Juche: An Unauthorized Interview with Michael Malice
FEBRUARY 19, 2014 by THE FREEMAN
Michael Malice is a celebrity ghostwriter. He’s written books with the likes of MMA champion Matt Hughes and comedian D. L. Hughley. He's also ghostwriter behind a concierge for the superrich. Graphic novelist Harvey Pekar chronicled Malice’s bizarre journey through life in the comic book autobiography Ego & Hubris. And he is a favorite speaker at FEE seminars.
Today, Michael Malice joins us to discuss his latest project, Dear Reader: The Unauthorized Autobiography of Kim Jong Il.
The Freeman: What is Juche?
Malice: Juche is the guiding philosophy for North Korea (DPRK). According to them, the Juche idea is the guiding light for the 21st century. It roughly means national independence and self-reliance, moving one’s own nation forward through one’s own efforts. In another sense, Juche is a term akin to “Smurf”: It means whatever you want it to, and in practice works out to “that which Kim Il Sung and/or Kim Jong Il likes.” That’s why they have such things as Juche fabric and Juche magic tricks and Juche literature.
The Freeman: What’s the one thing readers should know about Kim Jong Il?
Malice: Let’s suppose you met an immigrant and they kept going on about Nancy Sinatra. They love her hair, her style. They’re all about “These Boots Are Made for Walking,” the best song ever. And then if you said, “Well, what about Frank Sinatra?” and they responded, “Who?”—that’s what Americans are like vis a vis North Korea.
Everything in the DPRK is about Kim Jong Il’s father, the Great Leader Kim Il Sung. Kim Jong Il is his inferior and subordinate in virtually every way—and in fact the notorious Kim Jong Il stories are attempts to bring the son up to the level of the father. Since he had so much catching up to do, the stories had to be that much more outlandish.
The Freeman: Having traveled to the DPRK yourself, you are in a good position to tell us what a socialist paradise is like. Can you give us a sketch?
Malice: You can’t escape economic principles. North Korea doesn’t pay back its debts, so its international credit rating is terrible—so they can’t afford to buy gasoline, and so they don’t really have electricity. Being in a metropolis with limited electricity is absolutely indescribable. Other things that were eye-catching for myself as a New Yorker are the homogeneity of the people—it’s the most homogenous nation on earth—as well as the shabbiness of it all. There’s no money for repairs, and I imagine pointing out damages is akin to filing a complaint: a no-no in a totalitarian regime.
The Freeman: Were you able to see anything beyond the Potemkin Villages established by the handlers?
Malice: This is a myth. Pyongyang is a capital city that is used just like any other. And in fact, the DPRK is so desperate for foreign currency that they even opened up the worst region, the northeast, for tourism. Kim Jong Il consciously launched what he called a “crybaby operation” during the 1990s, showing the country at its worst so that he could get more aid from the weak-hearted. It worked. The shiny happy facade has long been pulled away.
The Freeman: What would a U.S. imperialist such as a Freeman reader be likely to learn from reading your book?
Malice: There are no pop histories of the country out there. Kim Jong Il was born during World War II, as the still-unified Korea was being liberated from Japan, and he died in 2011. His life actually serves as a history of the country, and my book presents that in a fun way. I could recommend many other books on the nation, but they’re all very dark or very dense. This is the most readable intro to the country out there. I’ve somehow managed to make the story hilarious, while at the same time exposing the horrors—which only serves to make them that much more horrific-sounding.
The Freeman: What are the North Korean people like in general?
Malice: Growing up in a Russian household, I really related to the North Koreans. They know how to engage in conversational tae kwon do, so to speak, saying things without being explicit. They also have great senses of humor, as do many oppressed peoples. Most importantly, they’re very friendly. If you met aliens, wouldn’t you want to talk to them? That’s effectively what foreigners are to them.
The Freeman: The title Dear Reader seems to be wordplay that pokes fun at a Korean accent. Will you take this opportunity to apologize to the Korean-American population?
Malice: This never even registered until the book was done. Kim Jong Il has an L and Korea has an R. And they sure pronounce “U.S. imperialist” constantly and correctly. I think the R/L confusion is much more a function of a stereotypical Chinese accent. I actually got the title from Jane Eyre, where (spoiler alert) she ends it with, “Reader, I married him.” It was so bizarre to address the reader directly, and in such a way. Perfect for my subject! Coincidentally, I later found out that Jane Eyre is one of the few Western titles allowed in North Korea.
The Freeman: Is Kim Jong Il fallible?
Malice: And how! In 2002, Kim Jong Il offered a public apology—a first!—to Japanese Prime Minister Koizumi for having kidnapped Japanese citizens over the decades. The idea that they’d been engaging in these acts had previously been dismissed by many as anti-DPRK propaganda! One historian once described the DPRK as operating in “moral outer space.” This is a great example of that. Kim thought that by admitting to such wrongdoing and returning the abductees, the Japanese people would forgive and forget and offer more aid. Or rather, “restitution” for the colonial abuses. It didn’t quite turn out that way; the uproar was enormous. Which is why the DPRK media are still full of references to the “Jap devils.”
The Freeman: What did some of the publishers have to say about Dear Reader when you pitched it to them?
Malice: We all remember when CD stores were omnipresent. Now they’re non-existent, though every city still has record stores. Books are following the same model. Bookstores will be gone, but used bookstores will always be around.
Publishers, like major music labels, don’t really know how to handle innovation. It’s not their core competency and there are other things that they do well. The fact that I was able to self-fund and self-produce also allowed me to get the title to market at least six months faster than I would have if I went through a publisher. And the timing could not have been better. This isn’t my first book, so there’s nothing amateurish about the product.
The Freeman: You raised $30,000 on Kickstarter to publish Dear Reader. So people obviously got it. How does that feel in light of the publishers’ initial responses?
Malice: Like I’m a modern-day Howard Roark, and Dear Reader is The Fountainhead for the Facebook generation.
The Freeman: How much longer do you think the North Korean people will have to live under communism? Are there any signs of reform?
Malice: North Korea no longer identifies as communist and in fact is far closer to fascism. Mussolini was known as Il Duce—“the leader.” Between the racism, xenophobia, militarism, and strict social hierarchy (and concentration camps), it really harkens back to World War II. People often ask me how long it’s going to take for the state to collapse. Governments don’t exist; it’s not like a building imploding. Nothing will physically happen. I would argue that having a famine that killed up to 10 percent of the population and a nation without electricity, [it] has, effectively, collapsed already. If you don’t care if your own populace starves, you can dig in for quite a while. For a “crazy” nation, they’ve outlasted virtually all the others—so objectively they aren’t unstable, if they’re still standing. My prediction for their future is from a Hemingway quote: “How did you go bankrupt?” “Two ways. Gradually, then suddenly.”
The Freeman: If you could send a message to every single North Korean person, what would it be?
Malice: I’d rather send them food or money, to be honest. Talk is cheap.
The Freeman: Thank you very much, Michael Malice.
Want to win an autographed copy of Dear Reader?
Refer your friends to FEE’s spring and summer seminars between February 17 and 28. The top three people who submit the most referrals (who then apply for a seminar) will receive a signed hardback copy of Dear Reader.
Refer a friend to a FEE seminar here.