Friday, February 12, 2010


I have recently had the opportunity to read B.R. Myers’ book The Cleanest Race: How North Koreans See Themselves and Why it Matters. I was scheduled to comment on the book at an event hosted by the Wilson Center but, alas, “snowmageddon” intervened and the event was canceled.

This was disappointing because I was eagerly anticipated discussing what is clearly a very important and sure to be influential book. I highly recommend that anyone with interest in North Korea—scholarly, policy-related, or more general curiosity—read it.

I don't know if time and energy will permit a full-fledged discussion on this blog of all the fascinating facets of the book and ats provocative arguments, but I do want to raise and discuss one issue in the book:

Myers contends that the DPRK regime does not attribute divine powers or characteristics to its leaders, either Kim Il Sung or Kim Jong Il. Specifically:

“No matter what some American Christian Groups might claim, divine powers have never been attributed to either of the two Kims” (Myers, Cleanest Race, 13).

It goes without saying that this claim flies in the face of what is conventional wisdom in at least the United States if not elsewhere. However, upon further reflection and a little but of poking around, I find that I am somewhat convinced by Myers’ contention. There are a few caveats, however.

First, Myers notes later in the book that DPRK propaganda does at times engage in deification of the Kims but that it is always careful to place such words in the mouths of fawning foreigners not North Korean officials or citizens. This seems to me to be both meaningful and a bit misleading. The distinction between foreigners’ claims and “official” North Korean claims may indeed be real and significant but it may also simply be a way for the DPRK to have plausible deniability about whether it actually supports the claims. If Myers could point to some examples in which fawning foreigners were actually corrected by their North Korean interlocutors (“nodding sympathetically, Mr. Kim told the Spanish guest that while it may indeed seem like Kim Il Sung is a God, we must remember that he is merely a man?....) it would bolster his argument about the significance of the distinction.

Second, it isn’t always clear what is meant by “divine powers.” What kinds of powers or abilities place their possessor in the category of the “divine”? One can certainly find many what appear to be official claims of remarkable if not supernatural abilities of the Kims. A few examples:

--Scott Snyder’s recollection of a 1991 conversation with North Korean officials: “The Great Leader hasn’t made any mistakes yet” (Snyder, Negotiating on the Edge, 38).

--A memo to teachers on educating for and about Kim Jong-il: “In other words, it is proper to regard the eyes of Kim Jong-il as an indicator of right and wrong” (Martin, Fatherly Leader, 209; citing Choe In Su).
-The fact that Kim Jong Il has allegedly published 700 volumes while his father published 1300! (Martin, Fatherly Leader, 352).

--An “anecdote” about Kim Il Sung demonstrated that, with merely a glance, he is able to guess precisely how many persimmons are in a tree

--The fact that Kim Jong Il can detect when a musical instrument is out of tune, even when professional musicians are unaware of the fact (Choe In Su, Kim Jong Il: The People’s Leader, 106-110).

--The fact that Kim Jong Il is a remarkable golfer
The course record is pretty otherworldly too. During his maiden round at North Korea's only golf facility over 10 years ago, "Dear Leader" Kim Jong Il opened with a hole in one, and required just 18 further strokes to finish the Par 72 course. He only missed the ultimate score card by taking two at the Par Five 18th

Now perhaps these aren’t specific and precise invocations of “divine” powers but it isn't always clear where the realm of the remarkable human ends and the supernatural and the divine begins.

