Cleaning a shelf at her books and souvenirs shop in Pyongyang, Chae-won pauses to share “an interesting nugget” from a documentary aired on state-run television. She does not know the year — or the fact that what she believes for real is just a myth.
It’s in the early 1940s, she says, when the freedom movements in India and Korea were at its peak. The Indians needed assistance and so, Mahatma Gandhi travelled to North Korea to meet their late president Kim Il Sung. “Gandhi came here to meet the great leader, whose advice helped India,” says Chae-won.
The librarian is convinced it happened. But then, there’s only one supreme faith is this country — the Kims. And, North Korea’s art and literature is replete with such anecdotes about the dynasty, adding to their myth.
The images of grown men and women clapping and weeping in joy in the presence of Kim Jong-un play on loop on the television at the airport, restaurants and the hotel. These are often accompanied by revolutionary songs praising their leader.
Yang Ryo-bok’s two-year-old son hears stories of Kim Jong-il’s heroics every day. His father tells him how, when growing up, gunfire during the anti-Japanese war was Kim Jong-il’s lullaby; that the leader’s childhood friends were battle-hardened guerrillas; or that the first image he became acquainted with was of his mother in a military uniform. “It’s important for my son to know how great our leader was. Kim Jong-il made sacrifices to ensure we had a good future. It is important for the new generation to recognise the efforts of our dear respected leader,” says Yang, a bus driver.
On the streets, there are murals of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong-il which depict various aspects of their personalities. People — young or old, men or women, elite or the downtrodden — sport a tiny badge of the Kims on their chest.
The newspapers’ front-pages have huge pictures of Kim Jong-un while giant portraits of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il hang on the building of the country’s main newspaper, the Rodong Sinmun. The bookshops have works “analysing” Japan’s war crimes and USA’s “interference” in the Korean peninsula while biographies of the Kims are prominently placed.
At the Grand People’s Study House, Pyongyang’s central library, you find volumes of biographical anecdotes about the “Supreme Leaders”. These are all carefully crafted to ensure all parts of their personalities are highlighted — mystery, wisdom, devotion, affection, obligation, modesty, strong will, courage and attraction.
A story under the subhead “mystery” goes like this. At dawn in November 1996, Kim Jong-il visited Panmunjom on the heavily-armed Demilitarised Zone along the Korean border. As Kim reached, a dense fog settled on the area. “The enemy always has guns levelled at Panmunjom, yet while inspecting the area he was no farther than 20-30m away from the enemy post. He stayed there for a long time while the fog enveloped him. After he left, the fog cleared,” it reads.
When the commander of the US 8th Army learnt about Kim’s visit, he reprimanded his forces for being ignorant, it reads. “But I said it was impossible to detect because of the fog… It seems your supreme commander used magic to summon the fog. It is very mysterious,” the book says, claiming that these were remarks made by the secretary of UN forces to the Korean People’s Army delegates.
There are also stories of a woman officer being sent to three months of hard labour for her selfish behaviour at work, and former US Secretary of State Madelline Albright falling in awe of Kim’s wisdom during her visit in October 2000.
More recently, there are accounts of the country turning into a sporting superpower under Kim Jong-un, with a book even claiming that in the first half of 2013, North Korean sportspersons won 110 medals including 50 gold, including in sports like football.
Yang narrates another story, which is his “son’s favourite”. “Once, the leader (Kim Jong-il) paid a surprise visit to a farmer in Wonsan,” Yang begins. There, he continues, Kim noticed a farmer getting inside the tractor through the window. It was the only tractor available there, so Kim summoned him, demanding to know the problem.
“The farmer said the door handle was jammed for months. The leader walked to the tractor and in one go, opened it. The villagers were ecstatic. They thought their problem was solved but when they tried, it wouldn’t open. They brought various tools but still were not successful. It shows just how strong he was,” Yang says.
You ask Chae-won if these stories are true or just modern-day legends. She goes pale: “Of course, true. Even the tractor understood the greatness of our dear leader.”