Building the Legend of Kim Jong-un

By Todd Crowell

TOKYO – In North Korea, it isn’t enough for the supreme ruler to enjoy the support of the Communist Party apparatus, the army or even to be a member of the Kim family. He must be a person of heroic stature. And if there isn’t enough his real heroism in his life story, then the Kim propaganda machine will invent some.

This was true for the current supreme leader, Kim Jong-il, whose official biography proclaims that he was born in a secret military base camp located somewhere on the slopes of Mt. Paektu, the crater lake along the northern border which is sacred to Koreans, even though most of it is in China. His birth 69 (or is it 70?) years ago was, everyone is taught, foretold by a swallow and heralded by a double rainbow.

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This is the myth peddled to North Korea’s population, anyway. Most scholars believe that Kim Jong-il was actually born in a grubby Siberian village called Vyatkoye, near Kharbarovsk, where his father, North Korea’s founder and current “eternal president," commanded a mixed battalion of Korean exiles and ethnic Chinese Koreans.

Enter now the third member of the Kim dynasty, one Kim Jong-un, the twenty-something third son of North Korea’s supreme ruler. He was publicly unveiled to the world as Kim Jong-il’s anointed successor at several public events in Pyongyang in 2010.

Many details about Kim Jong-un’s young life, including even his date of birth and place of birth are obscure. He was born in Wonson, in Kangwon province or maybe in Chagang province. His birthday is said to be January 8, but the year is unclear: 1982? 1983? Or 1984? He is known to have studied in Switzerland.

One undisputed fact is that his mother, Ko Young-hee, was a dancer in the Mansudae Art Troupe, with whom King Jong-il was smitten and eventually married. She died of cancer in 2004 at the relatively young age of 51, with just one major blot: She was born in Japan.

She was ethnic Korean, of course. Her father, Ko Tae-mun had immigrated to Japan in the 1930s, when Korea was a colony of Japan. He settled in the Tsuruhashi district of Osaka, which even today holds probably the largest concentration of ethnic Koreans in Japan, some third or fourth generation. Tsuruhashi is filled with businesses and restaurants run by Koreans.

This is not a detail that the Korean mythmakers will likely dwell on. Don’t look for a Kim Jong-un’s mother-was-born-here plaque. When reporters for the Asahi Shimbun newspaper began poking around in Osaka not long after Kim junior was introduced to the world last year, they discovered that his mother’s actual birthplace was now an empty lot.

The Ko family moved to North Korea in 1961 as part of a Japanese government-sponsored program in the late 1950s and 1960s to repatriate many of the ethnic Koreans then living in Japan. Some 90,000 people, the Kos among them, are said to have relocated to the North.

Many of the returnees, some of whom never before had set foot in Korea, no doubt were disappointed that the streets of North Korean cities were not paved with gold; but not the family of Ko Tae-mun, who prospered in North Korea, eventually becoming part of the intimate inner leadership circle.

In Japan, Ko Tae-mun had learned judo and, for a time he formed a touring wrestling group, although he did not prosper in his wrestling career as much as some other ethnic Koreans, and in 1961 he bundled his family aboard a ship in Niigata and sailed to Korea.

If the Japanese public had not fully appreciated Ko’s wrestling skills, the supreme leader, Kim Il-sung, did know of them and recruited him to come and help establish a national judo and wrestling group; which he did with considerably more success than he had had in Japan, becoming known as the “father of Korean Judo.”

But Ko Tae-mun had another attribute that may be even more useful for the mythmakers. He was born on the island of Jeju, just off the southern coast of South Korea. For most Americans and other foreigners, Korean history begins in 1950 with the invasion from the North. Little is known of the bloody insurrection on Jeju that began in April 1948, and known to South Koreans as the “4-3 Incident.”

In that year, many of Jeju’s 300,000 people rebelled against local authorities. The rebellion was reportedly led by the [communist] Worker’s Party of South Korea (since outlawed) and was suppressed by troops from the mainland. Estimates of deaths range from 14,000 to 60,000. Many people on the island fled to, where else, Tsuruhashi in Osaka.

The whole of the southern Korean coastline was then a hotbed of intrigue and insurrection in the years immediately before the Korean War. Former president and Nobel laureate Kim Dae-jung was a newspaper editor in the southern town of Mokpo then, which may be why conservatives never fully trusted him.

Ko Tae-mun immigrated to Japan well before the Jeju "People's Uprising" (North Korea’s term) and was not a part of the insurrection. No matter. That inconvenient fact should provide few difficulties for the mythmakers. They can elide or obscure the details to turn Kim’s grandfather into a revolutionary hero in much the same way that his other grandfather, Kim Il-sung, is deified as the liberator of North Korea. It won’t be necessary to dwell on where his mother was born.

Todd Crowell covered Tiananmen as Chief of Correspondents for Asiaweek. He is compiling a Dictionary of the Modern Asian Language and comments on Asian affairs at Asia Cable (www.asiacable.blogspot.com).

Todd Crowell covered Tiananmen as Chief of Correspondents for Asiaweek. He comments on Asian affairs at Asia Cable (www.asiacable.blogspot.com).

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