The corpse of Kim Jong-il doesn't get any less ridiculous the longer you stare at it. And as I stared at it earlier this year, bathed in cartoonish red light, surrounded by silent North Korean soldiers—the Dear Leader’s bouffant standing as attentive as ever—the absurdity of it all hit me in a wave. Oh no, oh no—here it was again, that sensation I hadn’t felt this since fifth grade English class, now roiling within me: an oncoming, seemingly irrepressible … giggle fit. Every muscle in my body had to be redeployed on a new task: to not laugh. Do not think of Team America. Do not think of Team America. Dammit—stop thinking of Team America. One disrespectful chuckle and—well, people have disappeared for less.
The depth of North Korea’s absurdity is hard to fathom. It’s also hard to follow. A few days ago, the new Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un had merely purged his own uncle and longtime mentor Jang Song-thaek from his government. A day later, he executed dear old Uncle Jang—for being “despicable human scum,” for being “worse than a dog” despite the “paternal love” shown to him by his nephew (strange family tree, that), and for “half-heartedly clapping” when his nephew received the cheers of the crowd. To those who still wondered what kind of leader Kim Jong-un would become, the news of his uncle’s demise would seem to be an answer.
Kim began as a question. When I arrived in North Korea earlier this year, as part of a small delegation with former U.S. Ambassador Bill Richardson and Google’s Eric Schmidt, he was still unpredictable. An unknown quantity, even in his bio. The son and grandson of tyrants, but educated in Switzerland? Leader of the most secretive nation on earth, but a well-known fan of American basketball? Thinks Daniel Craig is fine, but much prefers Sean Connery? (Come to think of it, that last one may have been his father.)
He kept people guessing. We were there to try to help negotiate the release of Korean-American detainee Kenneth Bae; we didn't know at the time that Kim was distracted with the prospect of an upcoming visit by a far flashier celebrity: former NBA star (and current pistachio pitchman) Dennis Rodman, a.k.a. “the Worm.” We left without Bae, who later received a sentence of 15 years hard labor; the Worm was given an open invitation to return to Pyongyang.
Kim sent mixed messages. His New Year’s address hinted at improved relations with South Korea, and during our time in Pyongyang, his foreign ministry seemed eager to adopt a wait-and-see relationship with newly appointed U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry. Yet not long after our departure, Kim was threatening Seoul like old times and aiming new missiles at Honolulu. Kinda like how Aloha means hello and goodbye?
A few months ago, he killed his ex-girlfriend. On Thursday night, he killed his uncle. And last week he took a deeply symbolic step to replace his very own father—adopting Kim Jong-il’s appellation “Dear Leader.” (Not for nothing, Kim also received an honorary doctorate from a Malaysian University. So to those who assume he lives on a volcanic island stroking a cat, or something similarly evil–do not think of Team America, do not think of Team America–yes, he’s now officially “Doctor Dear Leader.”) He has, it would seem, shown his stripes.
It might be tempting to consider last week’s release of 85-year-old American Korean War veteran Merrill Newman, grandfather of two, as a last morsel of evidence to the contrary. As proof that this Kim still has a sweet spot. That maybe the Worm got in his ear.
But it isn’t. By forcing a public confession from Newman before his release—admitting that he helped train South Korean guerrillas 60 years ago—Kim got the propaganda he wanted out of Newman: proof that Americans are still not to be trusted. It doesn’t matter that Newman lives in a Palo Alto retirement community. North Korean commanders—at least, those who aren’t executed for insolence or lackadaisical clapping—aren’t retired. As Newman himself put it, he failed to appreciate that for the leadership in North Korea, "the war isn't over." An armistice is not a peace treaty. Which gives North Korea, one of the world’s poorest countries, all the justification it feels it needs—as if it felt it needed any justification—to maintain the world's largest reserve military.
North Korea’s leaders have short tempers, but long memories, which they use to remind their citizens, almost half of whom serve in the Korean People’s Army, that there has never been a time—likely never will be a time—when it will make peace with the "puppet traitors" of the South and the "aggressors" of the West. And what better way to rally the troops (and they're all troops, in a pinch) than by pointing out the enormity of the enemy? Even in the guise of a retired grandfather, or a dispensable uncle? Even if it sounds, and looks, absurd to western ears and eyes. Even if it makes you giggle.
Dennis Rodman is heading back to North Korea next week. Let’s hope the new “Dear Leader” hasn’t seen that pistachio commercial, in which Rodman mocks the young and unpredictable Kim. Or at least, let’s hope he laughs.