In an age of connection, it’s both refreshing and sobering to think that most North Koreans have probably heard Kim Jong Il’s voice only once. In 1992 he stood next to his father, then-President Kim Il Sung, and shouted the words “Glory to the heroic soldiers of the Korean People’s Army!” And that was it.
His father was a politician: Kim Il Sung kissed babies, gave speeches that lasted hours, and gave dozens, if not hundreds, of interviews to foreign journalists. But Kim Jong Il, who died Saturday of a heart attack, according to North Korean media, was a mystery, nearly ubiquitous and distant at the same time. His picture hangs next to that of his father in office buildings and restaurants throughout Pyongyang, placed so that he seems to be glaring down benevolently at you. His pudgy body beckons from paintings and pictures across Pyongyang.
When I was on a flight to North Korea in September, the flight attendant handed me an English-language magazine that showed a picture of Kim Jong Il casting his vote in a ballot box, a perfect shadow Photoshopped under his feet. A concert I reported on opened with a woman exalting Kim with a trembling voice. “See these flats?” my guide said from the bus window later on in the tour, pointing to apartment buildings rising out of the concrete emptiness that is Pyongyang. “Kim Jong Il gave these to his people.” She spoke about how he would take time from his busy schedule to tirelessly travel around the country, providing on-the-spot guidance and solving problems. But he wasn’t everywhere. Shin Dong Hyuk was born in a North Korean concentration camp and told me he “had no idea” who Kim Jong Il was until he escaped 22 years later. He says inmates never saw his picture.
Like its just-departed Dear Leader, North Korea itself is a black hole. It’s probably the most difficult country in the world on which to report. Almost no North Koreans speak to the outside world; because of the consequences of criticism, those who do speak in one voice. “Korea is at war,” Alejandro Cao de Benos, president of the Korean Friendship Association and one of the best-known North Korean fellow travelers, told me. “We don’t want to give (the West) more information to give them more lies.” The story I published about a North Korean band had to be done without interviewing the band, or any North Koreans, with the exceptions of my guides. The Chinese, who are among the best-informed outsiders about what’s going on in North Korea, are generally not that helpful, either. The last time I called an analyst to speak about the country he asked me, “How’s working for the CIA? Say ‘hi’ to the CIA for me,” and hung up.
Defectors are a valuable source of information, but North Koreans themselves likely don’t know that much about what’s going on in the country. They knew even less about what was happening with Kim Jong Il, though rumors do circulate. I wrote a commentary in August, describing my experience writing about the country’s crystal-meth problem; I included a story a defector told me about what happened when Kim discovered that his countrymen were abusing the drug. The leader originally decided to blame chemists and send them to villages and camps in the country’s remote north. But then Kim reportedly forgave them, concerned that if he went through with the campaign it would destroy the country’s field of chemistry, and decided to call crystal meth a “strong antibiotic”; now meth is all over. A great story, but who knows what’s actually going on in North Korea?
Few people, North Korean or foreign, are permitted to travel freely around the country. I’ve spent a scant handful of days in the country on two separate occasions; few Western journalists have had the opportunity to see much more. The only person I’ve ever met who claimed the ability to do so, an evangelical who name-dropped Kim Jong Il, described “miserable starvation, miserable agony” but refused to elaborate. If anyone knows what the “average” North Korean thinks about anything, that person is not going to share that information while the system is in place. Government sources, potentially the best informed, unsurprisingly paint a picture of absolute loyalty to Kim Jong Il. The evangelical with the permit to travel told me that North Koreans respect him “10,000 times what they respect Kim Jong Il, because I bring them food.”
Now that Kim is dead, conjecture will begin to flow, both about his life and what his death means for the political situation in North Korea. Will his brother-in-law take power, or will Kim the youngest be able to hold onto the throne? For a Western audience accustomed to polling, punditry and reasonably accurate claims about what their leaders are thinking and doing, it’s difficult to accept that reporting and commenting on North Korea are no better than conjecture. But that’s the only way to understand what’s happening. Kim Jong Il was no more than an enigma to us, and so too is the country he built in his own image.