Feeling Kim Il-Sung

Among the things I have been futzing around with — I futz around well — of late have been skimming the Anecdotes of Kim Il Sung’s Life, published by the Foreign Languages Publishing House of, I’m guessing, the Workers Party of Korea, in Pyongyang. They are, thankfully, available as free PDF files here in the archive maintained by Marxists.org.

I read these things so you don’t have to. Think of it as a service.

The anecdotes — there are two volumes, volume one published in English in 2007 and and volume two in 2013 — read like a lot of ancient literature (think the Analects of Confucius, though longer, or the Sayings of the Desert Fathers or the huge corpus of Islam’s hadith literature), short little stories designed to communicate an essential point about Kim Il Sung. And that kind of shocked of me. They read more like fables or fairy tales than they do ideological indoctrination, but that’s an important part of their power.

Because the idea that is designed to come across is not the superiority of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea as a state, or even Juche as a social system, but of Kim Il Sung as a man who cares, knows, understands, and is never wrong.

More importantly, these little stories teach the right emotional response to acts of Kim Il Sung’s caring — he we are to feel. Two examples will suffice as examples:

Rice Sent to the Divisional Hospital

One day in early 1951, Kim Il Sung’s uncle Kim Hyong Rok had a chance to go to the Supreme Headquarters and share a meal with his nephew Kim Il Sung after a long period of separation. Kim Hyong Rok was surprised to see the table spread with cooked millet without a grain of rice, dried cabbage soup and a small bowl of kimchi.

Although he was well aware of his nephew’s frugal way of life, he was still worried as to what would become of the country if the latter’s overwork day and night were to impair his health.

So he expressed his concern about his nephew’s health.

Kim Il Sung said with a smile; “Now that all the people are fighting against the Yankees, tightening their belts, I alone cannot live on white rice, can I? I feel at ease and have a good appetite when I live like the people.” [Bold in original]

Kim Hyong Rok thought it useless to insist. On returning home, he pounded in a mortar a small amount of rice he had kept and picked up grains of unhulled rice one by one. He sent the rice to the Supreme Headquarters with a note requesting that it be served to Kim Il Sung.

Kim Il Sung, however, sent the rice to the divisional hospital located near the Supreme Headquarters.

Informed later of the fact, Kim Hyong Rok said to himself, his eyes brimming with tears: “He would not have done anything else, would he? Even though I knew it…” (Anecdotes, Vol. 1, p.15)

And this:

The Leader and a Bare-Footed Boy

One summer day in 1955, some children of Changsong County met Kim Il Sung on their way home from school and gave him the Children’s Union salute. One of them had no shoes on.

The boy coloured with shame and tried to step back when Kim Il Sung looked anxiously down at his bare dusty feet. But the leader laid his hand on the boy’s shoulder.

“Whom do you live with?” he asked.

“I live with my grandmother, mother and younger brothers.”

“What about your father?”

The boy hesitated to reply.

“What about your father?”

“He fell in battle during the war.”

The leader said no more, but hugged the boy. With a worried look, he said to his entourage: “Look here. I haven’t even given him a pair of shoes, but he has greeted me.”

A while later he asked in detail where and how the boy was living. Parting with the children, he promised that he would drop in at their houses some time later.
The boy ran along to his house to inform his family of the good news. When he was half way, he heard a car’s horn hooting behind, and the leader’s car pulled up beside him.

“Get in,” said the leader.

The boy hesitated, looking down at his bare feet.

The leader said, “It hurts to walk on the stony road, doesn’t it? If your feet become sore, you will be in trouble, unable to go to school.”

The boy turned his head away, tears welling up in his eyes. When they reached the house, the leader greeted with the boy’s grandmother and mother. Then he told his aide to take the three brothers and buy them shoes.

It was a long time before they returned with new shoes on. The leader, still standing in the yard, did not feel relieved until he felt the toes and heels of the shoes. The boy was so choked that he could barely stammer out, “Thank you for buying me shoes. I will study hard.” Then he buried his face in the bosom of the leader. (Anecdotes, Vol. 1, p.21-22)

The stories here describe, and designed to provoke, an emotional response. In both, Kim Il Sung demonstrates his virtues to third parties, his uncle and an unnamed shoeless, fatherless boy. In one, Kim Il Sung shares the wartime deprivation of the people, sending his rice to a hospital likely to help wounded soldiers gain the strength to recover. In the other, he stops his car to greet the boy and ends up providing him and his brothers with shoes.

The uncle has “eyes brimming with tears” and the boy is “so choked” he could barely speak. Both are grateful for the leader’s generosity, for Kim Il Sung’s provision, and respond with an intense and overwhelming gratitude and love. Kim Il Sung, who sacrifices himself for the wellbeing of the nation and makes sure all DPRK citizens are provided for. His uncle is grateful to the points of tears, and so is the boy. And so must all who live under such beneficence.

