Korea: Asia's Next Revolution

Prospering North Shrouded in Myth

By John Burgess
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, August 19, 1986

Last in a series of three articles

SEOUL -- Mt. Paekdu towers 8,940 feet tall, the highest mountain in Korea. Since ancient times, Koreans have viewed it as a symbol of their nation, the birthplace of Tankun, mythical founder of their race.

Today, it has added significance for the 20 million people of communist North Korea. It is "the holy place of the Korean revolution."

It was there, schoolchildren learn, that President Kim Il Sung organized heroic guerrilla bands in the 1930s that were to rout the brutal Japanese colonial army. It was there, in a hidden forest encampment, that his son and heir Kim Chong Il was born one frosty February morning in 1942.

Like Tankun, the Kims were not ordinary men. Kim senior was an "ever-victorious, iron-willed brilliant commander . . . born of the spirit of the sacred Mt. Paekdu," an official biography says. His son's first cry rang out across Paekdu's snow, a biographer recounts, "as if it was a signal for the attainment of the Korean people's aspirations."

Many western historians believe the Kims' exploits on Paekdu have no basis in fact. They depict Kim Il Sung as an obscure guerrilla leader who was placed in power by Soviet troops who swept into Korea in 1945 at the end of World War II. His son, they say, was probably born in exile in Siberia.

If ordinary North Koreans ever heard that, they would scoff. To them the new Paekdu legend is fact.

Through a remarkable fusion of tradition and modern revolutionary ideology, North Korea has created the world's closest thing to a monolithic society. It is 20 million people marching, with hardly a whisper of dissent, to the drums of "Great Leader" Kim Il Sung and "Dear Leader" Kim Chong Il.

It is also a nation of startling contrasts. It boasts of smashing reactionary ways but is celebrating an ongoing transfer of power from father to son, the communist world's first hereditary succession. It avows atheism, while building reverence for the Kims into a virtual state religion, complete with hymns of praise, idols, a complex iconography and unshakeable faith. It preaches international fellowship while keeping out all but a handful of foreigners. This reporter has tried repeatedly to obtain a visa to travel to North Korea, but to no avail.

It is tempting to dismiss North Korea as an absurd little fairyland trapped in some past age. Yet, from near total devastation after the 1950-53 war with South Korea, it has built a standard of living far above other Asian communist states'. It has made major strides in public health, education and agriculture and has virtually wiped away social ills such as drugs and prostitution, according to visitors.

It is also a highly militarized society -- its regular armed forces have 885,000 members, western intelligence agencies estimate -- with which the United States might one day go to war. Forty thousand U.S. troops are stationed permanently in South Korea, which the north views as an American colony pining for liberation.

In between is the Demilitarized Zone, snaking across the peninsula to form a border.

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© 1986 The Washington Post Company