Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader: North Korea and the Kim Dynasty

Without question the longest book about North Korea is Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader: North Korea and the Kim Dynasty by Bradley K. Martin. At 876 pages, this book covers north Korean history from 1910, when the entire Korean peninsula was occupied by the Japanese, to the founding of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, through to the Victorious Fatherland Liberation War to the year of publication, 2005. I find military history to be a s-l-o-w read and, although interesting, nonetheless it took me a week to get through the first hundred pages. The pages of Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader are jam-packed with text written in a small font. Narrow top and side margins give the pages a telephone-book appearance. After spending seven days on the first hundred pages alone I wondered if I would have time to finish the book before my upcoming trip to east Asia. I worried that I would have to leave it at home, unfinished. Fortunately the book picks up and once the liberators free Korea from the Japanese, it is a rapid read.

Martin populates each page with a superabundance of notes. In total there are 136 pages of endnotes, which made for a worse reading experience than North Korea: Another Country, since I had to flip a brick’s worth of pages each time I encountered one of those superscripts. The majority of the endnotes apply to the first quarter of the book, requiring the reader to flip a sizable chunk of book back and forth constantly. Thus the notes hindered the continuity of the reading experience since I had to (or rather, chose to) flip to the end each time to see what further detail Martin was explaining. Fortunately the endnotes section was edited excellently such that each page was headed with note references by page number, not by chapter, so it was always easy to find the correct endnote page. The notes themselves were printed in an even more microscopic typeface than the main text, rivalling some British Penguin imprints’ microscopic fonts. Some reviewers of Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader have stated that the endnotes were more interesting than the main text. I agree that they were a highly informative enhancement to the main story.   

While discussing the childhood of the Dear Leader Kim Jong Il early in the book, the author confuses the terms “stepbrother” with “half-brother”. The Great Leader Kim Il Sung had children with another woman (or even multiple women) in addition to the woman who gave birth to the Dear Leader. Any male child born of these liaisons of his father’s make them Kim Jong Il’s half-brothers, not stepbrothers. That these women themselves had children by men other than Kim Il Sung made the designations “stepbrother” and “half-brother” vital to knowing who was who. It did not help matters much in that almost everyone involved had the surname Kim either. There was a lot of fooling around in the dynastic Kim household as the Dear Leader himself, Kim Jong Il, had multiple children by three wives. The last chapter of Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader is devoted to speculation as to who would succeed Kim Jong Il. This question was answered last year when the DPRK announced that it would be his younger son, Kim Jong Un, by his third wife. 

In the mid-1980’s the North Korean economy was failing and the regime sought other means to raise capital. While meeting with a Chinese official, the Great Leader had this exchange in a recorded conversation: 

“…Hu had asked him [Kim Il Sung]: ‘Why aren’t you doing the tourism industry? The tourism industry brings in a lot of money.’ Kim acknowledged the rationality of the argument, although in the same breath he expressed ambivalence about the issue: ‘I understand, so we will do the tourism industry now. We will start now. But it wasn’t because we didn’t want to do it–of course we didn’t want to do it–but now I’ve decided to do it.’
“Kim agonized over the opening of his country that would be necessary if he should go after tourist dollars. Speaking to Hu Yaobang, he said, he had worried aloud that North Korea was so small, with so much of its territory fortified, that it would be difficult to show off tourist sites without giving enemies a clear view of its defenses. ‘In your case,’ he said he had told Hu, ‘since you have a vast continent you can do whatever you want. In our case the border and the shoreline aren’t very long, and are tightly fortified. If this is opened to tourism, how would it be different from withdrawal of troops? If everyone comes and looks over everything, if everything is opened up–ha ha! And if Pyongyang is opened up in the end it will be the same as calling back the forces from along the border.” 

Martin relies on interviews with over fifty North Korean defectors for much of his inside information. He is cautious about accepting their testimony at face value and explains his sensitive predicament. When North Koreans defect, they must go through a lengthy debriefing session so that South Korea can be assured that the defectors are not actually spies from the North. What the western world may not know is that the South uses defector testimony as much for their own propaganda and it is not uncommon for the defectors to feel compelled by the Southern authorities to exaggerate their situations when talking to reporters, who in turn will carry the South’s propaganda to the outside world. The most senior member of the Kims’ inside circle to defect was the Party Secretary for Ideology, Hwang Jang Yop. Hwang’s testimony is fascinating, and Martin quotes extensively from Hwang’s three-volume The Problems of Human Rights in North Korea, the text of which can easily be found on-line. 