That ends up being the most important point of media in a society where truth or facts no longer exist. Media in such situations exists largely to communicate correct emotional responses and to prompt those responses. And it seems, increasingly, American media is no longer interested in shared truth or affirmed facts, but rather narratives that suggest and provoke emotional responses. No doubt there is plenty of anger and resentment as part of DPRK/WPK propaganda, but that’s not part of these Kim Il Sung stories. These are designed to make the hearer happy, grateful, and feel deeply unworthy of living under such a kind, generous, thoughtful, and self-sacrificing leader.

You could do exegesis on these stories — I have done a little, and I find them fascinating — but that would be unwelcome, since these stories are designed not for scholarly study1, but basic inculcation of values, virtues, and even habits.

Because my guess is that North Koreans who learn these stories talk less about what they might mean than how these stories make them feel. Or are supposed to make them feel.

I doubt our media will evolve to the point where we’re telling stories of the eternally virtuous Donald J. Trump, who made a little boy cry tears of joy and promise to study hard because he gave him shoes, but we are slowly and sloppily slouching that direction. Our political opponents have no virtues, we possess no vices, and we don’t even live in the same world of facts and data anymore. We have facts, they have lies. We have real news, they have fake news. All that’s left in this is the appeal to emotion. To right feelings and proper responses.

This is religious, though of a particularly shallow kind, that doesn’t allow the mind to engage the story critically — even if the story is believed. Because we can no longer really ask questions of the stories we believe. Only our enemies doubt or disbelieve. We can only feel, and then only the right feelings.

All there is here is sentiment. And sentiment … is a harsh and merciless master.

It’s one more sign, for me, that dictatorship of some kind — and one that will insist on barring and banning all competing stories — is coming. A free and democratic society has to be held together by something, and because ours no longer is held together by very much (not even a shared concept of citizenship), someone will at some point decide competing stories and competing meaning and competing facts and competing emotional responses make it impossible to govern a single people.

At which point, we may all have to promise to study hard, and have eyes brimming with tears when prompted.


  1. Though for a while, I have been considering writing about a distant future where a small community of humans somewhere has turned all of this into a religion. ↩︎
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LECTIONARY “Though You Do Not Know Me

Lectionary 29 / Twentieth Sunday After Pentecost

A reading from Isaiah …

1 Thus says the Lord to his anointed, to Cyrus,
whose right hand I have grasped,
to subdue nations before him
and to loose the belts of kings,
to open doors before him
that gates may not be closed:
2 “I will go before you
and level the exalted places,
I will break in pieces the doors of bronze
and cut through the bars of iron,
3 I will give you the treasures of darkness
and the hoards in secret places,
that you may know that it is I, the Lord,
the God of Israel, who call you by your name.
4 For the sake of my servant Jacob,
and Israel my chosen,
I call you by your name,
I name you, though you do not know me.
5 I am the Lord, and there is no other,
besides me there is no God;
I equip you, though you do not know me,
6 that people may know, from the rising of the sun
and from the west, that there is none besides me;
I am the Lord, and there is no other.
7 I form light and create darkness;
I make well-being and create calamity;
I am the Lord, who does all these things.
(Isaiah 45:1-7 ESV)

I have not written here about any scriptural for a long time. I have not blogged here for a long time. Partly it is because I have had nothing to say. Partly it is because I am in a difficult place, spiritually. Partly it is because I write every day, and am also nearly 50,000 words into a novel. And partly, it is because I am a public person of sorts where I am and am not sure I want to create trouble for my employer.

I don’t seem to be able to create much public trouble for myself. I only get yelled and thrown out by bishops and pastors and committees of church people, but why chance it? (Which is perhaps another reason I have not blogged here much.)

So why today, then, as we creep up on Reformation Sunday? I don’t know. It still feels like a part of me is missing when I can’t do this. When I don’t do this.

I love this passage. I love the confident proclamation of the Lord to a man who likely isn’t even listening. “Thus says the Lord to his anointed” — כֹּה־אָמַר יְהוָה לִמְשִׁיחוֹ֮ li-meshihu to The Messiah. God has chosen this man, Cyrus, the shahanshah of Persia, a king who very likely knows little or nothing of The Lord God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, to rule, and to conquer.

I call you by name, the Lord says, and I equip you, the Lord adds, saying twice to this foreign king, “Though you do not know me.” (וְלֹא יְדַעְתָּֽנִי)

God does these things, names and equips Cyrus the King of Persia (much as he named and blessed Jacob), goes before Cyrus letting us know that the work of Cyrus — subduing nations, loosening belts, opening doors and gates, leveling exalted places, breaking down doors of bronze and cutting through bars of iron, and the giving over of treasures and hoards — is God’s work, and the Lord God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob does this for no one’s sake but ours, his called and named and redeemed people.

Cyrus does not know the Lord, and does not know that when he conquers he does so because the Lord has grasped his hand, leads Cyrus and guides Cyrus.

So that we may be saved.

