The state of things
There is an element of ethnic-based ridicule in a famous blog that mocks Kim Jong Il, as well as an understanding of the mechanism of rule.
The persimmons are so orange. So beautiful and smooth. How delicate is this Asian tree, which bears fruit at the end of autumn, its leaves exquisite, its fruit seeming to be dipped in wax from the moment of its appearance, smooth and shiny and hard and cool, its inside fleshy, dense, compact, ticklishly sweet, the color so deep it seems unnatural. The persimmon is one of the most beautiful trees in existence, and in this photograph Kim Jong Il, the leader of North Korea, a country in which people go hungry, is looking at it.
http://kimjongillookingatthings.tumblr.com is a photo-sharing blog dating from October 2010. Its creator, who describes himself as an art director for a Lisbon-based ad agency, has declared that he will continue to post a daily photograph of the late leader, who died of cardiac arrest on December 17 on a train, according to the official account. The blogger says he will continue to provide captions such as "Kim Jong Il looking at a sweater" (on a visit to a textile factory) or "Kim Jong Il looking at scientists" (during a visit to a pharmaceuticals plant ) or "Kim Jong Il looking at sausages" (while visiting a food factory). It's a satirical blog. That's plain.
But is this a splurging satire that overflows its banks? Doesn't this satire show total misunderstanding of the essence of dictator-love? Isn't it suffused with self-satisfaction at the ability to mock what appears, on the surface, to be unsophisticated propaganda? Is it really funny? In each of the blog's hundreds of photographs - those that lack a persimmon-heavy poetic quality capable of trumping the pervasive monotone dullness - Kim Jong Il is typically seen wearing sunglasses and with an entourage of four or five people, some of them in uniform. In some cases they are applauding him, or they may be laughing as he looks at cotton, a truck, an engine, wheat, eggs. And he looks at a great deal of food, because in North Korea people are starving and can't feed their babies; and he often visits laborers, who continue to work even if they will never be able to leave the assembly line. Everything he looks at - if "In the kitchen, meeting with cooks" is not flattened into "Looking at cooking oil" - receives validation from the very fact that he is looking at it. Acquires meaning.
There is an element of ethnic-based ridicule in the blog, though also an understanding of the mechanism of rule. These photographs are not an ornament, accompaniment, anecdote or illustration of "being close to the people"; they are the reality itself. After all, it is impossible to visit these people. The education system there sees to it that the population is eyeless.
So, even though the blog is terribly funny, and maybe even too easy, and lacks empathy, it carries a constant reminder for everyone. Not only because of the resemblance to PR photos of leaders everywhere during visits to factories. For it is not only the laughter of Kim Jong Il's army officers next to the persimmon tree that is so horrifying here; it's the knowledge that there is no protection against them. It is the understanding that no one now harbors or will ever harbor post-Korean thoughts, and that anyone suspected of this - even if he irked his neighbor over some other matter and the neighbor informed on him - will be punished and disappear as though he never existed. It's the understanding that their laughter is the essence of the dictatorship.