Senior North Korean officials received copies of "Mein Kampf," Adolf Hitler's rambling prison memoir, as gifts for Kim Jong Un's birthday this January, according to a report by New Focus International, a North Korean news organization that sources from defectors and volunteer citizens within the country.
The famous Nazi autobiography was reportedly distributed as what's called a "hundred-copy book," which refers to Pyongyang's practice of circulating an extremely limited number of copies among top officials, though most books are forbidden in North Korea. Gifts marking the leader's birthday are typically imbued with special political significance.
The book was apparently not distributed to endorse Nazism so much as to draw attention to Germany's economic and military reconstruction after World War One. A North Korean who works on behalf of the country in China told New Focus that Kim gave a speech endorsing Germany's inter-war revival and encouraging officials to read "Mein Kampf."
"Kim Jong Un gave a lecture to high-ranking officials, stressing that we must pursue the policy of Byungjin in terms of nuclear and economic development," New Focus's North Korean source told them by phone. "Byungjin" translates literally to "in tandem" and refers to official policy of developing the nuclear program and economy simultaneously.
The source continued, "Mentioning that Hitler managed to rebuild Germany in a short time following its defeat in World War One, Kim Jong Un issued an order for the Third Reich to be studied in depth and asked that practical applications be drawn from it."
Whatever Kim might see in Germany's inter-war boom, neither he nor his staff are likely to learn much from "Mein Kampf." Hitler's memoir is rich in fulminating ideology but famously incoherent on even basic economic policy – although North Korean officials might feel at home with such a text. More likely, however, the gift was meant to be symbolic, to urge officials to think about how an isolated and weakened Germany managed to build a powerful economy and military.
Still, North Korea and Nazi Germany are not totally absent of parallels. Though only the latter was bent on world domination, both built themselves on race-based nationalism and a cult of personality that borders on state religion. Shirley Lee, New Focus's international editor, says some in the country are starting to see hints that North Korean propagandists may be attempting to learn from Hitler's successes.
"One source says there have been many overt attempts to imbue Kim Jong Un with an 'intimidating charisma,' such as having him shout very forcefully at associates (Kim Jong Il was never seen to do such a thing) and even throwing things at people," Lee writes by e-mail. She adds, "According to another source, this may explain why the [official state newspaper] Rodong Sinmun has been showing photos of Kim Jong Un looking angry and scary – again, unprecedented in the history of Kim presentation."
To be clear, even if this shift in propaganda is inspired by the regime's apparent study of Nazi Germany, that would only mean they're attempting to learn some lessons in building support for a ruler who is already totalitarian, rather than an endorsement of Nazi ideology. Maybe that's what is most telling: the ways in which North Korea today and Germany eight decades ago are already similar.