Monday, December 19, 2011

Understanding Kim Through Dramaturgy

The following piece appeared in Connecticut Commentary five years ago and is reprinted here on the occasion of the passing of Kim Jong Il.


Shin Sang-ok enters the stage and approaches a large standing mirror with great trepidation. At the end of his monologue, he will fade out and only the mirror, with Kim Jong Il’s image in it, will be seen.

Shin Sang-ok: I am not Kim Jong Il, though people have told me I look a bit like him; it’s the pompadour, I think. Kim could not be here. That would be impossible.

To understand Kim, you must understand something of the uses of imagery. I have a comprehensive understanding of the science of imagery, for I was a movie producer in South Korea, before I was abducted and taken to the North. One of Kim’s agents put a bag over my head and spirited me off. Well, you know -- North Korea; it’s not Hollywood… Having tried and failed to escape several times, I was put into a reeducation camp for four years.

Why is it always four years, I wonder? Why not ten, or eleven and a half? (He laughs) You are surprised, perhaps, that the camp did not rob me of my sense of humor? But believe me, when you are in camp – and everything that has brought you joy is stripped away from you, so that what remains is nothing but a naked, shivering ego, shorn of all its comforting illusions – a sense of humor may be your only saving grace. It took me years to become serious again.

I suppose the North Koreans, who have next to nothing, find themselves in similar circumstances; or at least they might, were it not for the reality bending enchantment of imagery. Once I was released from camp, thoroughly re-educated, I was treated well enough. I was conducted from the camp straight to Kim Jong Il’s … I will not call it a palace; but neither was it a hovel. Kim greeted me like an old friend. Here, in the permanent blackout of the North Korean peninsula, a light glows in the darkness. Kim Jong Il, you can be sure, is the light of this world, a product, mostly, of his creative imagination.

On the day of my liberation, Kim was light in every way: jovial, witty and bright, even though he has had little formal schooling. Light on his feet, he danced across the floor to greet me, one old school chum embracing another after a long absence. “Hello old fellow! Good to see you.” Would you believe it? The women of the country consider him “cute.” I cannot forget the image of Kim dancing to greet me, his face suffused with light. I know sincerity, and this scene was sincerely warm.

After the camp, where many of us had survived on a diet of corn flour and grass, to be received so cordially was (smile) somewhat disorienting, until I realized, almost at once, that here was a man who had no independent existence apart from his imagery. He was a living film. Kim opened a door and waved me into a room – and there it was: the largest private collection I had, until then, seen anywhere – fifteen thousand films. It is somewhat of an understatement to say that Kim is a film buff. He is, at once, the producer, director and principle actor in the film that records his life and the recent life of his crippled country. And here I was, a film maker -- a minor deity, to be sure -- in the presence of this maestro of image making. How could we fail to get along?

He was generous -- after my rehabilitation. He bought me a Mercedes, and reunited me with my wife, who also had been kidnapped by his imps and impets; she too had the marks of the prison camp on her. But our days of deprivation and re-education, we were given to understand, were now over. Apparently, Kim had need of a film maker. I was paid three million dollars a year. He settled upon me as his Leni Riefenstahl. Not a bad deal; Riefenstahl lived to be 101, outlasting Hitler by some 45 years, convinced to the last that she was an artist, not a propagandist. Perhaps she was an artist – one of those who create dangerously.

As for myself, I was impressed into service; I was not a willing subject. In the absence of freedom, it is somewhat arrogant to speak of free choices. In the prison camps, we had no choice of meals; flour and grass were on every menu. But the citizens of North Korea, so many of them, have had even fewer choices. Even here, in Pyongyang, the very center of Kim’s imagination – for the entire country is an imaginary construct -- there has been whispered talk of starvation.

In refugee areas across the Chinese border, boney children stare with eyes floating in sunken sockets at the desolation of their villages. Odd: One expects monsters such as Kim to be monstrous always. But it is not so. With me – perhaps because I was from the South, and a film maker – Kim was honest, after his own fashion. He could be brutally honest. Perhaps he wanted to have near him one man to whom lies could not be other than lies.

