Dictatorship of the mind: a portrait of the Great Leader, Kim il-Sung on a block in Pyongyang. Photo: Damir Sagoli: Reuters
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Jang Jin-sung: I became poet laureate to Kim Jong-il

Becoming one of the “Admitted” invol­ved attending a dinner with Kim Jong-il, who played with his white Maltese puppy and kicked off his shoes under the table.

When I was a child, I didn’t read. In all honesty, no story was as exciting as the fairy tales my mother told my siblings and me. A story that captivated my childhood imagination more than anything else was about a magic cudgel that granted any wish, as long as you wished with a good heart; I could daydream about holding that omni­potent object in my hand and forget about everything else. The early years of school in North Korea could offer nothing but the narrative of the Supreme Leader’s childhood, which all North Korean children learned according to their age group, growing up alongside him. The Revolutionary History of the Leader Kim Il-sung did not captivate me as the magic cudgel did, and I performed poorly at school.

However, as I progressed through school, the demands of achieving good grades grew stronger and I had no choice but to immerse myself, like everyone else, in the Supreme Leader. My mother tongue – the one that I learned to read write, think in and understand the world through – was the language of our Revolutionary History. Even when I turned to novels or poetry, whatever book I opened, it was the same: the Korean language served to tell the story of two protagonists alone, Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il. Even “everyday heroes” were unrealistic people, swearing absolute loyalty only to the Supreme Leader and the Workers’ Party, and they were not people I wanted ever to resemble.

I had the rare privilege to study western music from the age of seven – cassettes of Dvorák were smuggled in from China by my piano teacher – and I could not find any literature that spoke to me in a way that approached what I experienced through this thrilling and complex music. But what gave me aspirations to become a writer was the poetry of Byron. In North Korea, gaining access to any foreign culture is a crime of “revisionism”, but there is a “hundred copy collection” (each book limited to a hundred copies) available to the elite, so that they might receive a cultural grounding to help them carry out their jobs as leaders, diplomats and propagandists. I don’t know how one of these limited editions of Byron’s works ended up in my father’s personal bookcase, but that is where, aged 15, I found it. For the first time in my life, tears welled in my eyes as I read a book. The words contained emotion as a melody and the plots of the poems were like the resonance of an orchestra in a hall. I was relearning my own language from a foreign book.

In the strict apartheid of North Korea, the use of language is tightly controlled across different classes of people. Above all, the language used for reference to the Supreme Leader is set apart in its grammar and vocabulary. Kim Il-sung is always “great”, and “greatness” must always belong to the Supreme Leader alone; but Byron taught me that the word could be used to describe any one of us, and that every one of us could dare to partake in such qualities. I wanted to become Byron, not only as a writer, but also as a man who might consider risking his life for an ordinary beloved – and not just for the Supreme Leader. I grew self-righteous, gloating at the thought that all the North Korean writers before me who had no access to Byron were like frogs in a well.

There could exist no such novel, poetry or story created by a North Korean writer. All forms of culture remain under the law of Kim Jong-il’s “Juche Art Theory”, which dictates that all North Korean literature must be in the style of “socialist realism”, with “socialist” denoting not an ideology, but an interpretation of “reality” dictated by the regime: a reality in which the Supreme Leader’s Revolutionary History must be the only truth. The world may talk about the counterfeiting of dollar bills by the regime for the sake of maintaining its grip on power, but this regime has set up a more invidious system for the purpose of counterfeiting the thoughts of its people. This not merely influences or interferes with their most intimate thoughts, but enforces a state policy to fabricate them from conception to expression, from each individual to the consciousness of the nation.

As an employee of the United Front Department (UFD), I witnessed this project at first hand. The UFD is a hybrid entity for policymaking, espionage and “engagement” with the outside world that functions as a controlling body to project and reflect perceptions of North Korea. I worked in Section 5 (Literature), Division 19 (Poetry) of Office 101. Despite the uncanny and unintended echo of Orwell’s Room 101, this office was, ironically, so named precisely in order to avoid any hint of the nature of our work. When it was first set up, the department specialised in conducting psychological warfare operations against the South through cultural media such as the press, literary arts, music and film. After the 1970s, it strove particularly to amplify anti-American sentiment and foster pro-North tendencies among the South Korean population, exploiting the democratic resistance movements that had risen against the then military dictatorship.

