What to make of Kim Jong Un and North Korea – Issy Williams


Kim Jong Un and North Korea have been at the centre of political jokes in the past few years, but during the past few months, the level of humour associated with the country and its leader has been ramped up. A different take on Kim Kardashian’s recently launched ‘Kimoji’ app, some alternative “kimojis” have been created based on the North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, featuring nuclear missiles, the North Korean flag and previous supreme rulers of the nation.


As it seems that there are many people who are in fact unfamiliar with the leader (which is unsurprising, considering the little information he has allowed to be publicised about him), I’d like to begin by painting a brief picture of Kim Jong Un, the dictator of North Korea. A man who calls his wife “Comrade”. A man whose birth year the world cannot officially agree on because he has forbidden for it to be made public. A man who sentenced his second in command to death for “insufficient mourning” at his father’s funeral. But sadly, for those of you who perhaps secretly enjoy the thought of having such an unpredictable, crazy man on the planet, a lot of the things we hear about him are often exaggerated by the media. Some of you may have heard about Kim sentencing his own uncle to death in 2013 by feeding him to a pack of starving dogs – he did indeed order his uncle’s death, but the little extra detail of a pack of hungry dogs tearing the man limb from limb was a picture painted by a satirical Chinese magazine, and did not – to our knowledge – happen in reality.

For those married men reading this, before I start putting the idea into your minds that calling your girlfriend or wife “comrade” is a good idea, I’ll warn you that she probably won’t like it… and on a more serious note, there is a very grave side to what we may prefer to consider “someone else’s problem”. It is in fact, our problem – and a very big one. We know, through secret intelligence that a lot of bad stuff goes on in North Korea under Kim’s government, to put it lightly. Only in 2012 did satellite images reveal the sudden disappearance of over 30,000 political prisoners from a concentration camp, known as Camp 22, in the North Korean province of North Hamgyong. Whilst we still don’t know the fate of all these people for sure, we can probably make an educated guess, based on two witness accounts we have from security guards who escaped their jobs in Camp 22 in the 1990s. Ahn Myong-chol and Kwon Hyok alleged that approximately 30% of prisoners suffer from deformities as a result of camp torture, such as missing facial features, crippled bodies and missing limbs. Of course, as with most authoritarian states, the North Korean government denies that such a place exists and, likewise, much of the population believes that no such evil goes on under the reign of the “Supreme Marshall Kim”, because his leadership is supposedly a blessing.

In fact, the people’s lives are so distorted by Kim’s government that all western elements of life are made, on the whole, non-accessible to the North Korean population. During Kim’s succession in 2011, two BBC reporters, Sue Lloyd Roberts and Michael Bristow, visited the country to experience life in North Korea firsthand. Whilst visiting Pyongyang University, the reporters asked a student “other than the Great Leader” – that’s Kim – “which other world leaders do you admire?” To which the student’s immediate response was “Stalin and Mao Zedong”. However, none of the students who were interviewed had heard of Nelson Mandela – coincidence I think not…

A collection of illegal photographs taken in North Korea by Eric Lafforgue in 2014 reveal not only the pro-Kim view which is enforced, but also the anti-American one. He shot pictures in a children’s sports fair, where the archery competition didn’t involve the usual colour coordinated target we use here in the UK, but a picture of an American soldier to aim for. Another picture showed a power cut in an art gallery, in which the staff apparently instinctively blamed the power cut on an American embargo.

Returning the focus to Kim himself, despite his tendencies to neglect his people’s wellbeing on a pretty drastic scale, there is a lot of evidence to remind us that he is still human. Kim is actually huge fan of basketball, and is said to have actually called himself “in with the NBA crew” after enticing basketballer Dennis Rodman to Pyongyang in 2013 and 2014. (Clearly he likes to pick and choose those aspects of America he likes and those he despises.) Now this encounter was a very public event, but on a more secretive level, we’ve also got some information about Kim’s private life through a man called Kenji Fujimoto, who has known Kim since he was 8 years old, having served as the sushi-chef for the Kim family in the 1990s. Apparently, the dictator has an irrational phobia of getting his hair cut, something which I can tell a lot of boys here suffer from, perhaps due to a traumatic childhood experience at the barber. Apparently as a child, Kim would always try to barge in on the chef whilst he was in the bathroom. Kim also stole his Whitney Houston CD at the age of 17 and has remained in denial ever since, despite camera footage to prove otherwise. As meaningless as these examples of Kim’s private life may be, they serve the fundamental purpose of reminding us that the man is human and therefore there is a chance, albeit minimal, of negotiation with him.

The problem comes when considering how and when to attempt negotiations with North Korea if that is the route we choose to go down. It has been attempted before. In Obama’s inaugural address upon becoming President in 2009, he made an offer to dictators around the world, to put the past behind them, and to progress towards world peace through diplomacy. North Korea however, responded with a multi stage rocket launch and two nuclear tests in April and May that same year. The message was made pretty clear. Whilst we wait for UN sanctions to hinder their ability to continue nuclear development, we must be patient and refrain from aggression. Kim is clearly an unpredictable man, and provoking him could have severe repercussions and perhaps even lead to nuclear war. In the past month, North Korea has sent up its first communications satellite in a missile, and it’s thought that the country has enough plutonium to create six nuclear bombs at its will. Daunting as this may be, treading carefully and waiting for UN sanctions to take effect seems to be the right way to avoid provoking the dictator, and stopping some of the terrible things that go on behind closed doors.

(This article is based on Issy’s prize-winning speech at the Todd Declamation in the Lent Term).

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