The Five Stages of Grief
When Joseph Stalin died, so did his sins. They called this “De-Stalinization” When Kim Il-sung died on July 8th, 1994, there was no De-Kimization.
There was just another Kim.
“How are you doing?” Russia asked North Korea over the phone. He figured she was checking up on him due to her “maternal disposition.” That was her codeword for guilt.
“Does my well-being suddenly concern you?”
He remembered it well, the day Russia cut him off. She made sure to let him know that although she wouldn’t support him with policy or with money, he was welcome to come to her “as a friend.” But he refused to give her the satisfaction. He watched from afar the embarrassing collapse of the Soviet Union, and he was happy to let her wallow in her own despair and failure the way she deserved to. Alone.
“I have always cared about you.”
North Korea began to doodle on his writing pad. A mountain, and above it there would be a magnificent, shining star. “Your affection was always just rhetoric.”
“Think what you will of me,” Russia said. “Hate me if you need to. It won’t change how I feel.”
He went silent, devoting most of his attention to the lines he was etching. Yes, a rainbow would look nice there, arching above the star.
“I used to look up to you,” he said idly. “I think I might have admired you, even if you were wrong about so many things.” He heard a soft chuckle from the other end.
“Are you reminiscing to be sentimental, or are you avoiding my question?”
“I have nothing to hide,” said one of the most secretive nations in the world.
“Then tell me something, dear. Are you okay?”
Threatening to turn South Korea’s capital into a “sea of fire” definitely wasn’t the best way to drive the conversation, but tact was a privilege he couldn’t afford.
His sister’s mouth curled into a scowl as she paced the length of the table. “I’d like to see you try.” She stopped. “Don’t take that literally, please.”
Meetings at the Join Security Area of the Demilitarized Zone–the tense border area between their two countries–weren’t usually like this. Not long ago, they’d been civilly discussing ways to keep Korea nuke-free. But America, characteristically, had to ruin everything good in North Korea’s life.
The brother said, “It’s so sad how easily you rallied behind his efforts to sanction me. You’re a disgrace.”
“A disgrace?” The sister asked through clenched teeth.
“You bend to the will of foreign powers–”
“You can call him by his name, you know.”
“Sister,” North Korea said in a low voice, “The United States is trying to drive us as far apart as he can. We didn’t ask to be divided and turned against each other. He did this to us.” When she looked at him, he felt the burn of her skeptical glare.
“Was our future on your mind when you invaded my country for a war you couldn’t even win? Your dreams of ‘peace’ had Koreans killing Koreans?”
His heart jumped before nausea gripped his chest and oozed its way up his throat. Memories came back to him in hot flashes. Napalm. Death. Ruin. The nausea burned and burned until it became sulfur in his veins.
“Are you blind?” Or maybe he was because his vision started to blur. “He.. he killed so many people–mine, yours… He massacred villages without a drop of remorse. When he left behind a graveyard of charred bodies his only thought was of how he could kill more people. He turned my country into a ruin of fire and death. Was–was that part of your dream?”
“I’m not defending what he did.” Her voice trembled. The “I’m telling you that I refuse to believe you were only trying to help me.” She stopped to bring a hand to her mouth as he fought her back her own tears. Her overdue pain did not bring him relief. No, he resented it. When he caught her eyes, he saw indignation rather than sadness.
She swallowed the lump in her throat before she went on. “We might not have had a say in the way we were brought into this world, but I chose how I was going to live my life just as you did. I am no one’s slave, and I never needed saving.”
“Then you are blind.”
“So are you, North.”
“Do not call me that!” The sudden harshness of his voice made his sister jump. “There is no ‘North’ and ‘South’ Korea. I am the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. And you? You are a spineless puppet who pledged her loyalty to a murderer. In doing so, you gave up your Koreanness–the most important thing we ever had! Sister, you made a mistake. I will make you regret it every day until one of us is dead.”
And that was the first time in 40 years she feared what her brother was willing to do.
“So it will be that much easier for you to invade my country?”
“Dude, if I wanted your country I would have taken it back in ’53.”
North Korea felt the muscles in hand twitch. He wanted to reach across the table and punch America in his stupid face, but that would probably be considered an act of war. “First, I wouldn’t have let you. Second, you wouldn’t have been able to. Third–”
North Korea glowered. “Let’s try this again.”
America sighed obnoxiously. “Alright. I know you want to leave the Non-Proliferation Treaty, and I know it’s because you’re scared–”
“I’m not scared. I simply don’t trust you.”
“That’s probably a good idea. But, look, you came to me. You’re the one who wanted to settle our differences. Now, that can happen, but not without compromise.”
