The former leaders of North Korea have almost mythological status in the country: the Eternal President and Great Leader Kim Il Sung, and his son, the Dear Leader Kim Jong Il. As such, their birthplaces have become pilgrimage sites for their adoring people, and compulsory stops for visitors to the country.
Or so we are told; but as you will read, there is a twist to the tale in the case of Kim Jong Il.
Mangyongdae Native House
Kim Il Sung (not at that point President, naturally) was born in this small house twelve kilometres outside Pyongyang’s city centre on April 15, 1912. If that date sounds familiar, it was the same day that the Titanic famously struck an iceberg and sank. Back then his house was part of a rural village; but all the other houses have long since been cleared to leave this one standing as a form of shrine in the middle of manicured grounds.
Needless to say, a visit here is a pilgrimage for North Koreans; for the rest of us it is perhaps more interesting as a spot in which to try to understand their feelings for him than as a historical site. The house has been restored to a point where it seems more like a replica than an original peasant home; the stone platforms around it, on which we were instructed to not set foot, add to the impression of a museum piece. But locals’ respect for the site is not in question.
Kim Il Sung’s early life
To reach the house we followed a path that led between bushes from which appropriately reverential music emerged, piped through hidden speakers. We were met there by a guide who told us, very respectfully, about his early life. His parents were, she informed us, very poor. The family left Korea for Manchuria when Kim was eight. This was, according to our guide, because they wanted to escape the Japanese occupation, against which they had protested; some other sources say that it was due to famine. At the age of eleven he came back to live for a while with his grandparents and go to school here. He left his parents behind in Manchuria, as depicted in the mosaic mural at the site.
He later returned to China to join the guerrilla fight against the Japanese; and he led a group of fighters based on the slopes of Mount Paektu. Sticking to the usual North Korean script for this period of history, the guide extolled his fighting ability and his role in overthrowing the Japanese. She mentioned almost as an aside that he was aided by the Soviet Union, preferring to focus on his triumphant return to Pyongyang in 1945 to become the new nation’s leader.
The alternative non-Korean version of his life would downplay the extent of his role in fighting the Japanese; while not denying that he indeed had some successes as a guerrilla fighter. It would mention that it was at the instigation of the Soviet Union that he was installed as leader; at first just a puppet figure but later assuming real power. But it is widely accepted that he was indeed born here, the son of a Christian family; his maternal grandfather was, according to Kim himself, a Presbyterian minister.
Our guide pointed out the family photos on the wall and cooking pots used by his mother. She told us that the family were so poor that even damaged pots had to be put to use. It all seemed very ordinary and very domestic; but running through her account of his childhood was a thread of awe and expectation. This was clearly a boy ‘who was born to be king’.
Much of what is told about Kim Il Song’s first years is based on his own memoirs. These consist of an eight volume tome read (and by all accounts enjoyed) by all North Koreans: ‘Reminiscences: With the Century’. In it he claims a very early appetite for revolution:
‘I, then six years old, also joined the ranks of demonstrators. When the adults cheered for independence, I joined them. The enemy used swords and guns indiscriminately against the masses … This was the day when I witnessed Korean blood being spilled for the first time. My young heart burned with indignation.’Kim Il Sung
This rebellious spirit was touched upon by our guide; but the peaceful, respectful atmosphere here felt very much at odds with both past Japanese oppression and present-day modern Pyongyang.
Near the house we were invited to taste the freshness of the water from a well that was used by Kim Il Sung’s family. I had no qualms about trying the water; but I was less sure about the communal gourds we drank out of, although Chris happily had a few sips in order to pose for my camera!
Mount Paektu Secret Camp
While Korean and non-Korean accounts of the birth of Kim Il Sung broadly agree (it is only in his later history that they diverge) the same cannot be said of his son, Kim Jong Il. Mount Paektu Secret Camp is maybe the place where, more than anywhere else, the mythology that has grown up around the Kim dynasty in North Korea clashes with Western historical accounts. I will try my best to steer a respectful path between the two.
