One Portrait Is Worth a Thousand Lives


If you're living in North Korea and the portraits are of the Glimmer Twins of Totalitarianism, Kim Jong-il and his dead-but-not-forgotten dad, Kim Il-sung.

Reports Reuters,

Many North Koreans died a "heroic death" after last week's train explosion by running into burning buildings to rescue portraits of leader Kim Jong-il and his father, the North's official media reported on Wednesday.

Portraits of Kim and his late father, national founder Kim Il-sung, are mandatory fixtures in every home, office and factory in the hardline communist state of 23 million. All adults are required to wear lapel pins bearing images of one or both Kims.

Last Thursday's blast in the town of Ryongchon, near the Chinese border, killed at least 161 people and injured 1,300, according to international relief agencies. Many of the victims were children.

The dead also included workers and teachers who died clutching the portraits of the country's ruling family, said North Korea's official KCNA news agency.

Whole thing here. North Korea remains a site of cosmically black humor, too real to be funny, a human nightmare incapable of being fully processed.

[Thanks to Jeff Patterson of Gravity Lens for the tip.]

NEXT: Snakeheads Redux

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  1. Karl,

    Did your professor provide any examples of “external forces” that had forced the North Korean government to behave just a tad on the bad side?

  2. “Many North Koreans died a “heroic death” after last week’s train explosion by running into burning buildings to rescue portraits of leader Kim Jong-il and his father…”


  3. OK, maybe that was a little harsh; children were involved, after all, and that is genuinely tragic. Still, if you accept the premise, as I do, that people ultimately get the government they want, it’s hard to feel sorry for the good folks of the Peoples’ Republic of North Korea.

  4. Jim-

    Ultimately maybe they do get the gov’t they want. But “ultimately” can take a long time to arrive, and I don’t think the N. Koreans are there yet.

  5. Once again I’m astonished.
    You all appear to have swallowed the North Korean story hook, line, and sinker — possibly dock and shoreline as well.
    Why on earth would anyone believe the NK story about the casualties? How could no one suggest that this is a pre-emptive cover-up to justify to their external supporters (including the US and South Korea — hey, we’re feeding ’em!) why the death toll was so high. That they can do it in such a self-congratulatory fashion adds that final soupcon of disgustingness that seems to be the preferred seasoning of that monstrous regime.
    And you believe it is true??

    Shirley Knott

  6. Jim,

    I can’t agree with “people get the govt they want” argument when the said people are opressed in a dictatorship such as the NK (or Saddam’s Iraq).
    – – – –

    Any of the folks here think there will be enough support (public opinion) in the near future for the Americans to whack the Dear Leader?

  7. Shirley,

    Speaking for myself, it was the notion that this would pass the censors as a feel good story that makes it so repugnant.

    You never know, though. I saw an interview once with an old Chinese guy in one of the backwater provinces who still made his living doing devotional art and music inspired by Mao. He clutched his red book like a bible and quoted scripture. I hope there aren’t many of him out there, but you just never know …

  8. The story can reasonably translated as “Police ordered people into burning buildings.” Whether they were ordering them to recover pictures of Fearless Leader or more easily negotiated loot, or whether this was a handy way to get rid of some undesirables, is questionable, but I wouldn’t dismiss the account out of hand.

  9. Why don’t you see equal castigation in the West about Myanmar?

  10. zorel,
    I would’ve supported taking out the World’s Craziest Daffy Duck fan before we took out Saddam. Now that they have 8 nukes, it’s a tad tougher.

  11. Shirley-
    I don’t know about the exact numbers, but I wouldn’t be surprised if SOME North Koreans risked their lives to save pictures of Dear Leader.

    Those people are appallingly brainwashed. I saw a documentary with footage of the state funeral for Kim Il-Sung (is that his name? Current leader’s father) and it was terrifying–the streets were crammed with tens of thousands of people, and *every single one* of them was crying and screaming and wailing like a madman. I screamed like that only once in my life–when I was five and got my finger slammed in a car door. And even then, I cried myself out after about fifteen minutes. These folks kept their air-raid siren wails going for hours.

    North Korea makes Nazi Germany (for blue-eyed blondes, anyway) look like Utopia. I am not exaggerating when I say that. At least you had Germans who had travelled out of their country, and had read books and seen movies OTHER than those personally approved by Der Fuhrer. No mass starvations, either.

  12. Joe,

    Is NK the kind of big government you’re pineing for? No? What is it that makes one big government good and another bad? Intent? No? Maybe just that your kind of big government has “good” people in it and NK has “bad”? Define “good” and “bad” and discuss how you make sure your kind of big government is staffed with the “good” kind.

  13. I am so damn proud of what I did in 50 and 51 to help protect South Korea from this shit. And the main reason I am not a republican is that Ike got elected by letting Kim’s daddy stay in power.
    And we all remember Jean Bart volunteering to spearhead the invasion of Myanmar, don’t we?

  14. Jennifer-

    If you believe the reports that Kim Jong Il is even worse than his father then I’d probably cry too upon learning that things are about to go from hellish to even more hellish.

  15. jennifer,

    How long have you been in North Korea?

