After the recent death of Kim Jong Il, many eyes turned again to North Korea and many heads were scratched as people struggled again to comprehend this strange nation.
Some have noted the irony of Kim Jong Il and Vaclav Havel passing away within 24 hours of each other. Havel, of course, did just as much to end totalitarianism and the cult of personality (or at least one implementation of them) as Kim did to preserve them.
The festival was opened a few days after our arrival, at a ceremony in the huge stadium that had been built for the Olympics but had never witnessed an Olympic event. Attendance at the opening ceremony, we were several times reminded, was compulsory. We had each received official invitation cards, but RSVP was not written on them. Moreover, each delegation was to wear its ‘uniform’. In our case, a special shirt had been designed, and by happy coincidence it was coloured storm-trooper brown. About half of us were to take part in the march past Kim Il Sung, and the idea of doing so appealed to me immensely: I should relish relating how I marched past Kim in twenty years’ time. Alas, I was not selected as a marcher.
The ceremony was prepared with military precision. The buses taking the delegations to the stadium left at thirty second intervals, an impressive organisational feat. We arrived in the stadium two hours before the Great Leader was due to make his entry, leaving plenty of time for tension to mount: a technique well developed by another great leader, Adolf Hitler.
On the far side of the stadium were 20,000 children, each with a series of coloured cards which, by means of instantaneous and co-ordinated changes, produced patterns, portraits, landscapes, and slogans (the latter in English, French, Spanish, Russian, Arabic and Korean). At the very moment the children changed the colours of the cards they exposed to view, they let out a high pitched yell which pierced the sky. The effect was undoubtedly impressive because of its scale and the perfection of its timing; but it made one’s blood run cold.
Even had I not heard from a diplomat that these children were rehearsing for the opening ceremony for five or six months beforehand; that during that time they did not go to school; that often during that period they were to be seen being driven home in army trucks after rehearsals at two and three o’clock in the morning; that such parades and ceremonies were a constant feature of North Korean life; even had I heard none of these things, I should have still concluded from the spectacle itself that its production involved terrible sacrifices. Here was a perfect demonstration of Man as a means and not an end; of people as tiny cogs in an all-embracing machine. I think it true to say that even if there had been a machine available to do the work of those 20,000 children, the regime would still have chosen the children to do it: for what better training could there be for a life of personal insignificance and subordination to orders than participation in such a spectacle?
The stadium held 150,000 people, of whom only 15,000 were foreigners attending the festival. The rest were North Koreans. As we awaited the arrival of the GL, storms of applause, obviously co-ordinated, would start in the Korean sections of the crowd, and waves of people would stand up and throw their arms in the air, with an effect like wind rushing through wheat. To my horror, the people around me joined in this mindless activity (mindless, but not purposeless). What were they cheering, what were they celebrating, what emotion, or rather pseudo-emotion, were they feeling? I recalled a passage from Vaclav Havel:
Each person somehow succumbs to a profane trivialisation of his or her inherent humanity. . . In everyone there is some willingness to merge with the anonymous crowd and to flow comfortably along with it down the river of pseudo-life. This is much more than a simple conflict between two identities. It is something far worse: it is a challenge to the very notion of identity itself.
How right Havel was! There was no external compulsion for these people to behave as they did, to abandon their critical faculties, to lose their identity, to be united in a pseudo-mystical communion with a hundred thousand people of whom they knew nothing, absolutely nothing. Yet they could not wait to do so; in fact they rejoiced in doing it, and they felt fulfilled afterwards. Here was a profound rejection of individual freedom by people who were free, and who gratefully rejected freedom’s corollary: individual responsibility, with all its uncertainties and torments.
The playing field area began to fill with what our programme called ‘performers’….Some of the performers were dressed in blue and white gymnasts’ kit; they goose-stepped and gave the special fascist-style Kim Il Sung salute. They kept up the goose-stepping until my legs grew weary: they were the embodiment of Strength Through Joy, or Strength Through Fear, which of course amounts to the same thing. But they were only a small contingent compared with the dancers. I use the words ‘dancers’ because the English language, fortunately, has no word that more accurately conveys the nature of these untold thousands of people. Can robots dance? For this was no mere corps de ballet. The ‘dances’ were military manoeuvres performed to music (3000 musicians, naturally), by male and female soldiers in a variety of garish nylon costumes.
The ‘dances’ they performed bore titles such as Let’s check and frustrate the imperialist moves towards aggression and nuclear war! and Fly, doves of peace! – the latter with the following programme note:
Doves of peace, fly high up into the blue sky that is clear of the nuclear clouds. Thousands of doves dance as if to cover the sky of the whole world.
With everyone in place, the moment arrived for which we had all been waiting – the entry of the Great Leader. It was an impossibility that everyone in the huge stadium saw this momentous event; yet a kind of controlled pandemonium broke out instantaneously all around the stadium. The 50,000 performers on the pitch threw up their hands in a gesture of true subservience before their Pharaoh, and the Korean spectators did likewise. They roared and howled in unison, and jumped up and down collectively for minutes on end; the foreigners, caught up in the atmosphere of hysterical self-abasement, stood up and applauded as if to save their lives.
