Quick Note on the Kims

김정일 사망
—South Korean headline, 19 December 2011. “Kim Jong Il Dead”

Two days ago, we learned that Kim Jong Il had died two days earlier.

This morning, I was struck by the photo below of the Kims in a stark, imposing hall, looking at a scale model of a Pyongyang neighborhood. Students of the Kim dynasty, or of totalitarian architecture, or power dynamics, or James Bond films, can find plenty to puzzle over in it. I think it’s remarkable.

North Korean rulers Kim Jong Il and Kim Il Sung examine a relief map of Changgwang street in Pyongyang.

Where so many images of Kim Il Sung make him seem jolly and benevolent, here he is unsmiling and thoughtful. Where the flood of recent images of Kim Jong Il seem to show him simply going through the motions (viewing a parade, viewing a grocery store) here he looks decisive and driven. I haven’t found a date for this picture, but I’d guess it’s from the early 1980s. The cues—a discussion of matters of governance, the resonance of wearing the same outfit, the omnipresent aides and military attendants—seems to me intended to symbolize Kim Jong Il’s gradual, inevitable inheritance of authority.

Like any government, the Kim regime carefully managed its image. I can recall seeing exactly zero images of some recumbent Kim luxuriating in a comfy, private chamber; but very many images of power and populism, whether they were military parades, official portraits, Mass Games, or factory tours. All that with a good dose of hyodo (효도), the Confucian concept of filial piety that is extremely important in Korea and is arguably exploited in the continued veneration of Kim Il Sung.

A few decades ago, the Kim Dynasty of North Korea had a lot more competition in the dictator department. (Not that the world has ever lacked, including now.) But did Kim Il Sung, in his time, ever really penetrate the American cultural consciousness in quite the same way that other post-World War II leaders did? I’m not sure. I tend to remember Kim the elder in a pale blue or gray suit with a broad smile and pants pulled up high; his image may have been too paternal and jolly, too normal, when it came to the superficial visual language of power and corruption as interpreted by Western eyes. No leopard-skin toque, no laureled uniform, no glowering, beturbaned mien.

The Kims visit Sonsang Soccer Stadium in Pyongyang in 1989.

Kim Il Sung died when I was 14, so I may simply have been oblivious to his place in Western culture. But there’s no denying the celebrity of his son Kim Jong Il. When the father passed away, he left the foundation of a nuclear program in place that his son has grown into a worrying operation. The axis of evil designation added to the currency of Kim as a major player, punching well above his weight. With the spotlight, and the country, and the attention of a whole bunch of other countries, in Kim Jong Il’s grasp, he also gained an odd cultural power. Sunglassed, high-haired, and wearing single-color ensembles, his image and epic weirdness became an internet commodity, transmitted around the world to a global audience hungry for the stories of its rulers’ benighted opulence and indulgence that so contrasted with the deprivation of those they ruled. From that perspective—the one of images and absurdity and iconic camp—the whole thing seemed like a sad caricature of the anti-Communist propaganda (itself a sort of caricature) inculcated in those of us who grew up during the Cold War.

It was easy to point and laugh. Unless you were North Korean.

Addendum: It’s not clear, yet, what we’ll think of Kim Jong Il’s successor, Kim Jong Un. We don’t know if he’ll be a reformer or a conservative, if he’ll be weird or as normal as the head of a nepotistic autocracy can be. This young, Western-educated man supposedly loves basketball and studied computer science. I assume that he has grown up using the internet in some way—the thing that helped make his father a pop-culture figure in the last decade—and thus will be the first in this generation to have his own nuclear arsenal.

[Images via The Atlantic’s In Focus roundup of Kim Jong Il pictures. Well worth a look.]