I will miss the hair.
You know what I’m talking about. That sweeping, wind-blown bouffant, the envy of hipsters everywhere, that effused a certain cuddly charm even though we KNEW it wasn’t true. At all. Even those curmudgeons at The Economist were seduced by its pulpy contours – a cover story several years ago featured a smiling and shock-topped Kim Jong Il beneath the headline “Greetings, earthlings,” which suggested that his madness stemmed not from an evil megalomania, but rather a humorous cosmic accident that mixed a smidge of alien DNA with his own. Whoops!
His doughy face, paired often with his flabby hand raised in a half-hearted salute, was played for laughs throughout America (FUCK YEAH!) with fleeting backdrop coverage of the rampant famine, repression, and nuclear-tinged belligerence that marked his regime. All of that nonsense and the concomitant human toll (I mean, it couldn’t have been that bad, right?) – well THAT was the real sideshow, the best boys and gaffers to Kim’s international superstar! He didn’t have Hollywood looks, but man, could he rock a monochromatic “worker’s” jumper modified for the busy Leader on the go. And what was the deal with that outfit, anyway?
No one knew for sure, but that didn’t stop an entire industry of quack seers from giving it a try. I’ve long enjoyed listening to the so-called experts on the DPRK couch their statements in daisy-chains of coulds, mights, and maybes, to an exceptional degree unheard of in contemporary mass-media punditry. They know that they don’t know, and they want you to take their words with a giant boulder of salt. These aren’t the types you’ll find shouting dicta on the O’Reilly Factor. Yet each clue that manages to drop into the global commons – a missile launch, a frightful claim by a refugee – has prompted their intense speculation as they play the role of children searching for the nature of good and evil in the fading tail of a shooting star.
Their insights, however, have always been besides the point. Right or wrong, their attention fueled Mr. Kim’s (unintentionally?) canny campaign to wring concessions and subsidies from both friends and foes in what’s amounted to a decades-long game of chicken.
For many, I think, Kim was like a Michael Jackson/Muammar Gaddafi hybrid, too clownish to take seriously but too frightening to disregard altogether. Witness the mish-mash of “isolation” strategies, sanctions, and what-have-you alternately aimed at undermining his regime and then propping it up. It was as if no one, not Kim’s Chinese or Russian “friends,” nor his Japanese, American, or South Korean foes, could muster the will to force a change to the status quo. Surely, no one wanted another Korean War, and there was no way the North Korean people – broke, hungry, fearful – could achieve a Libya-style revolt, not against a standing army a million-plus strong. But it’s disheartening that none of the so-called Six Parties (including North Korea) seemed to try very hard.
And so, with no real-world alternatives, the breathless commentariat fanned the flames of Kim’s cultish enigma, and nothing, not the trickle of info about economic hardship (borne of forced currency exchanges and aborted liberalization programs) nor word of chronic food and oil shortages, could pry the story of North Korea away from that kooky little man and his pillar of hair. This left the world’s powerful to grovel before him, kneeling like crumpled marionettes awed by his rumored 20,000-title movie collection.
I responded in much the same way. Rather than lamenting the realities of the Kim regime, I entertained myself with news of his personality cult, his Potemkin villages, and the laugh-out-loud obsequiousness of his state-run media, never mind his massive army, brutality, and nukes. No, that reality couldn’t sustain my attention, and I wouldn’t allow it in any case. Even a passing thought of it made me squirm and look away, exasperated. So in my imagination, I transformed Kim Jong Il. To me, he was not just an evil dictator, but also a fuzzy plush-toy marketed as the world’s Last Communist Hard-Liner, an easily lampooned and thoroughly post-modern kiddie tyrant that managed to become a pop-cultural icon, of a sort.
I rationalized: Who but the most sensitive humanist would adopt such oversized eyeglasses? So what if, when I pulled the coiled string emerging from his back, he spouted discredited socialist blather? So what if plush-Kim’s alter ego left millions of his countrymen dead?
History will, someday, catch up with North Korea. But until that day, I suspect that I’ll remain a casual Kim (Jong-un, now)-watcher, slurping down the syrupy global culture of distraction, to include despotic hair-dos and “worker’s chic” pantsuits, and laughing nervously every chance I get. The truth of it – my own powerlessness – is simply too much for me to bear.