    [Tim Cavanaugh]

    (don’t shoot, I was just kidding 🙂

    Jean Bart,

    mainly ignorance. we (at least in the US) know some about Cuba due to its proximity (but most of the lefties tell us Cuba is not really bad). we know about NK due to its “nukes” (and the war). we don’t know about Burma or Zimbabwe or other such places because these are not “news worthy” for the most part. sad, no?

  16. One of the TV channels here ran a documentary on North Korea a few weeks back in which those suspected of ideological lapses PLUS family members were used as guinea pigs to test chemical warfare agents. The test subjects would be herded into a room, exposed to the chemical agents and their reactions duly noted as they died a slow and excrutiating death. The documentary makers went to some lenths to confirm the story by obtaining independent verification of certain key details from other sources. Chillingly, a North Korean dissident who had been involved in the testing when asked if he thought what he had done was wrong replied no, since the individuals were suspected of being disloyal to the great leader. The overall impression I obtained from the documentary was that for a large proprtion of this country brainwashing was virtually 100% and anything done in the name of the state was justified.

  17. Scary. Very scary.

    I wonder how democratic change will ever occur for such a brain-washed population. No, I’m not doing some sort of racist “those people could never be free” line, since it has nothing to do with their ethnicity or anything inherent in (pre-Communist) Korean culture. I just shudder to think how it might be accomplished, whenever and however it happens (no, I’m not suggesting anything about US-led regime change, the issue at hand would be there no matter how or when it’s done).

    Children would probably adapt quite well (they always do), but the adults would be in big trouble. And this would create problems in a society that has traditionally been deferential to the elderly.

  18. thoreau: The solution is to open their eyes. They believe dear leader because he only filters through to them what he wants them to hear. Show them what life can be like and they will not want their life can be. The older genereations may be more doubting and resistant, but give them time and knowledge and they will want to throw off their shackles as well.

  19. In all likelihood not all of them are as brain-washed as they’ve led the Dear Leader to believe. Or at least I hope so. I wonder how many of them would have cried for Kim Il Sung if there weren’t an extensive network of spies and snitches watching them…

  20. Mo,

    I can only hope you’re right, but it seems that people who have that much emotional and intellectual capital invested in the notion that Supreme / Beloved Leader can be nothing less than perfect will never be convinced, no matter what evidence you present otherwise. Humans are VERY good at rationalizing away mistakes and contrary evidence, so I have very little confidence that the attitudes shown in the report will change.

  21. If they were all brainwashed he wouldn’t have any reason to ride around in armored vehicles, would he? I suspect that if he somehow were kidnapped and left tied to a fire hydrant somewhere, you’d have a hard time piecing him back together at the end of the day.

  22. North Korea has an awful rep, but it’s governed according to the finest traditions of ancient Egypt.

    Kim Jong Il’s armored train was not built in NK, but was a gift to his father from the USSR, which apparently didn’t want to take any chances with its client.

    It was to Kim Il Sung’s benefit that he was able to keep food and other essential goods magically flowing from the public distribution centers for most of his reign. His heir has not been as fortunate, so although he is feared, he is not as respected.

    to Walter Wallis: what was Eisenhower supposed to do, fight off the whole PLA?

  23. In the immortal words of Keeanu Reeves: “Whoa!” That’s scary folks.

    Regarding the related Anne Frank story: After reading it , I’m beginning to see why many thought my “republi-nazi” crack in yesterday’s drug ad thread was out of bounds. Make no mistake; I don’t care for GOP and I think they their policies pose a threat to our liberties–as do the Democrat’s. However, when you start sounding like these brainwashed kids and their sychophant teachers, you have to sit down and re-evaluate your positiion.

  24. Words fail to describe how sickening that is. And they’re not even trying to hide how monstrous the dictatorship is.

  25. Hmm, so the best dictators are the most brutal ones?


  26. Hmm, so the best dictators are the most brutal ones?

    Previous H&R dogma has been that the best dictators are the ones who call themselves “national” rather than “communist”.

  27. I imagine that it’s to our ultimate advantage that KJI has beaten the life out of his people. When it comes time to remove him, the people will be happy enough just to have bread, and will be significantly less likely to fight against whatever liberating force there is, having been brutalized into docility. Brutalized into docility: that’s something that Saddam Hussein could never do. He could maintain order well enough, but rebellion was always just beneath the surface, lurking in the Iraqi soul. Better for them to retain their fighting spirit, I suppose, but hell, don’t that make their country a bitch to occupy?

  28. thoreau, you are unfortunately on the right track.

    Human beings who have become inured to such hardship cannot be easily turned into a happy and productive society. They don’t know how to think for themselves or work for themselves, because they have never done so before.

    If the war does come, we will be forced to kill off these poor folks by the millions. This could be worse in total number of enemy casualties than the (thankfully avoided) invasion of Japan.

    Think of the Japanese soldiers stranded on islands who fought on into the 1950’s and later. There is no reason to expect North Koreans to behave differently.

    The population of portions of North Korea has been reduced to eating grass because of the poor governing skills of it’s leadership. Do not doubt, however, that these same people would fight to their deaths against unimaginable odds to protect their beloved leader.

    Our “enlightened” point of view is not their point of view.

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