I find television very educating. Every time somebody turns on the set, I go into the other room and read a book. - Groucho Marx

Starving Artists: Pulgasari and the Cannibalism of Kim Jong-il

by Joe DeMartino
Dec. 20, 2011

Though the late North Korean dictator Kim Jong-il was hilariously short, a waddling caricature of a cartoon gnome, he supposedly averaged three to four holes-in-one per round of golf (Tiger Woods has around twenty in his entire career). He was said to have written six operas in a span of two years, although the results of his frenzied rush of creativity have never been recorded on any musical format. His cult of personality had become so extreme by the time of his death that his propaganda team spent the final years of his life figuring out exactly what it could get away with. They went from claiming he’s an expert athlete to saying that he could actually control the weather with his mood.

Kim, of course, accomplished exactly zero of these feats. Like most dictators, he was only ever good at one thing: staying in power. The modern North Korea itself is a living machine that serves to perpetuate the now-hereditary rule of Kim’s family. It’s been described by the also late Christopher Hitchens, one of very few outsiders to visit North Korea[1] as a country where George Orwell’s 1984 was taken to heart -- not as a cautionary satire, but as an instruction manual for building a state.

Though Kim likely had no talent at moviemaking, he was a film buff, with a reported collection of over 20,000 movies. In 1978, South Korean director Shin Sang-ok and his ex-wife, actress Choi Eun-hee, were kidnapped* by North Korean agents and brought to Pyongyang. Kim had designs on starting a film industry in his country and decided to bypass building one from scratch. Pulgasari is the most famous of Shin’s films from this period. Kim has a production credit on the movie, though one imagines that his contribution was limited at best -- perhaps he suggested additions to the script, or sat in a high chair behind the camera, or glared at the actors behind his ever-present sunglasses.

*They escaped in 1986.

One can see just how effective this state is at misleading its citizens in the opening scenes of Pulgasari. A local village blacksmith has been commanded by the governor to make weapons of war, but he protests that there is a severe shortage of iron, so he will be unable to work. The governor has a simple solution: he has farming implements from surrounding villages brought to the blacksmith, so he can refashion these plowshares back into swords. When the blacksmith balks, the governor seizes all the farming tools from the blacksmith’s village, over the cries and lamentations of the blacksmith’s friends and family.

Much has been made in recent years of North Korea’s nuclear ambitions. Kim wanted his country to join the nuclear club for much of his rule, and it appears that he may have succeeded -- the North has conducted a few low-level nuclear tests and may have as many as six functioning nukes. The capabilities of their delivery systems -- intercontinental ballistic missiles, in other words -- are less well-known, but the Taepodong-1 and -2 missiles could reach up to 6,000 kilometers[2]. That’s not enough to reach the United States, but it’s enough to hit Japan and more than enough to hit the densely populated South.

This has put international relations with North Korea in somewhat of an odd place. Richard Nixon used to joke that he was going to try to convince the Russians that he was a madman -- that they’d better give him leeway in negotiations because he was unstable and prone to hitting the big red “launch everything” button at a moment’s notice. Kim Jong-il actually did this, and in a much more convincing fashion than Nixon ever could*. He was obviously incredibly weird, had no checks on his power, and may have actually believed his own propaganda at this point. North Korea routinely tests what it can get away with -- test-launching missiles over Japan, or shelling small South Korean islands -- and so far it hasn’t led to war. A nuclear-armed North Korea could present a disastrous obstacle for southeast Asia; if Kim Jong-un, the elder Kim’s son and presumptive heir, takes after his father in any way, the Korean peninsula could be one shitfit away from a full-scale war. Retaliation would be swift and immense -- one imagines that a North Korea that launched even one nuclear missile in anger would find itself reduced to radioactive rubble within an hour -- but the potential humanitarian consequences would be unbearably tragic.

*Although the consequences differ significantly. Kim Jong-un had his six nukes. Nixon had several thousand.

How did a country like North Korea, essentially an economic cipher, acquire such weapons?

The same way a local governor in a fictional movie gets his weapons. In a binary choice between feeding his people and arming his soldiers, Kim put all his focus on option number two. Demographic statistics from the country show just how much blood Kim extracted from his own people in order to build his war machine. The country has suffered several avoidable famines in its recent history, leading to the deaths of hundreds of thousands -- and possibly millions[3] -- of citizens. Even the living have been affected in tangible ways. It’s difficult to get precise data from the country, as it’s predictably reticent to release statistics, but one estimate holds that the average North Korean citizen is two inches shorter than the average South Korean [4], due mostly to malnutrition.

This isn’t a secret. An outside observer with knowledge of North Korea’s situation would pick up on the strangeness of Pulgasari’s opening scene in regards to Kim Jong-il’s policies immediately. The movie obviously presents the governor and his cronies as the antagonists, but what totalitarian state would risk effectively criticizing its own policies?

That’s just how encompassing North Korea’s propaganda machine can be. The country practices its propaganda on a level which few countries can match. To wit: movies have led to the somewhat fanciful image of captured spies taking cyanide pills in order to commit suicide, but captured North Korean spies have actually done that[5]. It’s par for the course for a leader who has been cannibalizing his people for decades. The saddest part is that Kim’s son is a very young man, which means the upper peninsula may be locked into several more decades of disastrous hereditary rule. The younger Kim is said to be a sports fan, particularly of basketball, so the film directors of the world may be safe from his predations. For now, we’ll have to rely on Pulgasari as one of the few insights into an insane system of control, where the giant monster might be the most believable part.

Joe DeMartino is a Connecticut-based writer who grew up wanting to be Ted Williams, but you would not BELIEVE how hard it is to hit a baseball, so he gave that up because he writes words OK. He talks about exploding suns, video games, karaoke, and other cool shit at his blog. He can be emailed at jddemartino@gmail.com and tweeted at @thetoycannon. He writes about sports elsewhere. The sports sells better.