To illustrate the extent to which the DPRK operated as a paranoid state, defector Oh Young Nam confessed: 

“The intelligence network is very well kept. Sometimes sons would report on fathers. I never really trusted my wife, because I’ve seen too many cases where wives reported on husbands. Thus there is no open opposition.” 

and during Martin’s first trip to North Korea, he tells about his experiences trying to take photographs: 

“I told Kim Ji-il the story of how, on my first trip to North Korea, in 1979, my interpreter grabbed my camera to keep me from photographing children running around on a schoolyard. The photographer’s argument was that such photos would not convey the unity, the single-mindedness, of the North Korean people. ‘That’s what the people at the top want foreigners to see: unity,’ Kim commented. ‘But as I say, all that idolatry you saw in the schools is habitual behavior. When no one was watching, we would just go wild like any kids around the world.” 

As the North’s economy continued to plummet throughout the 1990’s, the government decided to establish free economic zones which, while running counter to socialist principles, would be “segregate[d]…so tightly they would have no effect on people and institutions elsewhere in the country”. This last-ditch effort to raise desperately-needed hard currency failed. No wonder: 

“To prospective foreign investors, officials audaciously pointed out the discreet charms of totalitarianism–social stability not least among them…
“Still, most outsiders reacted warily. They were put off not only by the unlikely strategy of development without real change but also by Pyongyang’s general profile–from its record of debt default to its reputation for aggression to doubts about political stability once Kim Il-sung should pass from the scene. Particularly unexcited were Japanese, who had the resources, the proximity and the history of interest in the Korean peninsula to become a major factor if they should wish to do so. North Korea still had not paid its debts despite repeated reschedulings. Japan had heard offers to repay its portion in fish and in gold, but nothing ever had come of those, either.” 

In The Aquariums of Pyongyang: Ten Years in the North Korean Gulag by Kang Chol-Hwan and Pierre Rigoulot, Kang tells of his time spent in a concentration camp. Kang, at the age of nine, was sent with his family to pay for the alleged sins of his grandfather. In North Korean society, if one family member committed an offence, three generations of a family were believed to be “contaminated” and everyone, including children, were sent to specific camps. Antigovernment criminality was believed to bleed through generations and no one really could feel secure even in his own home. This bred a chilling fear among the populace since one could be uprooted at any time if the authorities so much as found out about a “crime” committed by a relative even decades ago. Temptation to stray from the official party line or to commit even the slightest of misdemeanours might have the horrific consequence of a lifetime in a labour camp for an entire family. This draconian policy was established to make everyone behave and to ensure that one kept one’s opinions to oneself. 

Martin interviewed Ahn Myong Chol, a former prison guard who told him about one of the prisoners he befriended: 

“We [Martin and Ahn] talked and I realized he [the prisoner] had been sent to prison because of his father’s offenses. Kim Chang-bong, who was head of the KPA [Korean People’s Army] in the 1970s, was ousted by Kim Jong-il and sent with his family to camp. Others under him were also sent to prison camps with their families. This man’s father probably worked under Kim Chang-bong.”     

It strikes me, still, as unbelievable, that children, not to mention even grandchildren, have paid with their lives for the alleged sins of their (grand-)parents. What kind of regime inflicts punishments intergenerationally? Ahn states: 

“They propagandize that North Korea is a very peaceful society, but they say in all the orders to prison guards to be very aggressive, make sure you get rid of three generations of prisoners, root them out of society.” 

Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader offers a thorough and painstakingly well-researched account of life in North Korea from an unbiased American point of view. Unlike North Korea: Another Country, where author Bruce Cumings comes across as an American mouthpiece for the Kim regime, Bradley K. Martin remains objective, and is not afraid to point the finger at the US on occasions when it has done more harm than good in its relationship with North–even South–Korea. The superpower occupiers of the Korean peninsula are anything but a clear case of good guys versus bad guys. Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader is packed with information which is backed up with quotes and testimony from first-hand witnesses. Since Martin himself has visited the DPRK on multiple occasions, he can talk with authority about a country that is all too often painted by western media in a kaleidoscopic mishmash of invisible ink.

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