My task, like all other writers in the system, was to express an institutional line, not an individual message. No writer in North Korea is permitted to act beyond a bureaucratic affiliation that controls the process – from the setting of the initial guidelines for each work to the granting of permission for publication – through strict monitoring, evaluation and surveillance. Our main task was to transform ourselves into South Korean poets who supported Kim Jong-il. My South Korean pseudonym was Kim Kyong-min. This is the only way to earn recognition as a writer in North Korea: under a name that is not your own.

Elsewhere in the world and throughout history, the subject of literature has included the human condition. But under the suffocating constraints of North Korean surveillance, where the only concerns permitted in artistic expression are those of the Supreme Leader, I could not produce any writing that allowed me to feel I was accomplishing anything other than a bureaucratic task. Despite this, my colleagues in the propaganda departments envied me. Because I worked under an assumed South Korean identity, I did have some licence to experiment with straying from the legal bounds of North Korean art – at least in the exercise of style. This provided the “freedom” in which I composed my work; which, paradoxically, stood out from writing by my more careful and devout peers and led to my being admitted into Kim Jong-il’s inner circle.

In December 1998 I was given the job of writing an epic poem that would promote the notion that the North Korean policy of songun – the project to unify the entire Korean Peninsula through the superior might of our military force – had been formulated to protect South Korea. My poem, “Spring Rests on the Gun Barrel of the Lord”, was written in the voice of a South Korean poet who, recalling a massacre of activists in his own country, visits Pyongyang and finds protection and peace there. It so pleased the Supreme Leader that it was distributed throughout the nation and, in 1999, aged 28, I was made one of his six poet laureates.

Becoming one of the “Admitted” invol­ved attending a dinner with Kim Jong-il, who played with his white Maltese puppy and kicked off his shoes (high-heeled, with an inner platform at least six centimetres high) under the table. That night changed the course of my life in a way that winning the lottery might do in a capitalist nation; but, more importantly, it granted me immunity. Not even the highest authorities in the DPRK could investigate, prosecute or harm one of the Admitted.

Unless, that is, they committed treason – which I did. I lent a friend a restricted book, the contents of which included a biography of both Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il written by a South Korean academic. In discussing the infidelity and violent purges in the Kim family, this book starkly contradicted the official Revolutionary History. When the authorities found out about my transgression I had no choice but to escape to South Korea.

I know that no dictatorship can be successful merely by force. A dictator may use a form of religious cult to demand an unquestioning and heartfelt obedience from each individual, or a myth of racial superiority to bind the loyalty of many to one selfish cause. North Korea is no exception in the modern history of totalitarianism. There are the brutal political camps that physically shut away the lives of North Korean people; but there is also a dictatorship of the mind, the political prison where thought and expression are stifled. North Korea’s dictatorship of force over its people – its police-state system, the inescapable surveillance, the party’s invocation of the “Supreme Leader’s will”, overruling even the national constitution – cannot end while the dictatorship of the mind prevails.

The only power that will undermine the dictatorship of the mind is the realisation that it is possible not only for the regime to lie to its people, but that it has done so, deliberately and constantly. My people cannot be free until each of us acknowledges that the Revolutionary History of the Leader is not the true reality of North Korea.

“Dear Leader” by Jang Jin-sung, translated by Shirley Lee, is published by Rider Books (£20)

This article first appeared in the 11 June 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The last World Cup

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A nervous breakdown in the body politic

Are we too complacent in thinking that the toxic brew of paranoia and populism that brought Hitler to power will never be repeated?

The conventional wisdom holds that “all that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing”, in Edmund Burke’s familiar phrase; but this is at best a half-truth. Studying the biography of a moral monster triumphantly unleashed on the political and international stage points us to another perspective, no less important. What is necessary for the triumph of evil is that the ground should have been thoroughly prepared by countless small or not-so-small acts of petty malice, unthinking prejudice and collusion. Burke’s axiom, though it represents a powerful challenge to apathy, risks crediting evil with too much of a life of its own: out there, there are evil agencies, hostile to “us”, and we (good men and women) must mobilise to resist.