The forested slopes of sacred Mount Paektu, on the border between North Korea and China, offered ideal cover to the guerrilla groups fighting against the Japanese occupation during the 1930s; on that everyone is agreed. A number of ‘secret camps’ were established here as bases for these groups, one of which was led by Kim Il Sung. Where DPRK accounts diverge from those elsewhere is firstly on the scale of the latter’s contribution to the war. Here in North Korea he is seen as the hero who led the guerrilla troops to victory; whereas elsewhere he is regarded as more of a bit player in a fight largely directed, and won, by the Soviet Red Army.
The birth of Kim Jong Il
The other key point on which accounts differ is the date and place of birth of his son, Kim Jong Il. Non-DPRK history records that he was born on 16 February 1941 while his parents were in exile in Russia; but North Korean mythology around the Kim dynasty demands that he was born on Korean soil. Thus it records his birth as taking place exactly a year later, here on the slopes of Mount Paektu in Secret Camp 1 where his parents were living and battling the Japanese.
For the duration of a visit here it is best that you too acknowledge that ‘truth’. His official biography notes that:
‘For the Korean people his birth was a great occasion and heralded as the happiest and proudest event. His childhood was replete with ordeals. The Secret Camp of the Korean People’s Revolutionary Army in the primeval forest was his home, and ammunition belts and magazines were his playthings. The raging blizzards and ceaseless gunshots were the first sounds to which he became accustomed.’Kim Jong Il In His Young Days
To add to the mythology his birth is said to have been heralded by a swallow. Winter changed to spring, a star lit up the sky, and a double rainbow appeared.
Our tour of the camp
We were greeted at the entrance to the camp by a young guide, in pseudo military uniform, a copy of that worn by the guerrilla fighters. She started by pointing out Kim Jong Il Peak towering over us; and a huge marble slab engraved with the poem written by Kim Il Sung about his son: the ‘Shining Star of Mount Paektu’, a reference to the star said to have greeted his birth.
We saw the huge mosaic mural depicting the Kim family at the camp in winter; Kim Il Sung, Kim Jong Suk and a young Kim Jong Il.
Our guide then took us to various reconstructed buildings such as barracks and the camp’s HQ. At the HQ we learned that Kim Jong Il’s mother, Kim Jong Suk, had personally chosen the positions of the windows and door. Our guide pointed out the door handle, made somewhat gruesomely from a deer’s hoof because unlike metal it won’t stick to the hand in the below freezing temperatures experienced here in the winter; no, I don’t know why they couldn’t have used wood either!
And when we came to the actual cabin where Kim Jong Il was ‘born’, we were shown cooking pots etc used by Kim Jong Suk and toys made for the little boy by the soldiers of the guerrilla army. These include a wooden pistol and a jigsaw puzzle of the Korean peninsula.
Some of these photos are unfortunately very grainy, as the interiors of the cabins were dark and understandably no flash permitted.
Our route back to our bus took us along the bank of the Sobaek Stream. Here were shown the spot at which Kim Jong Suk collected water for cooking and for her son to drink. We were invited to drink from the same spring; the water was certainly cool and pleasant. It seems that the Kims were blessed even as children, with nature providing both of them with fresh spring water to drink.
So does it matter, I pondered, that North Koreans believe Kim Jong Il was born at Paektu Camp while the rest of the world thinks otherwise? It clearly suits the regime to maintain this fiction; having such a place of pilgrimage helps to maintain the cult of the dynasty. And I believe it suits the people, as it gives them a substitute ‘belief system’, someone and somewhere to venerate.
In North Korea, what matters most is the people’s unwavering belief that the Leaders are all powerful; that they are always right and always wanting the best for the country and for them as individuals. Anything that strengthens that belief, like a pilgrimage to a hallowed birthplace, can only be a good thing.
And as for those of us who visit from outside the country? Clearly we can’t be expected to have the same veneration and nor do they ask it. But they do ask for respect; it would be hugely inappropriate, for instance to challenge a guide at Paektu Secret Camp by suggesting that Kim Jong Il wasn’t born there. It’s best to approach these visits as helping to develop your understanding of North Koreans; and this they definitely did for me.
I visited North Korea in 2019