Michael Malice: Kim Jong Il’s unofficial ghostwriter

Despite humor, book on North Korean absurdities has a serious message
February 11th, 2014

If some of the stories that the North Koreans told their people about Kim Jong Il’s life are true, Michael Malice jokes that everyone in the country would have to be “high-functioning learning disabled.”

He points to a story he read from 1982, when the Dear Leader was presiding over the construction of the Tower of the Juche Idea in Pyongyang.

“In the books they say he came up with the idea to make it the tallest tower, which no one had ever thought of previously,” he said. “Are you telling me these other architects never considered making it the tallest? Like, do they have learning disabilities?”

He recalled sharing this thought with a North Korean refugee he met in New York, saying that she “was laughing so hard she was crying.”

Malice ghostwrites celebrity autobiographies for a living – he’s written autobiographies for all kinds of eccentric characters: a professional wrestler, a rock singer and a comedian, among others. But in his new book, Dear Reader, he said he’s created a whole new genre of literature: the “unauthorized autobiography,” and has written the life story of late Dear Leader himself, Kim Jong Il.

“I can’t take credit for the idea,” he told NK News, crediting a friend with suggesting that he turn his skills to Kim Jong Il.

The subject matter of the book being dead presented something of a problem, though, so Malice traveled to North Korea, an experience he wrote about for Reason magazine. Malice, born to a Jewish Ukrainian family in the USSR, turns serious when recounting the experience of going into the North, and finding himself crying on the plane flight back to New York on the way out.

“I realized it was a case of survivor’s guilt,” he said, “because I am Jewish and from the Soviet Union, so those were two chances for me to be kind of rounded up and sent away, and the fact that I escaped that and my ancestors escaped that and the people in North Korea have not, kind of really hit home.”

Malice returned from North Korea with a suitcase of books written by and about Kim Jong Il as source material, incorporating the state propaganda into the book. After taking his idea to his publishers, though, they quickly dismissed it as “too wacky,” so he decided to go to the people directly, “just as Kim Jong Il would have wanted.” Seeking donations for his project on Kickstarter was a success, as Malice raised $31,548 so he could take time off to write it.

“I’m a man of the masses!” he said, joking.

But the book, despite highlighting the often-amusing eccentricity of North Korea’s infamous personality cult, has a serious message, and Michael swiftly realized that the reality of North Korea is no joke.

“It’s the absurd being presented with a straight face,” Malice said, highlighting the reaction to Dennis Rodman’s visits to the North in the past year. “The absurdity that there are concentration camps on earth, right now, that you can see on Google Earth, and everyone’s more concerned about a f—ing basketball player.”

And he hopes that the new book will make a difference in how North Korea is understood.

“I write books to entertain,” he said, “and there’s nothing wrong with that and I’m very proud of everything I’ve done, extremely proud. But when I die, I want to be able to say I did what I could in my meager way to shift the needle in North Korea.”

Much of Malice’s ire is directed towards those he sees as dehumanizing the North Korean people – pointing to a recent article which described female members of the military as “Kim Jong Un’s Mini Skirted Robot Army.”

“To refer to them as robots to literally dehumanize them,” he said, “and I don’t think that reporter had malevolence, he was oblivious. These girls have crushes, they gossip with their sisters, they get in fights with their big brother, so to refer to them as robots is exactly what I’m fighting.”

“That’s why I bring up their sense of humor,” he said. “I always bring up the normality because it’s so easy to otherize them. Until these people are recognized as victims and not as pawns, I don’t see help coming to them.”

When asked about how he sees North Korea, and why the country has survived where international communism failed, Malice cites B.R Myers as a North Korea watcher he agrees with.

“They don’t identify as communist anymore,” he said. “One of the things I bring up in the book is that they are much closer to fascism, with regard to the xenophobia, extreme racism, the ultra-nationalism and the racial purity.”

“If you’re comfortable with 10 percent of your population starving, then it’s going to be very, very difficult to get you out of power,” he said.

There is a method behind the madness, Malice argues, and the method lies in the transition and grooming of Kim Jong Il to succeed his father, and the attempt by North Korean propagandists to equate Kim Jong Il with his war hero father.

“If we thought he was great to begin with we wouldn’t need all these reminders of his feats,” he says, “so they serve a very real purpose.

“People don’t have the context to understand where these crazy stories come from.”

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About the Author

Oliver Hotham

Oliver Hotham is an NK News contributor based in London. He has previously worked at the Sunday Times and politics.co.uk.