No doubt; but mobilising intelligently demands being willing to ask what habits and assumptions, as well as what chances and conditions, have made possible the risk of evil triumphing. And that leads us into deep waters, to a recognition of how what we tolerate or ignore or underestimate opens the way for disaster, the ways in which we are at least half-consciously complicit. If this is not to be the silly we-are-all-guilty response that has rightly been so much mocked, nor an absolution for the direct agents of great horrors, it needs a careful and unsparing scrutiny of the processes by which cultures become corruptible, vulnerable to the agendas of damaged and obsessional individuals.

This can be uncomfortable. It raises the awkward issue of what philosophers have learned to call “moral luck” – the fact that some people with immense potential for evil don’t actualise it, because the circumstances don’t present them with the chance, and that some others who might have spent their lives in blameless normality end up supervising transports to Auschwitz. Or, to take a sharply contemporary example, that one Muslim youth from a disturbed or challenging background becomes a suicide bomber but another from exactly the same background doesn’t. It is as though there were a sort of diabolical mirror image for the biblical Parable of the Sower: some seeds grow and some don’t, depending on the ground they fall on, or what chance external stimulus touches them at critical moments.

If what interests us is simply how to assign individuals rapidly and definitively to the categories of sheep and goats, saved and damned, this is offensively frustrating. But if we recognise that evil is in important respects a shared enterprise, we may be prompted to look harder at those patterns of behaviour and interaction that – in the worst cases – give permission to those who are most capable of extreme destructiveness, and to examine our personal, political and social life in the light of this.

***

It would be possible to argue that the anti-Semitism of a lot of German culture – as of European Christian culture overall – was never (at least in the modern period) genocidal and obsessed with absolute racial purity; limited but real possibilities of integration were taken for granted, converts to Christianity were not disadvantaged merely because of their race, and so on. Yet the truth is that this cultural hinterland offered a foothold to the mania of Adolf Hitler; that it gave him just enough of the permission he needed to identify his society’s problems with this clearly definable “alien” presence. In his new book, Hitler: the Ascent, Volker Ullrich compellingly tells us once again that no one could have been under any illusion about Hitler’s general intentions towards the Jews from his very first appearance as a political figure, even if the detailed planning of genocide (lucidly traced in the late David Cesarani’s recent, encyclopaedic Final Solution) took some time to solidify. Yet so much of the German public heard Hitler’s language as the slightly exaggerated version of a familiar trope and felt able to treat it as at worst an embarrassing overstatement of a common, even a common-sense, view. One of the most disturbing things about this story is the failure of so many (inside and outside Germany) to grasp that Hitler meant what he said; and this failure in turn reinforced the delusion of those who thought they could use and then sideline Hitler.

To say that Hitler “meant what he said”, however, can be misleading. It is one of the repeated and focal themes in Ullrich’s book that Hitler was a brazen, almost compulsive liar – or, perhaps better, a compulsive and inventive actor, devising a huge range of dramatic roles for himself: frustrated artist, creative patron, philosopher-king (there is a fine chapter on the intellectual and artistic circle he assembled frequently at his Berchtesgaden residence), workers’ friend, martyr for his people (he constantly insinuated that he believed himself doomed to a tragic and premature death), military or economic messiah and a good deal else besides. His notorious outbursts of hysterical rage seem to have been skilfully orchestrated as instruments of intimidation (though this did not exactly indicate that he was otherwise predictable). Ullrich devotes a fair measure of attention to the literal staging of National Socialism, the architectural gigantism of Albert Speer which gave the Führer the sophisticated theatre he craved. In all sorts of ways, Hitler’s regime was a profoundly theatrical exercise, from the great public displays at Nuremberg and the replanning of Berlin to the various private fantasies enacted by him and his close associates (Göring above all), and from the emotional roller coaster he created for his circle to the dangerously accelerated rate of military-industrial expansion with which he concealed the void at the centre of the German economy.