Our conversations sometimes were confessionals – not often, but sometimes. Even the great kings of Europe had their fools, and sometimes kings would permit their fools a certain license denied to even the most privileged courtiers. The people to whom Kim has dedicated his life and his most sacred honor, after all, live in the future he has imagined for them; they know little else. But me, I am from the South. I do know better. And Kim knew that I knew better, that I had a frame of reference different than those North Korean children, with distended bellies, who risked their lives crossing the Chinese border for a bit of rice they might bring back to their starving families.

Can’t fool me. “What did he want?” I often asked myself. Those children who crossed the border to gather food were ashamed that they had fallen so far short of their Dear Leader’s extravagant expectations of them. They were not self reliant enough to starve quietly; their bellies told them that self reliance was a sham. Kim threw a party for my wife and me when we were rejoined after the camps. Two bands played, a male and a female band. When the women in the band cheered him, he patted my hand and said, “Mr. Shin, all that is bogus. It's just pretense.”

What did he want with me? Affirmation, I finally decided. He wanted to be able to affirm to someone that he knew the truth, that he was not a captive of his own imagination, that he was not mad. That and, of course, he needed someone to jump start a propaganda effort. Propaganda is to these tyrants what cosmetics are to aging actresses: When the crow’s feet begin to appear around your eyes, you apply a little paint, and they appear to disappear. But underneath the propaganda, things remain as they are: Children starve and whip themselves because they are not self reliant. (Fade out)

Kim Jong Il: (Kim appears in the mirror. He steps out of the mirror) There is a little truth in all lies. First there was the testimony of my cook – that bastard! That ingrate! Now this!

One thing you can be sure of: People outside North Korea will always be ready to believe the worst of me. But here – where people know me – I am universally loved… Well, to be honest, not universally loved, but deeply loved. The people loved my father as well.

You see, in North Korea, heroism is still possible. We are brought up to identify with heroes, such as my father and – if it is not too immodest to say it -- me. But in the West, your heroes exist only in your films, which is why I have such a large collection of Western films. I have learned a good deal from them. They are my university.

There are differences between Western heroes and Eastern heroes – and similarities too, though I think the differences are more important. The Western hero is a loner; he takes his courage from what he believes to be right. But the ethic of the West is fast changing, don’t you think? What John Wayne thought to be right is not what, say, any modern hero more representative of the West thinks is right. There is something defective about this loner theory too, don’t you think? A man alone is not a blank sheet, because a man is never alone; never an island unto himself, but always part of the mainland.

And, as to the propaganda value of films, well intelligence has always been used that way. It was, after all, Hollywood that won World War II; Hollywood and George Patton, a true American hero. Film is a kind of collective intelligence, and I value it for that reason.

But I meant to say… What was it?... Oh yes, the Eastern hero is different; the wellsprings of his heroism are different. We are not afraid of insularity, self development, self-reliance – but always within the context of serving the greater good. Apart from the greater good, what is self reliance but selfishness? It is not given to everyone to know what the greater good is. When Shin Sang-ok was here, I tried to explain all this to him. But his time in the West had scribbled ineradicable messages on his soul. South Korea is the West; it is the West as surely as New York, or any large city in America, Paris or Germany, is the West. And, sadly, he agrees with me. In South Korea, the external promptings – entirely Western – have overcome internal resolve. Even in the West, the traditional Western messages – notes of conscience – are daily being overwritten by the environment. The Western hero is no longer one who struggles against his environment; he yields to it, the way a weak man yields to a beautiful woman.

That is the truth. The West is losing its struggle with the East. It may not seem so. But the West is weak, faint of soul. That is the truth. Externalities are deceptive. Rome was rich and technologically proficient when it fell. You see: I study the West; but you do not study the East. If you had studied us, you would know that isolation is our strength. The more you isolate us, the stronger we become. We are like Antaeus in the Roman myths. Our strength comes from the earth -- from the people. To kill Antaeus, the son of the earth, Hercules had to hold his feet above the earth, and strangle him; for when his foot touched ground, Antaeus grew in strength. Are you surprised I know these things? Do you think I spend all my time in the cinema? (laughs wildly).
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