Does Cyrus need to know who calls him, and whose he is, to do the work he has been given? Does he need to believe to be part of God’s plan? Clearly not here. “Though you do not know me.” Said twice. Probably never said to him. But rather, said to Israel, as it languished in hopeless exile, wondering when salvation would come. The Lord’s anointed is here, in the form of a foreign king, who has put an end to Babylon, and will set us free. Chronicles ends, and Ezra begins, with a proclamation from Cyrus that “The Lord, the God of heaven, has given me all the kingdoms of the earth” and commanding the exiles to return to Jerusalem to rebuild the House of the Lord. Perhaps Cyrus believes, but I doubt it. This is a formula that the leader of great multi-ethnic empire would have given. He pronounces to the people he has conquered in the name of their god(s). Israel’s is just one more god of a people he rules over. His work is likely accidental, at least to him.

But not to us. This accident of history … is our redemption.

So how, then, are we to look upon the political world? The church, especially as it inherited empire and became Christendom, worked out the moral and ethical responsibility of Christians in a Christian polity. The teaching of the church assumes a Christian polity, and can generally conceive of the world no other way. Even liberal/progressive Christians, with their demand that some version of the beatitudes, need a version of Christendom, because they need the moral responsibility that comes with the presumption of rule.

But as Israel’s kingdoms failed, Israel also learned that, while it is called to “seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile” (Jeremiah 29:7), Israel is also now something of a free rider politically. Israel as a people is no longer sovereign. They are conquered, and subject to the whim of the Babylonians, then the Persians, and then the Greeks — those who rule them. This loss of sovereignty is also the work of the Lord, who says “I make well-being and create calamity.” This sitting on the banks of the Euphrates singing songs of lament and mourning is also God’s work. While in scripture there are times and places where the people of God order the world according to the commands and teaching of God, there are other times in which we are cast about, leaves on the wind, in which we have no control, and can expect none.

Sometimes we are free riders on the order created and imposed by others, always mindful that order too is God’s. Not always, but when we’re hauled off into exile, it is enough to plant and build and beget, teach our children and all who come, rather than assume the empire must always adhere to our notions of right and wrong, of good order and justice.

The work of redeeming us is God’s, and sometimes God will find the strangest means — a foreign king who barely knows who we are — to fulfill God’s promises.

Because God knows us. And has not forgotten us.

Some Men Leave Nothing Behind

John Schindler, who blogs here and tweets as @20committee, has an interesting series of tweets about Las Vegas shooter Stephen Paddock:

Since the 1990s, I’ve long believed that target selection can tell us a lot about the attacker. For example, it never made sense to me that the Oklahoma City bombing was done by Muslims because a federal building in Oklahoma City isn’t a target that means anything to Muslims. Now, since then, attacks have gotten a lot less planned and a lot more haphazard — more targets of opportunity and ease, rather than anything meaningful.

But nothing about what happened in Las Vegas makes much sense. The target, an open air country music festival, initially suggests someone for whom country music means something negative. But if the reports are correct that Paddock was looking at concerts (like Lollapalooza), and this was just the one he chose, well, then, the target itself has no meaning. Except that it was easy.

So I agree with Schindler that much about the attack makes no sense. But I believe it may be possible for Paddock to be, in fact, a fairly blank slate. He may have left nothing behind.

My dad was 73 when he died in January, and I don’t think I ever really knew him very well. I thought, in going through his things, I might learn something about him. I found a treasure trove of letters he wrote to his mother when he was stationed in Kwajalein in 1970-71, and thought there might be some insight there.

But there wasn’t. He talks mostly about golfing, bowling, playing basketball, and going diving in the lagoon. He doesn’t talk about work — my dad was good at keeping secrets — except once to describe how beautiful the sight of an ICBM warhead reentering the atmosphere is (Kwajalein is the receiving end of ballistic missile tests launched from California). He doesn’t talk about feelings or thoughts or ideas.

Nor does he really in any of the other papers I found. He had them, and occasionally he parted with them when we spoke. But not often. And he didn’t write anything like that down.

Nor was there anything on his computer except photographs.

My dad is as much a mystery to me in death as he was in life. And maybe that’s who he was. He was what he did. He was a soldier, an officer, a project manager, a math teacher, a basketball coach. Not everyone feels the need to make great pronouncements about themselves to the world.

Granted, my father never planned or organized an act of individual terror (CAVEAT: outside his military service or his time working for General Dynamics, and we don’t generally consider those things terrorism), and so there’s nothing to explain. The only surprise I found in his apartment was a wall covered in baseball caps, a Keurig coffee maker, and a mess left buy a man grown too sick to clean the place where he lived.

It may be Paddock is one of those men, like my dad, who just kept things to himself. Who is largely imponderable and unknowable because he committed nothing to writing, left few traces, and had few public opinions on much of anything. You need such men if you’re going to keep government secrets — I’m a terrible keeper of secrets, and it is just as well I never got or had security clearances for very long. Paddock apparently never kept those secrets, but he was 10 years younger than my father and would have come of age in entirely different world. But my guess is lots of men (and lots of women, too) live such lives, leaving little behind when they go and letting us try and figure out who they are by what they’ve done.

So whatever concerns we have about what we don’t know, it may be we don’t know anything because there’s nothing to know. (Watch me be really wrong about this.)