Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Glossy Turned Korea Into a Joke

Upon arriving in the western Siberian city of Omsk, North Korean leader Kim Jong-il restricted his outings to a library, a tank plant and a bacon-packing factory.

Had Kim been more inclined to hobnob with the locals, he could have met a middle-aged punk rocker who managed — in the politically stagnant early '80s — to turn Kim il-Sung's Stalinist regime into the butt of ridicule and satire.

The rocker is Yegor Letov, an Omsk native and leader of the radical punk band Grazhdanskaya Oborona, or Civil Defense, who authored the underground hit "Vsyo Idyot po Planu," or "Everything Is Going According to Plan" — a sort of Russian version of the Sex Pistols' impudent "God Save the Queen."

"I bought Korea magazine and it shows Comrade Kim il-Sung, and it shows that everything there is the same as here. And I believe that everything there is going according to plan," goes the song, which became an underground hit of the nonconformist generation of the 1980s shortly after its release.

"The song is about a man who comes home and switches on the television and hears that everything is going fine, but sees that [in reality] everything is in total collapse," Letov said in an interview.

It is no accident that Letov's song — which mocks the official, rosy portrayals of a dismal reality under communism — mentions Korea magazine, a propaganda glossy published by the Korea Publications Exchange Association and once sold in every newspaper kiosk in the former Soviet Union.

Published in a large format with high-quality printing, the magazine boasted colorful photographs of joyous collective farmer workers in green fields reading Kim il-Sung's books or physicians taking notes as Kim gives advice on performing complicated operations. Each picture was supplemented by captions like, "Students of a local high school singing a song on the success of the technological revolution in the village."

The absurd social realism of the magazine — no longer a feature of Soviet publications in the 1970s and 1980s — made it a cult publication among liberal intellectuals, who saw in Korea the kitsch of Stalinist times, without the pervasive fear of that epoch.

"I don't understand how the Soviet authorities, who persecuted people for having books by [Alexander] Solzhenitsyn, allowed the existence of such a die-hard anti-Communist satire," Ukrainian journalist Maryan Belenky wrote in an essay published in April as part of an Internet competition. "I believe this outstanding publication played a certain role in destroying the Soviet regime."

Although Korea magazine disappeared from the news stands around the start of perestroika and Russian libraries no longer receive free books on Kim il-Sung's famed philosophy of North Korean self-reliance, Juche, those who were once Korea fans still smile when they recall the magazine.

"I liked to look through the pictures," said Alexei Sokirko, a former space engineer and one-time avid reader of the magazine. "It was a good chance to feel nostalgia," he added, referring to the chance to imagine Soviet publications of the 1940s and 1950s.

Some even find Kim il-Sung's ideology relevant today.

"The ideas of Juche [meaning self-reliance] are very close to me, because many former Soviet people still live based only on self-reliance, since there is nobody to expect any help from," said Alexander Sklyar, the leader of popular rock band Va-Bank and a former diplomat who spent three years in the early 1980s at the Soviet Consulate in Chondon, North Korea's second largest city.

But Sklyar is not the least bit nostalgic about his time in Kim's land — especially when he recalls some of the philosophy's tragicomic consequences, like an attempt to launch a helicopter with a plywood propeller, which crash-landed after rising 30 meters into the air.

"Even then it [the accident] looked like a well-directed farce," Sklyar recalled.

But prominent nationalist philosopher Alexander Dugin regards Juche ideals with far less irony.

"We have plenty to learn from Korea — like having a sense of the greatness of one's motherland," Dugin said in an interview. "Those who laugh at Korea magazine are laughing at themselves. Those people suck, as Beavis and Butt-Head would say. I don't think that Juche ideas are any weaker than the ideas of globalization."