Theatre both presupposes and creates a public. In the anxiety and despair of post-Versailles Germany, there was a ready audience for the high drama of Nazism, including its scapegoating of demonic enemies within and without. And in turn, the shrill pitch of Hitler’s quasi-liturgies normalised a whole set of bizarre and fantastic constructions of reality. A N Wilson’s challenging novel Winnie and Wolf, a fantasia on Hitler’s relations with Winifred Wagner, culminates in a scene at the end of the war where refugees and destitute citizens in Bayreuth raid the wardrobe of the opera house and wander the streets dressed in moth-eaten costumes; it is an unforgettable metaphor for one of the effects of Hitlerian theatre. Ullrich leaves his readers contemplating the picture of a vast collective drama centred on a personality that was not – as some biographers have suggested – something of a cipher, but that of a fantasist on a grand scale, endowed with a huge literal and metaphorical budget for staging his work.

All of this prompts questions about how it is that apparently sophisticated political systems succumb to corporate nervous breakdowns. It is anything but an academic question in a contemporary world where theatrical politics, tribal scapegoating and variegated confusions about the rule of law are increasingly in evidence. On this last point, it is still shocking to realise how rapidly post-Versailles Germany came to regard violent public conflict between heavily armed militias as almost routine, and this is an important background to the embittered negotiations later on around the relation between Hitler’s Sturmabteilung and the official organs of state coercion. Ullrich’s insightful account of a de facto civil war in Bavaria in the early 1920s makes it mercilessly plain that any pretensions to a state monopoly of coercion in Germany in this period were empty.

Yet the idea of such a state monopoly is in fact essential to anything that could be called a legitimate democracy. In effect, the polity of the Third Reich “privatised” coer­cion: again and again in Ullrich’s book, in the struggles for power before 1933, we see Nazi politicians successfully bidding for control of the mechanisms of public order in the German regions, and more or less franchising public order to their own agencies. A classical democratic political philosophy would argue that the state alone has the right to use force because the state is the guarantor of every community’s and every individual’s access to redress for injury or injustice. If state coercion becomes a tool for any one element in the social complex, it loses legitimacy. It is bound up with the rule of law, which is about something more than mere majority consent. One way of reading the rise of Hitler and National Socialism is as the steady and consistent normalising of illegitimate or partisan force, undermining any concept of an independent guarantee of lawfulness in society. It is the deliberate dissolution of the idea of a Rechtsstaat, a law-governed state order that can be recognised by citizens as organised for their common and individual good. Rule by decree, the common pattern of Nazi governmental practice, worked in harness with law enforcement by a force that was essentially a toxic hybrid, combining what was left of an independent police operation with a highly organised party militia system.

So, one of the general imperatives with which Hitler’s story might leave us is the need to keep a clear sense of what the proper work of the state involves. Arguments about the ideal “size” of the state are often spectacularly indifferent to the basic question of what the irreducible functions of state authority are – and so to the question of what cannot be franchised or delegated to non-state actors (it is extraordinary that we have in the UK apparently accepted without much debate the idea that prison security can be sold off to private interests). This is not the same as saying that privatisation in general leads to fascism; the issues around the limits to state direction of an economy are complex. However, a refusal to ask some fundamental questions about the limits of “franchising” corrodes the idea of real democratic legitimacy – the legitimacy that arises from an assurance to every citizen that, whatever their convictions or their purchasing power, the state is there to secure their access to justice. And, connected with this, there are issues about how we legislate: what are the proper processes of scrutiny for legislation, and how is populist and short-view legislation avoided? The Third Reich offers a masterclass in executive tyranny, and we need not only robust and intelligent counter-models, but a clear political theory to make sense of and defend those models.

***

Theatre has always been an aspect of the political. But there are different kinds of theatre. In ancient Athens, the annual Dionysia festival included the performance of tragedies that forced members of the audience to acknowledge the fragility of the political order and encouraged them to meditate on the divine interventions that set a boundary to vendetta and strife. Classical tragedy is, as political theatre, the exact opposite of Hitlerian drama, which repeatedly asserted the solid power of the Reich, the overcoming of weakness and division by the sheer, innate force of popular will as expressed through the Führer.

Contemporary political theatre is not – outside the more nakedly totalitarian states – a matter of Albert Speer-like spectacle and affirmation of a quasi-divine leader; but it is increasingly the product of a populist-oriented market, the parading of celebrities for popular approval, with limited possibilities for deep public discussion of policies advanced, and an assumption that politicians will be, above all, performers. It is not – to warn once again against cliché and exaggeration – that celebrity culture in politics is a short route to fascism. But a political theatre that never deals with the fragility of the context in which law and civility operate, that never admits the internal flaws and conflicts of a society, and never allows some corporate opening-up to the possibilities of reconciliation and reparation, is one that exploits, rather than resolves our anxieties. And, as such, it makes us politically weaker, more confused and fragmented.