I am not by nature brave, or even unconventional, yet in the moment of Kim Il Sung’s entry I decided that I would not stand, not if everyone in the stadium should hurl abuse at me, not even if I were to be threatened with torture or death itself. I was so appalled by the sight and sound of 200,000 men and women worshipping a fellow mortal, totally abdicating their humanity, that I do not think I am exaggerating when I say I should rather have died than assent to this monstrous evil by standing (my mother was a refugee from Nazi Germany). There I sat; I could do no other.
The terrible obedience of the crowd, uncoerced at least in the immediate sense, indicated the power of the regime, a power that seemed absolute and limitless, that had entered the very recesses of minds, that had eradicated any countervailing force. Yet the power that was so strong
was also brittle. It would only have taken 10,000 people not to have stood up for Kim Il Sung when he entered the stadium – the omission of one small act of obedience – and his power and mystique would have snapped like a twig, to remain broken and irrecoverable. My refusal to stand was but a feeble, isolated gesture; but a tiny crystal thrown into a sea of saturated solution can cause an immense precipitate, and one day such a thing will happen in North Korea and everyone, wise after the event, will marvel that it didn’t happen sooner.
I wondered once again what it must be like to receive such adulation, calmly to watch 200,000 people worshipping oneself. After many years of it, does one become blase? Does one come to believe that the tribute is merited, or worse still, that it is freely offered and expresses some real emotion? It would have been interesting to have a chat with Kim Il Sung. I recalled the only object of a political personality cult whom I had ever met, some two years previously: Jonas Savimbi. In his ‘Free Land of Angola’, that part of Angola where his forces held sway, there was a cult as grotesque as any. His picture and words were everywhere; his was the only poetry permitted; and when his name was mentioned in a private conversation, the speaker had to stand up while saying it. I asked Savimbi about his cult (he was claiming at the time to be a liberal democrat). ‘If the people love me,’ he answered, ‘how can I stop them?’
The adulation of the Great Leader ceased as suddenly as it had started, as if on a hidden signal, as if a certain precise length of time had been set aside for it. Then came the march past of the delegations, 140 of them. It was a tedious procession, but the tedium was not pointless. The Koreans, who were not allowed so much as to draw breath without the permission of their government, must have concluded that these delegations were in some way official, and that therefore their country, North Korea, was presently the centre of world attention. Not surprisingly, the delegations from Guatemala and El Salvador were from the URNG and FMLN respectively, that is to say the guerrilla coalitions. At that time the Iraqis still had to be kept away from the Iranians, and the Scandinavians, to my great admiration, unfurled two banners, one asking why Amnesty International was not permitted to investigate conditions in North Korea (not a difficult question to answer), and another expressing solidarity with the Chinese prodemocracy students who had not long before been massacred in Tiananmen Square. Later, when the Scandinavian marchers returned to the body of the stadium, scuffles broke out as security men tried to wrest the banners away. A few of the Scandinavians were punched and kicked…
When these scuffles broke out, I overheard some of my fellow delegates, the hard-faced communists, express a willingness, indeed an anxiety, to join in – on the side of the North Koreans, ‘to beat the shit out of them’. Discussing among themselves the famous scene when the single student (since executed) stood in front of the column of tanks in Peking and held them up by moral force alone, one of them remarked that if he had been the tank driver he would have driven ‘straight over the bastard and squashed him’. And his face showed that he meant what he said.
It was time for the Great Leader’s speech. The whole ceremony up till now had been so Hitlerian, so megalomanic, that I assumed the Great Leader was a fiery orator, a man able to rouse his listeners to a frenzy of indignation and other enjoyable emotions. I could not have been more mistaken. He spoke like a retired bank manager recalling cheques he had been obliged to bounce. His voice was monotonous, without modulation or intonation: a real bureaucrat’s voice. It was impossible to make out the content of his speech, which was translated simultaneously into English and broadcast over an echoing public address system. I am unable, therefore, to comment on its other qualities, except to say that it seemed not to be a model of concision.
The rapture with which the GL’s speech was received had nothing to do with what was said: only with who had said it. If he had recited the Pyongyang telephone directory – assuming such a subversive volume exists – the crowd would still have applauded with tears in its eyes. The contrast between the banality of his delivery and the ecstasy of the response was terrifying.
It was now time for the guest of honour, Comrade Robert Mugabe, to speak. Part of his Zimbabwean army, the brigade used to terrify the Matabele, was trained by the North Koreans. The public address system, which relayed his speech almost simultaneously in English and Korean, rendered it virtually incomprehensible, but such snatches as were heard were purest platitude – education was a good thing, the future of the world belonged to the youth etc. Of course, the fact that he had nothing to say did not prevent him from speaking for a long time. The twentieth century belongs to windbags.
The applause he received at the end of his speech was polite but without enthusiasm. I suspect that the Great Leader thinks that a clap for somebody else is one less clap for him.
There was more military dancing, then some lighting effects and fireworks. It was tedious – kitsch on an unimaginable scale. The departure of the Great Leader was accompanied by the same pandemonium as his arrival, and it continued for several minutes after his motorcade must have sped away.
As we left the stadium, one of the naive communists asked me what I had thought of the opening ceremony.
‘To tell you the truth,’ I said, ‘I’ve never been very keen on fascism.’
Copyright 1991 Anthony Daniels. Reprinted with permission.