More generally, the DPRK media (the KCNA for example) is replete with cases of natural phenomena corresponding with auspicious dates and anniversaries connected to the Kims. Examples:
--in 1997
Mysterious phenomena
Pyongyang, July 14 (KCNA) -- Mysterious phenomena occurred in succession across Korea with the approach of third death anniversary of the great leader President Kim Il Sung. The dark sky suddenly grew as bright as Xaylivhwolam-ri, Kumchon county, north Hwanghae Province, and three clusters of red cloud made their way toward Pyongyang around 9:57 p.m. On July 3. two minutes later, clouds in the shape of a swift horse racing with wings appeared and drifted toward Pyongyang three times. The cloud was followed by lots of reddened clouds from 11:15 at night. Around 8:10 p.m. July 4 when the rain, which started falling in the morning, stopped and a twin rainbow crossed over the Statue of the President in Jangyon county, south Hwanghae Province. Close to 10:40 at night darkness went away and a strikingly bright star glittered in the sky above the Statue. There was thunder and lightning in the fine sky above Haeju city and other areas in south Hwanghae Province, between zero hour and two hours forty minutes on July 8. in Wonsan city, kangwon Province, the sun shone and a twin rainbow crossed over the President's Statue for twelve minutes after a three-minute-long shower from the fine sky. When the inaugural ceremony of the immortality tower near the Kumsusan Memorial Palace was held on the morning of July 7, scores of swallows flew round the immortality tower till the end of the ceremony. That same morning a wagtail sat and cried on the immortality tower in Ichon county, Kangwon Province. A swallow flew about the portrait of the President three times in the meeting room of the Kwaksan county town management office in north Phyongan Province and wept in sorrow between 7 and 7:30 on the morning of July 6. An owl sat on the newly-erected immortality tower in Woljong-ri, Panmun county, Kaesong municipality, and looked at a picture of the president for ten minutes on the morning of July 7. Nine flowers came into bloom on a 12-year-old pear tree in the yard of Kim Kye Bok's house on the Ryongmun Cooperative Farm in Ryongrim county, Jagang Province, from July 1 to 5. Two eight-year-old pear trees had nineteen flowers in full bloom in other places of the county. Thirteen pear trees near the office of the mechanization workteam of the Hwadae county sericulture farm in north Hamgyong Province had some 80 flowers in full bloom between July 4 and 5.

Again in 1997

Wonders of nature
Pyongyang, July 12 (KCNA) -- Korea has seen many wonders everywhere on the threshold of the third death anniversary of President Kim Il Sung. They were rapidly spread as memorial legends about a great man produced by the heaven. A dark cloud was heavily hanging in the sky above Mt. Paektu in dusk about eight hours p.m. On July 3. all of a sudden, a flash lightning zigzaged, closely followed by claps of thunder as if it were breaking the mountain. Then a torrential rain fell heavily on the surface of the water on Lake Chon, the first of its kind since the observation of Mt. Paektu. Black and red waterfalls came down from each cliff of the craters and tinged the water surface. A big column of water rose 20 odd metres high in the center of the Lake, sending up clouds of spray. Such a phenomenon repeated several times while it was raining as much as 200 milimetres till about 20:00 on July 4. According to the members of the Mt. Paektu general exploration team, it is reminiscent of the time when muddy waterfalls came down and columns of water rose following the death of the President on July 8, three years ago. Double rainbows appeared one after another in the sky above Mt. Paektu. They also rose around the statue of the President on Mt. Tonghung in Hamhung. Three white herons flew in the sky above the Statue of the President among children which was placed in front of the Kaesong schoolchildren's palace. They circulated the Statue, chirping sad and disappeared. Then, it was drizzling before pouring for ten minutes. It is mysterious that the heavy rain fell only around the Statue. The witnesses say that even the sky, land and birds honored the memory of the great man produced by the heaven.

In 2006

Double solar halo over Mt. Paektu;
Officials and other working people were very pleased to say that the double solar halo that appeared in the sky over the holy land of the Korean revolution in the run-up to the April auspicious jubilee reflects the warm congratulations the servicepersons and people are offering to Kim Jong Il.

This is not necessarily an indication of the divine nature of the Kims but rather a more general indication that the Kim family has received and continues to enjoy the Mandate of Heaven. But, given that some of the amazing natural phenomena occur on the death anniversary of Kim Il Sung, this is clearly not merely an indication of Heavenly support for the DPRK’s present ruler.

Moreover, “Eternal President of the DPRK,” (the Constitutionally-defined title of Kim Il Sung) certainly seems to imply immortality if not divinity.

Having note all of this, however, I still find myself acknowledging and largely accepting Myers’ larger point: the vast majority of the DPRK-produced literature about the Kims emphasizes far more their human characteristics, and indeed their ostensibly pure Korean characteristics than their astonishing supernatural abilities. The Kims-as-supermen/gods trope is more a function of lazy and credulous outsiders gravitating toward the most sensational aspects of North Korea rather than its more pedestrian reality.

Thoughts? I’d love to be made aware of actual examples of DPRK propaganda that indicate otherwise.


  1. 축지법, though I suppose that could be explained away as good time/travel management. I agree with Myers on the general point though. And could you provide original NK source for the golf claim?

  2. The Pyongyang Times (English language) No.15 of April 11 Juche 98 (2009) details the results of the elections to the governing bodies and has a front-page spread 'Kim Jong Il re-elected NDC Chairman' stating: "it is a great honour and happiness for the Korean army and people and a great joy for the nation to have Kim Jong Il, peerless patriot and great man sent by Heaven, again at the top post of the state".
    The classical concept of divine mandate, rather than divinity per se, seems the best fit.