Yesterday, the JoongAng Daily printed an column by me about my trip to NK. Here is the link and column is reprinted after the jump. This condenses my earlier thoughts on my trip and adds some political analysis.
In passing, I should say that I find the JA the best newspaper in Korea – and no, not just because they publish my stuff every couple months (although that helps) .
For readers who don’t know the Korean media scene, the JA is like the Economist in Korea – centrist, neoliberal, intelligently hawkish on foreign policy, sane on social issues. This is why I send my stuff to them. The biggest newspaper in Korea by circulation is to the right, the Chosun Ilbo. The third big paper is to the left, Hankyoreh. I find the Chosun ok, but sometimes it can sound like Fox News, and I dislike its obsessive, Korea’s-status-in-the-world-is-rising!!! nationalism. But the far-too-soft-on-Pyongyang Hankyoreh I frequently find downright disturbing, as it comfortably trafficks in the worst conspiracy theories like poisoned US beef in Korea or a cover-up of the Cheonan sinking. So if you are researching Korea, stick to the JA first, and then CI.
(So yes, my politics are broadly center-right, even though I seem to criticize the US GOP relentlessly on this site. One thing I like about SK is that its conservatives are in fact conservative, not radical, as the Tea Party made the Republicans. Generally speaking, I find the SK right to be responsible and moderate most of the time. That’s so refreshing. Don’t you miss having sane conservatives back home?)
Ok, here’s the op-ed:
“In April, Kim Jong Un referred to North Korea (NK) as the “Kim Il Sung nation.” This struck me as a preposterous exaggeration. Kim Il Sung (KIS) isn’t even alive any more, and the notion of a communist monarchy is a laughable oxymoron. Then I travelled to NK in August and learned that, rather than Marxist, Korean, or Confucian, NK really is the land of the Kims – a theocratic sun-king cult with few global historical precedents, and none in East Asia.
There is a large, inconclusive debate on the ‘real’ nature of NK. Neoconservatives see a gangster state, a known-proliferator of missiles and nuclear technology that routinely engages in drug-running, counterfeiting, and insurance fraud. Historians see a neo-Confucian kingdom manipulating Korean symbolism to legitimate itself against the ‘Yankee colony’ to the south, with a leadership based on patriarchal and mandarin Confucian tropes. Cold warriors see a typical, failed, cold-war stalinist half-country as in Germany or Yemen. Presumably the answer is some mix of all that, but what really struck me in-country was the personality cult. The way NK presents itself to its people is as, for lack of a better word, ‘Kim-land.’
The presentations on our trip were absolutely relentless, dogmatic, and undifferentiated on KIS’ role. Again and again, we were told of KIS’ leadership in completing some great task, where he stood, where he looked, pointed, smiled, walked, sat, wrote, ate, drank… Kim Jong Il (KJI) got attention too, but almost no one else in the 65 years of NK history. So slavish were the expositions that I asked semi-seriously if we would go to the KIS ‘bench museum’ to see things he sat on.
A typical moment came at the Pyongyang Metro Museum. Ostensibly built to demonstrate the construction of the Pyongyang Metro, it should have been called the ‘Kim Il Sung Visits the Metro’ museum, because it focused almost exclusively on Kim’s ‘on-the-spot guidance’ of the construction. Such guidance included laughable absurdities like, ‘the metro should have ventilation and flood control,’ because NK engineers were apparently so foolish that they thought a submerged, unventilated subway was a great idea until KIS told them otherwise. Phew – good thing the sun-king was around for that one. Even better, the seat on which he sat on his first metro ride had been cut out of the subway car and preserved under glass. And, in what can only be described as a KIS-cult version of Christianity’s ‘holy grail,’ a water ladle from which KIS had drank during the construction of the metro had been preserved and placed under glass. A 40-year old spoon that touched KIS’ lips is apparently a holy object now.
Location after location provided evidence of the ‘jesus-ization’ of KIS – the regime’s insistence that KIS is something akin to a divine presence. The NK constitution insists that he is the ‘eternal president.’ Huge murals, billboards, and statues are everywhere with KIS’ benevolent gaze shining down. At a bowling alley, the ball and pins KIS had bowled were sealed under glass, with his inscription above them and surrounded by flowers. Even his script is everywhere. KIS’ writing was regularly carved into walls, columns, and free-standing edifices erected just to record his insights. At the Juche Tower, admirers could leave dedicatory plaques praising NK ideology. Several gave up the pretense of juche, songun, or communism, instead stating simply ‘long live Kimilsungism.’ At the Three Revolutions Museum, a huge plaque noted that KIS had written 18,300 books. At Mt. Paektu, the regime’s exaggeration of KIS arguably reaches its apex. A huge complex of completely faked camps ‘verifies’ the wholly farcical notion that KIS fought the Japanese from Mt. Paektu and swept them out of Korea in an offensive. One can only think of Hitler’s famous line, ‘the bigger the lie, the more people will believe it.’ NK has ginned up an entirely bogus history solely to deify KIS.
I could go on like this for pages, but my concern is to suggest that we outsiders look at NK as the North Koreans themselves call it – KIS nation. To answer the ‘what is NK really’ question, I would say a royalist, absolutist cult. It felt like France or Russia before the revolution, when whether or not Louis XIV clipped his fingernails that morning was a more important political moment than whether or not peasants were starving somewhere. The dominant ideology is the personal awesomeness and perfection of KIS, as someone akin to a Korean Jesus Christ. Songun, juche, and the rest of it are just the trappings.
Intellectually this matters, because it differentiates NK from South Korea, from Asia generally, and from Marxist states. Confucianism certainly exalts both the father and the benevolent leader, but it does not have a deity and nor endorses untrammeled dictatorship. Nor did Asian religions lay the monotheistic groundwork necessary for theocracy (unlike in Christianity and Islam), and the Chinese emperor, while clearly a monarch, was never a god-on-earth divinity. Even Marxism would have trouble with ‘Kimilsungism’ because of its relentless godlike focus on one person instead of historical laws. No 20th century communist state pursued the personality cult as long and thoroughly as NK. Finally, it goes without saying that, despite its ‘Choseon’ propaganda, NK is scarcely ‘Korean.’ NK very obviously violates Korea’s political traditions of weak central authority, literati aristocrats (yangban), and secularism.
All this suggests an ideological frailty not usually discussed in the fears of NK economic collapse or nuclearization. KIS is everywhere, but he’s been dead now for almost twenty years. Time marches on, and no matter what the regime does, eventually KIS will become a distant memory – a frozen, mythic great leader. The personality cult of KJI was already a struggle and less convincing. KJI never equaled his father in (real or apparent) successes, like struggling against the Japanese or founding NK, and there aren’t nearly as many statues and such of KJI as there are of KIS. So is Kim Jong Un up to the task? I doubt it. People are mortal and can’t be institutions, no matter how powerful they are. At some point, the past is past, and nothing we saw told me that NK has a strategy for the future.
Robert E. Kelly is an associate professor of international relations in the Department of Political Science and Diplomacy at Pusan National University and a Senior Analyst at Wikistrat consulting. More of his work may be found at his website, AsianSecurityBlog.wordpress.com.