intimidating tomb. Although power-cuts are common in North Korea, the building has a generator of its own so that electricity is permanently available. The temperature and light there are carefully controlled, and although communism is officially an atheist belief-system, with no time for anything supernatural, it’s clear that the tomb serves as a place of pilgrimage.
Ordinary citizens can faint or burst into tears when they visit their “dear leaders”, who seem to be only sleeping. The North Korean government has also performed a kind of cosmetic surgery on Kim the First. During his life, his appearance was disfigured by a huge goitre, or fleshy growth, on the right side of his neck. He refused to undergo surgery, perhaps fearing an assassination attempt, and official photographs of him had to be altered or taken from his left so that the North Korean people did not seen this glaring imperfection in a man whom they were taught to regarded as a living god.
Then the god died and his embalmers were able to remove the goitre. His body remains unchanging in its tomb and North Koreans are told that his spirit watches over them, helping to guide what the communist party claims is the best and fairest political system on earth. It isn’t: it’s a cruel and murderous tyranny, perhaps the most tightly controlled society in history. The Kim family are a dynasty of gangsters who want to be thought of as gods. That’s why they allow no criticism and admit no imperfections. Kim the First and Kim the Second might have died, but they lie in their huge tomb unchanged and undecaying, as though they might wake at any moment. They will stay there until North Korea comes out of its deep-freeze and loosens or abandons its communism.