Kim Il Sung in a heavenly propaganda portrayal. Image: Facebook

Here’s Kim Il Sung quoted in my book Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader, as he recalls in his memoirs his days as a 14-year-old boarding student at a Manchuria school founded by nationalists in the Korean independence movement:

Kim noted disapprovingly: “Some young students at the school still believed in dynastic rule.” In his view, Korea’s former royalty had “bled the people white and beheaded or banished loyal subjects who spoke the truth.”

In a student debate, Kim asked what type of society Korea should build after winning its independence. Another student replied: “Our nation lost its country to the Japanese because our feudal rulers idled their time away reciting poems while other countries advanced along the road to capitalism. We should build a capitalist society and thus avoid a repeat of the past.”

Kim recalled delivering a ringing rejection of capitalist and feudal societies, where “people with money lead a luxurious life by exploiting the working people.” The young Kim and his idealistic friends were indignant when nationalist leaders and even fellow cadets at the school behaved just like those earlier feudal rulers, squeezing “contributions” from the local Koreans and then putting the money to personal use.

One commander used such contributions to finance his own wedding. He “spent the money like water in order to treat all his neighbors to food and drink over several days,” Kim said. “In the bright society we have now, the army and the people would have gathered public support and taken him to court or tried the case among themselves to force him to break this bad habit.”

Flash forward 96 years and we see the pathetic North Korea of today, which can be accurately described in precisely the terms Kim himself had used to condemn nationalist leaders and their feudal forebears.

Indeed, by the time he gave those recollections to his court stenographers, the only real success attributable to his nearly half-century rule – the relative prosperity that Kim’s Soviet-sponsored socialist system brought to North Korea after the Korean War – had long since faded and faltered in the face of far more competent South Korean capitalist competition.

The retired memoir-writing old man mercifully would die in 1994 before the full effects of his wrong policies became evident: A famine killed at least 600,000 people.

The dynastic rule that Kim had personally reinstalled – with his downright weird son Kim Jong Il succeeding him as the godlike ruler reinforcing paternal verities – prevented a deputy prime minister named Kim Dal Hyon, North Korea’s best candidate for emergence as a Deng Xiaoping-style reformer, from turning the economy around.

Kim Jong Il, when his time came, turned the throne over to his own son Kim Jong Un. The North Korean system under the third Kim is as committed as ever to state planning and control, as hostile as ever to the private sector, tolerating markets’ existence only to the extent it finds them necessary to keep the whole shebang from tumbling down.

Kim Jong Un, in a costume meant to evoke memories of his revered grandfather Kim Il Sung, inspects the construction preparations for the Onpho greenhouse farm in Kyongsong County in North Hamgyong Province in 2018. Photo: AFP / KCNA VIA KNS

Almost as weird as his late father, Kim Jong Un when the pandemic came seized upon a rogue theory that elevates the importance for Covid’s transmission of human contact with contaminated objects: piles of fertilizer, shipments of iron ore. On that basis, he cut off all foreign trade – except for importing the luxuries he personally needs for his royal lifestyle.

While the young Kim has plenty to spend on missile launches, what remained of the pre-Covid people’s economy by all accounts has been wrecked. This week the Seoul-based specialty news organization Daily NK has an anecdotal report from inside the country saying starvation deaths once again have been occurring in alarming numbers.

The regime’s reaction to the incidences of starvation reportedly emphasizes ceremonial timing: Don’t ruin the Beloved and Respected Great Leader’s big day. The NK Daily article quotes one North Korean as saying that the public security ministry “has been calling on locals to ensure there are no deaths — particularly of starvation — or disappearances on the 110th birthday of North Korea’s late founder Kim Il Sung.”

The grand occasion is today, April 15. With that prudent precaution in place, Great Leader, have as happy a birthday as you think you can justify, there in whatever corner of Hell you so deservedly inhabit.

Bradley K. Martin’s history, Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader: North Korea and the Kim Dynasty, won an Asia-Pacific Special Book Prize. His novel Nuclear Blues, set in Kim Jong Un’s North Korea, is a Readers’ Favorite Book Awards bronze medalist.