In the 1990s, when industrial production collapsed, triggering nationwide famines, the labor camps became death camps. As many as one third of prisoners in these camps died in the early 1990s under hideous conditions. Eyewitness accounts by former guards tell of starvation so extreme that prisoners tried to eat undigested grains in animal feces. Even this was considered a crime, and many prisoners were executed for trying to survive. In honor of his father’s death in 1994, Kim Jong-Il issued a brief stay on the executions. Before long though, he decided that he wanted to “hear the sound of gunshots again.” Firing squads were told to aim at the heads because they were filled with “the wrong thoughts.”
Life outside the camps was scarcely better. During the 1980s, Kim Il-Sung’s policy of juche, loosely translated as self-reliance, resulted in North Korea severing most of its trading ties, including with traditional partners like China and the Soviet Union. Concurrently, a state-controlled economy impeded agricultural production. What little money was in the state treasury was funneled toward the military.
North Korea thus had little defense against economic crises. A famine from 1995 to 1997 killed two million to three million North Koreans. The few visitors who managed to make their way into the country bore witness to the devastation and brought back reports of children eating grass to survive. Refugees told stories of cannibalism, with families protecting the bodies of deceased relatives lest they be consumed by starving neighbors.
Famine and malnutrition has left a permanent effect on the North Korean populace. A 2002 UN European Survey found an average 7-year-old boy in North Korea was 20 centimeters shorter and 22 pounds lighter than his counterpart in South Korea. Not even the army, traditionally the best fed profession outside the ranks of the Communist Party elite, was immune from these effects. North Korean soldiers are reportedly six inches shorter than South Korean soldiers. North Koreans suffered these torments in silence. They had little choice. Objecting was tantamount to treason and in the 1990s thousands of “complainers” were sent to the prison camps.
While his people starved, Kim Jong-Il denied himself few pleasures. His taste for expensive drink ran to a cellar stocked with 10,000 French wines. North Koreans survived on the equivalent of $900 a year. Kim Jong-Il spent $700,000 annually just on his beloved Hennessy cognac. Even as North Korea appealed to the UN for food relief, Kim Jong-Il retained a personal sushi chef and enjoyed rare delicacies like shark-fin soup. While traveling on his personal train, he had live lobsters flown in at stops along the way. North Koreans toiled to death in silver mines. Kim Jong-Il dined with silver chopsticks.
To account for the injustices he visited on his people, Kim Jong-Il directed the blame abroad. In the state-enforced ideology, North Korea is the victim of outside forces, most prominently the United States and South Korea. Entire museums are devoted to anti-American propaganda. Generations of North Koreans have been raised on horror stories about the “bloody atrocities of the eternal enemies of the North Korean people – American imperialism, Japanese colonialism, and their South Korean puppets.” Not surprisingly, North Koreans today believe that the United States and South Korea started the Korean War, the inverse of what actually happened.
Above all, North Koreans have been forced to worship at the altar of the Kims. Brainwashing begins from youth. North Korea’s education system is designed to serve the personality cult. The first phrase schoolchildren learn is to pay homage to their “great leader, comrade Kim Il Sung.” As adults, they take part in elaborate rituals of gratitude to the “dear leader” for helping them in their daily lives.
Wholesale suppression of dissent and the country’s isolation from the outside world has taken a profound toll on North Koreans. Where people in other totalitarian countries often opposed their regimes in private moments, North Koreans, according to some visitors, show no sign of political dissent. Slavish obedience is all they know. If true, this too is Kim Jong-Il’s legacy.
That may explain the last image of Kim Jong-Il’s monstrous rule: North Koreans weeping hysterically upon his death. It’s impossible to know how much of this orchestrated grief was sincere and how much of it was motivated by fear of the regime. Either way, it is a heartbreaking sight to behold. Of his legion of atrocities, perhaps Kim Jong-Il’s greatest crime is the one inflicted on the minds of his long-suffering people.
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