America blew out air, leaned back in the chair, spread his legs like he was getting comfortable. Like he owned the damn place. “Get rid of your nuclear reactors for ones that can’t produce weapons-grade plutonium. I’ll give you two light-water reactors to replace whatever you’ve got going on now. You don’t even gotta pay for ’em up front. I’ll take care of that.”
“I’ll need fuel for energy and electricity production while I wait for the new reactors to be constructed.”
“Sure? Is that all?” North Korea asked with skepticism.
“Why not? I think we’ve got a pretty good deal. You stay party to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and I’ll give you reactors and fuel.” He must have noticed North Korea grinding his teeth in thought. “Hey, if we’re gonna try to be friends from now on–or at least try not to be mortal enemies, there won’t be a need for nuclear weapons on the Korean Peninsula.”
Looking up with hardened eyes, North Korea examined the man sitting across from him. The days leading up to this point had been trying; America had suggested, in so many words, that he wouldn’t hesitate to use force if that’s what it took to get rid of North Korea’s nuclear power plant. That wasn’t the kind of threat you just gloss over. The last thing North Korea needed was an energy crisis and American jets dropping bombs on his country again.
“Do I have your word that you won’t threaten me with nuclear weapons?” North Korea asked. “That you will never use them against me preemptively? That you will deliver everything you promised me?”
America held up both hands. “You have my word. And do I have your word that you won’t develop nuclear weapons?”
He brushed his fingers against the hardcover of the Great Leader’s autobiography, almost like he was discovering the book for the first time. Kim had written a lot about revolution, but was there anything about this?
The sadness of weeks prior was over, replaced by something worse. A nagging, burning question that played over and over in his head. Is this what I wanted?
North Korea found this self-pity disgusting. Life was meant to be a struggle. Struggle was the force that drove history. Marx knew this, Stalin knew this, Kim knew this.
But this was different, wasn’t it? This was no epic struggle of the oppressed against their oppressors. North Korea’s struggle was with himself. His mistakes, his shortsightedness, his overconfidence. In trying to what was right, had he actually done what was wrong?
He opened the book and flipped through its pages. In the light of the fading sun, he skimmed–as if he’d find his answers somewhere in Kim’s words. But all he found was a reminder that god was dead.
North Korea and China walked together along the edges of Kim Il-sung Square. The Juche Tower watched them from across the Taedong River.
China asked, “Your new leader has transitioned into power nicely, hasn’t he?”
“It seems so.”
China looked to the sky. “Kim Jong-il. The legendary hero born atop the great Mount Paektu.”
“Incredible, isn’t it?” North Korea said calmly.
“Quite.” China turned to him. “Were you worried?”
North Korea returned the look. “Were you worried when Mao died?”
“Not at all. I’ve lived far too long and survived far too much to die with a single man.”
The Korean hummed, then looked away. “I wasn’t worried. My future doesn’t exist within any one person. It exists within the will and determination of my people. If our belief and perseverance are strong enough, we will survive.”
“Good answer. But..” China’s voice trailed. “Will you be content with just surviving?”
“For now, I think I’ll have to be.”
One year after Kim Il-sung’s death, the heavens opened up.
“Look,” North Korea told China as he motioned to the downpour outside. “The sky is mourning the Great Leader.”
Actually, the sky was unleashing the beginnings of massive floods that would exacerbate a devastating famine. But nobody could have known that.
Song to consider: Elastic Heart by Sia.
Denial: In 1991 Russia dropped aid to North Korea and that was a huge blow to the smaller country’s economy. That same year, the USSR dissolved.
Anger: You can read more about American war crimes during the Korean War here. Douglas McArthur was a “warmongering lunatic,” as Bruce Cummings would say. McArthur, along with other American military dudes, wanted to drop a devastating amount of atomic bombs on North Korea. Think Nagasaki and Hiroshima tenfold.
Bargaining: In 1994 North Korea and the US were on the brink of war over nuclear weapons. The Agreed Framework was a commitment of sorts that called for North Korea to freeze its nuclear power plant program, among other things.
Depression: For anyone interested, you can actually read Kim’s autobiography With The Century here.
Acceptance: Official North Korean legend has it that Kim Jong-il was born under extraordinary circumstances that involve a double rainbow.
Economic mismanagement, loss of Soviet support, unfavorable agricultural conditions, floods, and droughts were a recipe for famine. This was a very dark chapter of North Korean history, not only because it was poorly managed but because people still suffer from its effects to this day.
The flooding began on July 30th during the year after Kim Il-sung died. I wrote a piece of flash fiction a few months ago where North Korea reflects upon the impending hardship.