Perception continues to drive West’s view of N. Korea

A United Nations inspector told the Associated Press last week that North Korea planned to reactivate its nuclear reactors. But a familiar face was missing from the spotlight. North Korean leader Kim Jong-il was missing from the public’s eyes; he was not present even for the 60th anniversary of the Communist nation last month. There have been reports about Kim’s health, ranging from rumors of a stroke to a brain surgery and even death. The haziness of knowing which rumor to believe is the nature of our relationship with Kim.

When you think of Kim, you think of a Napoleon complex or a silly caricature, which often clashes with the brutal reality of those living under his rule. But if the stories that paint him as a power-hungry playboy are only coming from documentaries such as “Team America: World Police,” Kim has practically created his own hype, and he probably believes it too.

His “official” biography reads like bad “Dungeons and Dragons” fan-fiction. He was born in a log cabin at his father’s base on the highest mountain in the country, Mount Paektu and the earth heralded his birth with a double rainbow. In real life, the Soviet Union records show Kim was born in Siberia while his father, North Korean founder, Kim Il-Sung, was commanding an army of exiles.

What North Koreans know about him comes from propaganda, and what everyone else knows about him comes through rumors and news reports usually from South Korea.

But, this is true. Kim came to power in 1994 when his father died and was designated as the “Eternal President.” Kim has never held the title of president, and it must have been hard trying to step out from under his father’s shadow. But he did it. Kim amassed one of the world’s largest standing armies and stood up to the West by trying to build a nuclear program. At the same time, his people have gone through several famines and the “self-reliance” policies of blocking trade has increased a reliance on outside income from black market businesses.

Kim built a house of mirrors with his cult of personality, boasting wildly dubious accomplishments and erecting ever-present statues of himself. Newspapers, the Internet, books and even mobile phones have been banned in the past. The cultivation of free thinking in North Korea must be like raising baby cows to become veal chops – keep them in the dark, and don’t let them move.

The problem between North Korea and the rest of the West is perception. We are constantly gauging how much of a threat Kim is and how much of it is hype. We have wondered about his capabilities for weapons of mass destruction, whether the missiles he keeps testing can reach the United States or our allies or whether they are the missile equivalent of a rock and a slingshot.

Maybe what’s intriguing about him is his lavish eccentricities and his love for American pop culture. How could a man who holds a grudge against Western influence hold Elizabeth Taylor movies so close to his heart? After all, before Kim settled as a despotic leader, he had dreams of becoming a movie director.

While the North Korean media usually spins bad news into a nice yarn, they have been surprisingly quiet about Kim’s disappearance from the public eyes. There’s no news of a possible successor, and if there were any power struggle because of Kim’s illness or death, it wouldn’t get reported anyway. Without Kim’s affection for American pop culture, would the next leader be more dangerous?

With rumors of paralysis and death lingering, the only place we might ever see him could be through the lens of his propaganda. We can differentiate between Kim’s rose-colored glasses and reality and be able to judge for ourselves, which is a luxury most North Koreans don’t have, and if they do, they can’t express it without the fear of the firing squad.

Maybe if Kim were writing the history books with bright colors and lots of glitter, he would say he’s misunderstood. Somewhere right now, he might be unconscious or under the knife, rewriting the history books if only in his own mind; he might be awake, using stunt doubles for public appearances, laughing off what the rest of the world thinks of him.

Chance Welch is a junior radio-TV-film major from Fort Worth.