Kim Jong Il’s Death Did Not Take Place


by Jeremy Fernando

The Juche idea defined man as the master who dominates the world, not merely as part of it, and thus established a new world outlook which … regards the world and its changes and progress with man, its master, at its centre.
(Kim Jong Il: On the Juche Idea, 74)

To conquer death you only have to die
(Tim Rice & Andrew Lloyd Webber, ‘Poor Jerusalem’)

From the beginning, we knew he would not die.

For, we’ve always known that Kim Jong Il is a media event. Not just in death, but right from the very start. Unless you were in his inner circle, no one even knew him other than through the media. He might well have never even been born—or been born twice; it would be exactly the same. Or more radically, he is completely indivorceable from the media—there is nothing to Kim Jong Il except an image. Which translates to: there is nothing to Kim Jong Il except information about him.

But what are we captivated by: no one really knows. Nothing is actually known about the man; he is a complete mystery. His death did not change that; in fact, he has become a complete enigma.

In his reading of the first Gulf War, Jean Baudrillard observed: “information is only ever an erratic missile with a fuzzy destination which seeks its target but is drawn to every decoy—it itself is a decoy.”[1] Kim Jong Il has taken this to a entirely new level: by maintaining a high level of secrecy, he has intrigued the world so much that we have produced so much information about him—and North Korea—that it has over-loaded our own systems. Up to the point where we no longer know whether to believe ourselves or not. Here, one might be tempted to compare him to Agent Smith of The Matrix but one should resist; Kim is far more radical. Smith had to overload the system himself through infinite multiplication; Kim needs no such thing: he allows us to do the multiplication for ourselves. This is censorship at its perfection: the cuts are made not to block (who can do this anymore with the Internet) but precisely to stimulate a massive dissemination of information. The mistake of Stalinist Russia was in attempting to issue news from within: all one had to do was to believe the exact opposite of what the state says. The strategy of the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) is far more subtle: by issuing news that is so absurd—to the point of being removed from reality itself—it becomes an empty signifier. And thus allows the reader to make of it whatever (s)he wants it to be. Better yet, it makes the reader attempt to find out more for her or himself. In this way, our own information is precisely the decoy for ourselves.

But what then of his death?

According to the KCNA, Kim passed away “from a great mental and physical strain” whilst on a train for one of his ”field guidance” tours at 8.30am on 17 December, 2011. [2] From the available evidence, we might well assume a promotional campaign; a particular image of Kim that North Korea is trying to maintain. Perhaps we might even claim that it is an attempt to counter the ever-increasing images of a despot indulging in excesses whilst the rest of his country starves. In the middle of Pyongyang, a body lies in state. North Korea is in mourning: the moment news of his alleged demise broke there was widespread wailing and gnashing of teeth. Elsewhere, the rest of the world is holding its breath: even though his youngest son—Kim Jong-un—has been officially named successor, most pundits believe him too young, and certainly too inexperienced to wade through, let alone lead, the complex labyrinth of North Korean politics. Add to that the strong possibility that the 27-year old has a nuclear arsenal at his disposal, and one can quite easily see why neighbouring countries, especially South Korea and Japan, are jittery.

Which is precisely how we are keeping him alive.

Through endless debate about him; about North Korea after him; about his legacy; about what actually happened during his reign. Through the deluge of websites on him, about him, analysing him, mocking him—multiplying him. In death, Kim has the perfect response to Matt Stone and Trey Parker’s Team America. In their animated film, there is a spoof of Kim Jong Il lamenting that he is alone, that he has no one around him, that he is “ronery, so ronery.” [3] But we will not abandon him: we have explored, and are continuing to explore Kim’s potential—he is now DJ Kim, [4] one who looks at things, [5] we are now obsessed with the outlandish claims to his sporting prowess, [6] etc. With that much attention on him, not only is he no longer lonely, he is almost whole-heartedly embraced, practically loved. We are certainly unwilling to let him go.

Kim Jong Il as portrayed in Team America: World Police, Paramount Pictures, 2004

But it is not as if Kim Jong Il did not already anticipate this.

He has long kept us glued to the screen. For, he understands that information itself is dead unless people are talking about it; and the only way to sustain it is through discrepancy, through variation. In this we find a perfect understanding of Baudrillard’s observation that “information is like an unintelligent missile which never finds its target… and therefore crashes anywhere or gets lost in space on an unpredictable orbit in which it eternally revolves as junk.” [7] We see this perfectly in the competing narratives of his birth. Soviet records claim that Kim was born in the in the village of Vyatskoye; [8] his official biography notes that he was born in a secret military camp on Baedu Mountain; [9] rumour has it that his advent was foretold by a swallow, and graced by the appearance of a double rainbow along with a new star. The fact that the latter is implausible—outlandish to the point of being absurd—is precisely its point. It moves the statement from a constative to a performative one: it is no longer just proclaiming a birth; it is saying now talk about it. Which is why there was never any attempt to make the KCNA credible. It has long been accused of being a mouthpiece for Kim’s fictions; one should consider if this is perhaps a fiction itself that has been carefully cultivated. The power of information is in making itself “junk.” Innocuous, easily ignored, unimportant—in other words, pure entertainment. Even as analysis of Kim Jong Il as a political figure will eventually fade—perhaps finding its final days in the halls of some university; or in some dusty library ignored by everyone—the spoofs, films, jokes, about him will live on. By making himself the perfect meme, DJ Kim has ensured that he will be remixed forever.

