On Arirang, the English speaking South Korean station, they are showing a newscast of a North Korean anchorwoman in black Han-boke sniffling and shaking as she announces the Great Comrade’s death. Behind her is a mural of cascading pine trees that poke up like missiles, and she floats like a limestone mist on the grainy video, as if the video were recorded before modern video cameras, something submitted to America’s Funniest Home Videos.
“Hello, this is your host Choi Kang,” says the host Choi Kang. He holds a large blue card like a child giving a speech at the front of the class. He blinks behind his large, headlight glasses, trying to keep back a smile from his leather face; he looks like a mole trying to hold back a laugh.
“Today we will talk inconveniences of death of Kim Jong Il,” he says smiling to mark a period. “The news of Kim Jong Il’s death has become hot topic for news not just for Koreans, but for all world. Let’s find out more about information, about North Korean leadership after Kim Jong Il’s death,” Choi Kang says, his cheeks hanging like a basset-hound that was given plastic surgery, his hair is gray and white blended together like slate rock. The country exploded on Monday when it was revealed that Kim Jong Il had died. Every Korean I worked with stopped me in the hall to tell me the news.
“Are you happy?” I asked a bubbly young Christian woman who often puts chocolate bars on all the teachers’ desks and has a cross, and small poster of a prayer to love all of God’s creatures wrapping like a banner around a dove on her office wall.
“Yes, he was bad man, I think,” she said smiling and then hopping to the water cooler to pour herself some hot water for her tea.
Arirang shows videos of massive marches, red, shimmering cards shake in an undulating wave of enthusiasm for Kim Jong Il’s birthday. They detail his possible birth in Russia in 1941, and North Korea’s claim that he was born in 1942.
“They claimed he was born in 1942, because his father was born in 1912.”
He hid in China during the Korean conflict, and came back to join the People’s party after the war. He was made the heir to the presidency in 1974. The woman speaking has a monotone voice that would be perfect for a subway intercom. They shoot back to Choi who is preparing to interview a Ph.d doctor. He is more composed this time, his cheeks latched down to his jaw to make sure a ripple of a smile doesn’t roll across his lips.
The expert repeats over and over that the new Kim is too young and unprepared to rule. I think about the woman in the Han-boke, crying and shaking in her black robes. Their leader was like their father, an omnipotent, benevolent ruler who controlled every part of their lives. The woman has a good job in the party; she’s not standing on a street corner directing traffic on at an intersection that has no electricity in Pyongyang.
I had a discussion with a young Korean man a week ago about Kim Jong Il. We were drinking in a bar that counts up your empty bottles after you’ve finished drinking for the evening.
“He is crazy man, they are all brainwash,” he said snarling after showing me a picture of his pregnant wife who works in Seoul. A friend of mine showed up, and began asking more questions about Kim Jong Il, but the young man, snarling with bulky-Elvis Costello glasses and a mushroom top of fire-red hair only repeated his psychological evaluation of the glorious leader and showed us pictures of his wife’s stomach.
Arirang plays staccato, heart attack inducing music while clips of newscasters reporting Kim Jong Il’s death flash across the screen. I wonder if they’ll make his death a national holiday in South Korea and celebrate it the same way they celebrate the fifth of November in England. Maybe they’ll burn effigies of him in the streets and giggle making Kim Jong Il jokes. But for now, Arirang is content with reminding us how young the new ruler is, the fact that any news or information about his mother is top secret, and having medical professionals to list all the maladies and mental problems of the Glorious Leader and his family.