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I’m astonished by the human capacity for absurd belief. This astonishment hit me big time when reading Ian Buruma’s superb review of two new books on North Korea. (See Buruma, "Kimworld," The New Yorker, August 22nd, 2005.)

Kim Il Sung and his son Kim Jong Il have tyrannized North Koreans mercilessly. In the past sixty years, since the Soviet government put the elder Kim in power, millions of North Koreans have died – in prison camps, at the hands of executioners, and from famine.

Estimates are that in 1996 alone, one million people starved to death.

The Dear Leader’s life is a tad bit better. He is

ferried about in his fleet of Mercedes-Benzes, from one grand palace to another, where Chinese, Japanese, French, Russian, and Korean food was always available for feasts that sometimes went on for days.

And he routinely sends his chef to the likes of Denmark to shop for the finest bacon and to Iran to buy the finest caviar. Of course, there’s the inevitable parade of countless young women forced into his bed.

This instance of cruelty is, apparently, typical:

[O]ne of Kim’s secretaries went home after a night of drinking and told his wife about the Dear Leader’s debauchery. She wrote an earnest letter to Kim’s father, asking how a man who led such an immoral life could safeguard the happiness of his people. She was arrested and led to a palace where Kim Jong Il was carousing. Kim ordered her to be killed as a counter-revolutionary, but as a special favor allowed her husband to shoot her on the spot.

Despite it all, when Kim Il Sung died in 1994, pictures appeared in U.S. newspapers showing ordinary North Koreans sincerely sobbing at news of his death, mourning as if a parent or child had passed on.

The Kims are worshiped as gods. Here’s Buruma again:

The religious cult around the Kims goes further [than a peculiar mix of Stalinism and neo-Confucianism] however; they really are worshiped as divinities, in a peculiarly Korean mixture of native animism and psuedo-Christianity…. After the son’s [1980] ascent to the presidium [a five-member politiburo], the newspaper reported, there was "an explosion of our people’s joy, looking up at the star of guidance shining together with the benevolent sun."

Of course, learning just what ordinary North Koreans really think of the beast who tyrannizes them is difficult. Who really knows? Maybe they’re all just frightened into a sort of insanity. After all, living as a slave – and the North Korean people truly are slaves – strips you of your humanity. You become a non-person, incomparable on many fronts to any free person.

What’s truly grotesque, however, is the attitude of a handful of westerners who admire the Kims. Here again is Buruma:

And yet there are people for whom the North Korean regime has not entirely lost its prestige. One can forgive those romantic radicals in the South for admiring the idea of Korean self-reliance, even if it was based on a fiction. Harder to excuse are the nostalgic members of failed Eastern European and Third World utopias who have made pilgrimages to Pyongyang to relive the good old days. When I visited the city in 1996, I saw a group of plump East Germans being picked up by great black limousines that were driven right onto the station platform so that they wouldn’t get their shoes dusty.

There’s also the residue of old socialist dreaming. Bradley Martin [author of one of the books under review] quotes a British visitor named Andrew Holloway, who found the "secure and cheerful existence and the comradeship" of the "average" citizen "moving to behold." Despite having written a long book cataloguing torture, famine, and mass murder, Martin approvingly notes that readers of Holloway’s account "not consumed with knee-jerk loathing for socialism might be hard-pressed to adjudge as evil beyond redemption a society so apparently successful in inculcating values such as kindness and modesty." My own impression, reinforced by Martin’s book, is that North Koreans behave pretty much like all people forced to fight for bare survival: kindness is a dangerous luxury. Far from inculcating gentle behavior, the regime rewards brutality and crushes decency.