One should not forget that if “man, as master, [is] at [the world’s] centre,” surely the very notion of fiction being opposed to fact would no longer exist. If fact is based on referentiality—the relationality between language (what is said) and a world out there—and man is the master of this very world, then surely the world would correspond with whatever he says. This is a mastery of the notion of images at its finest: it is not a question of whether images are true or not. Images are always already a pure simulacrum of nothing other than themselves. Language speaks nothing other than language itself. Our mistake is in attempting to verify—we have allowed ourselves to be seduced by the absolute nothingness of the images themselves.

But then comes the final question: if Kim Jong Il can keep us endlessly entertained, why did he choose to die?

Perhaps we can catch a glimpse of his strategy from the most conspicuous symptom of his death: the ubiquitous images of mourning. It is pointless to question whether the scenes of tears were genuine or performative: one must remember that images are never about sincerity. And should be treated as such. For, mourning always already seizes us: even if it is performative (as in the case of professional mourners) the fact that one is there already stops, ceases, one from going on with one’s life. Even actors are occasionally consumed by the scene that they are performing. So, as one is performing one’s tears, there is no guarantee that one will not be torn by them. Judith Butler reminds us that:

when we lose someone, we do not always know what it is in that person that has been lost. So when one loses one is also faced with something enigmatic: something is hiding in the loss, something is lost within the recesses of loss. If mourning involves knowing what one has lost … then mourning would be maintained by its enigmatic dimension, by the experience of not knowing incited by losing what we cannot fully fathom.[10]

In this way, even as the scores of people walk by to pay their final respects to the Dear Leader, regardless of intention, they would never quite know why or what (let alone whom) they are mourning.

And this is the true genius of his final gesture. By passing over to the side of death, he has ensured that even those within North Korea, even those within this inner circle, no longer have any possibility of knowing him.

In 1982, whilst submitting On the Juche Idea to the National Seminar, in commemoration of Kim Il Sung’s 70th birthday, the younger Kim already dropped a clue to his eventual strategy. In the text he proclaims:

man does not merely adapt himself to environments and conditions. By his independent, creative and conscious activity, man continuously transforms nature and society, changing as he desires what does not meet his needs, and replacing what is outdated and reactionary with what is new and progressive. This is man’s endeavour and struggle to change and transform the world into one that serves man better. [11]

And what else is the last order of nature but death itself.

And the temptation that everyone—both within and outside of North Korea—will face is that of making meaning of his death. Perhaps to the extent of making meaning where there is none. And in this way, his name will remain forever. By staying alive, his body would have always been haunted by the ghost of an impending death. By passing over into the side of death, he has conquered the spectre.

We will play our part in making him immortal.


[1] Jean Baudrillard. The Gulf War Did Not Take Place. translated by Paul Patton. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1995, 42.

[2] ‘Kim Jong Il dead’ The Sydney Morning Herald (19 December, 2011).




[6] Amongst other things, “in his first match at Pyongyang Lanes, Kim bowled a perfect 300, according to state-run media … But that is nothing compared to the five holes-in-one and 38-under par that Kim reportedly shot in his maiden round of golf.” (Jeré Longman, ‘Dear Leader bowled everyone over with exploits’ The Irish Times, 23 December, 2011)

[7] Baudrillard. The Gulf War Did Not Take Place, 42.

[8] Steve Herrmann (9 October 2006). “Profile: Kim Jong Il”. BBC News.

[9] Kim Jong Il—A Short Biography. Pyongyang: Foreign Languages Press, 1998, 1.

[10] Judith Butler. Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence. London: Verso, 2006, 21-22.

[11] Kim Jong Il. On the Juche Idea. Pyongyang: Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1982, 12.

About the Author:

Jeremy Fernando is the Jean Baudrillard Fellow at The European Graduate School. He works in the intersections of literature, philosophy, and the media; and is the author of Reflections on (T)error, The Suicide Bomber; and her gift of death, Reading Blindly and Writing Death. Exploring other media has led him to film, music, and art; and his work has been exhibited in Seoul, Vienna, Hong Kong and Singapore. He is the general editor of both Delere Press, and the thematic magazine One Imperative; and a Fellow of Tembusu College at the National University of Singapore.