The extraordinary mixture of farce and menace in Donald Trump’s campaign is a potent distillation of all this: a political theatre, divorced from realism, patience and human solidarity, bringing to the surface the buried poisons of a whole system and threatening its entire viability and rationality. But it is an extreme version of the way in which modern technology-and-image-driven communication intensifies the risks that beset the ideals of legitimate democracy.

And – think of Trump once again – one of the most seductively available tricks of such a theatre is the rhetoric of what could be called triumphant victimhood: we are menaced by such and such a group (Jews, mig­rants, Muslims, Freemasons, international business, Zionism, Marxism . . .), which has exerted its vast but covert influence to destroy us; but our native strength has brought us through and, given clear leadership, will soon, once and for all, guarantee our safety from these nightmare aliens.

***

This is a rhetoric that depends on ideas of collective guilt or collective malignity: plots ascribed to the agency of some dangerous minority are brandished in order to tarnish the name of entire communities. The dark legacy of much popular Christian language about collective Jewish guilt for the death of Jesus could be translated without much difficulty into talk about the responsibility of Jews for the violence and poverty afflicting Germans in the 1920s. (Shadows of the same myths still affect the way in which – as recent reports suggest – sinister, vague talk about Zionism and assumptions of a collective Jewish guilt for the actions of various Israeli politicians can become part of a climate that condones anti-Semitic bullying, or text messages saying “Hitler had a point”, on university campuses.)

Granted that there is no shortage of other candidates for demonic otherness in Europe and the United States (witness Trump’s language about Muslims and Mexicans), the specific and abiding lesson of Nazi anti-Semitism is the twofold recognition of the ease with which actually disadvantaged communities can be cast in the role of all-powerful subverters, and the way in which the path to violent exclusion of one kind or another can be prepared by cultures of casual bigotry and collective anxiety or self-pity, dramatised by high-temperature styles of media communication.

Marie Luise Knott’s recent short book Unlearning With Hannah Arendt (2014) revisits the controversy over Arendt’s notorious characterisation of the mindset of Nazism as “the banality of evil”, and brilliantly shows how her point is to do with the erosion in Hitlerian Germany of the capacity to think, to understand one’s agency as answerable to more than public pressure and fashion, to hold to notions of honour and dignity independent of status, convention or influence – but also, ultimately, the erosion of a sense of the ridiculous. The victory of public cliché and stereotype is, in Arendt’s terms, a protection against reality, “against the claim on our thinking attention that all events and facts make by virtue of their existence”, as she memorably wrote in The Life of the Mind. Hitler was committed to the destruction of anything that challenged the simple self-identity and self-justification of the race and the nation; hence, as Ullrich shows in an acutely argued chapter of Hitler: a Biography, the Führer’s venom against the churches, despite their (generally) embarrassingly lukewarm resistance to the horrors of the Reich. The problem was that the churches’ rationale entailed just that accountability to more than power and political self-identity that Nazi philosophy treated as absolute. They had grounds for thinking Nazism not only evil, but absurd. Perhaps, then, one of the more unexpected questions we are left with by a study of political nightmare such as Ullrich’s excellent book is how we find the resources for identifying the absurd as well as for clarifying the grounds of law and honour.

The threats now faced by “developed” democracy are not those of the 1920s and 1930s; whatever rough beasts are on their way are unlikely to have the exact features of Hitler’s distinctive blend of criminality and melodrama. But this does not mean that we shouldn’t be looking as hard as we can at the lessons to be learned from the collapse of political legality, the collective panics and myths, the acceptance of delusional and violent public theatre that characterised Hitler’s Germany. For evil to triumph, what is necessary is for societies to stop thinking, to stop developing an eye for the absurd as well as the corrupt in language and action, public or private.

Hitler: a Biography – Volume I: Ascent by Volker Ullrich is published by the Bodley Head

Rowan Williams is an Anglican prelate, theologian and poet, who was Archbishop of Canterbury from 2002 to 2012. He writes on books for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 28 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The new fascism