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Monday, January 9, 2012

Stranger Than You Think: The North Korean Worldview

The earlier entry was more of a gut response than a post. It's just that whenever I see Jong Il's pudgy mug, I get a visceral reaction. But I have to say that in the wake of the death of Kim Jong Il and the elevation of Kim Jong Un to being the new leader of that regime, it's a bit irritating to watch the repetition of English-language media figures on CNN using words like "Stalinist" and "mysterious" to describe North Korea.

The public outbursts of emotion are weird, yes (and a lot of it is surely coerced or, at least, rehearsed for tv) but Korean funerals supposedly involve lots of dramatic weeping. The paeans to the Dear Leader are comically over-the-top, produced as if there was no such thing as irony (Kim Il Sung was also said to have died of 'over-work' in '94 as well). But North Korean propaganda makes a bit more sense if you have an idea of the regime's self-image and the cultural context which provides the raw materials from which its propaganda gets derived. Only then, can you appreciate that it's even more strange and more disturbing than at first glance. What's also unnerving is that now the regime has been thrown into a crisis unlike any that they have experienced before.

Waves on rocks is a favorite NK motif, representing firmness against the outside world.

From Bill Clinton's 2009 trip to Pyongyang; note the background.

A personality cult is what results when a dictatorship needs to portray itself as embodying the will of the people. Some of the more ludicrous stories of this particular personality cult are rooted in their propagandists' need to reconcile internal contradictions. For example, on the one hand, they've always wished to portray the three Kims (Il Sung, Jong Il and now, the new kid Jong Un) as military geniuses and technical experts. But, on the other hand, they don't wish them to model politically-undesirable traits such as reading books or critical thinking.

How to square this circle? Well, in the late '40s, some inventive functionary must've stood-up at the committee meeting to announce: "Aha, I've got it! Great Leader's genius comes spontaneously! Without books or thinking!"

So now, the howlers about Kim Jong Un's resumé and Kim Jong Il's golf game are still pretty silly but... not wholly inexplicable. It comes out of a need to portray him as a genius who paradoxically represents the virtue of not using your brain.

Here's another example: when Americans are portrayed in NK media, U.S. missionaries are a favorite target, second only to U.S. soldiers. Supposedly, these missionaries once roamed around the peninsula, torturing children and injecting them with germs.

The story 'Jackals' (1951) was about the depredations of U.S. missionaries; it was simultaneously re-released in 3 NK magazines in 2003, just before the Six-Party Talks began.

What's up with that? Well, it seems that lurid tales of U.S. missionaries torturing Korean children stems from a number of peasant rumors back in the late 19th century. This meme apparently still carries some resonance today and it dovetails with NK's near-total suppression of religion. Okay, so now you have the context which makes this item seem a bit less inexplicable.

The fact of the matter is-- and I don't know how to say this without sounding a bit puffed-up-- at least 95% of the people in the English-language media who discuss North Korea are unqualified to talk about the subject. In part, they're unqualified because they don't appreciate the depth of the regime's demented worldview. They just sort of present it like: 'Jeepers, isn't this vicious government so strange'?

How fortunate that Kim's guerillas could fight in the woods with clean, crisp uniforms.

Actually, they're a lot worse than that.

There are some books which can help provide background: Kim Il Sung by Dae Sook Suh, The Cleanest Race by B. R. Meyers, and the portion of State and Society in Contemporary Korea by Bruce Cummings. (With Cummings, it's helpful to remember he's a former New Left UC Berkeley dude who seems to have a soft-spot for the regime's pluck.) Also of interest are the journal North Korean Review and, for current events, the website Daily NK.

First of all: North Koreans don't refer to their country as Hanguk (Korea). They call it Choson, referring to the name before its annexation in 1910 (or 1905, depending on the version). North Koreans don't say Hanguksaram (Korean person) or Hangukmal (Korean language). They say Chosonsaram and Chosonmal instead. This particular nuance might be lost in English, but the Chinese and Japanese languages acknowledge it because they use the characters for Choson (朝鮮) instead of Hanguk (韓国) whenever they refer to the place or mark it on a map. (Conversely, NK media puts the word "Hanguk" in scare-quotes because it's supposedly an American colony with no legitimate standing.)

'Choson' is written right there on the missile.

This isn't trivial. What this means is that domestic propaganda aimed at North Koreans urges them to identify themselves as the direct continuation of a centuries-old monarchy which was temporarily interrupted by the annexation and subsequent partitioning. The self-image is not that of a recently-formed regime; they identify themselves as the continuation of an old, enduring one. One that has always been there, one that has always held the outside world at bay and one that will always be there to hold the outside world at bay.

Second: 'Juche' is unhelpful in understanding the place. Many of the backgrounders you see about North Korea mention its vague, quasi-religious ideology, Juche, which involves an emphasis on national self-reliance. The word means 'main body' or 'main subject,' and there are various treatise written about it. But foreigners who visit that country note that English-speaking locals seem incapable of explaining Juche's specifics or answering many questions about it very well. Despite attending regular study sessions.

It's okay for monuments, but not much else.

The Kim personality cult pre-dates Juche by about 20 years; Juche emerged to buttress the cult. It is a collection of banalities and abstractions attributed to Kim Il Sung starting in the '70s as part of a campaign to make him into some sort of philosopher-king, like Mao Zedong or even like some ruler from the Goryeo dynasty. Juche reads like the kind of useless verbal flab in a padded college paper. It contains little that holds any mass-appeal.

In all probability, the Juche ideology is a bunch of BS which is used to impress the rural yokels, keep the urbanites occupied in study-sessions and misdirect the foreigners. So what's the appeal of the regime? Certainly not Juche.

For the missing piece, you need to check-out their florid and colorful domestic propaganda. Here's how Pyongyang appeals to its people when the foreigners aren't looking...

Third: North Korean propaganda takes an explicitly race-based worldview!

U.S. soldiers are always gaunt and pale, with sunken eyes.

This is the key. Not-so-veiled racial appeals are how the regime justifies its existence to its own people. In fact, I don't know why this isn't better-known in the English-speaking world by now. In a nutshell: The NK worldview is a Korean version of the ultra-nationalist Yamatoist kokutai blood-and-soil ideology inherited from Imperial Japan. (With a few modifications, of course.)

The Choson bloodline, or so the narrative goes, is the purest and most unblemished in the world, and the Kims embody this purity. Distilled to its essence, the regime of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea tells its own inhabitants:

"The Choson bloodline is so pure, it can only be protected by a heroic parental figure!"

Here's an example. Perhaps you've seen pictures of this place in news reports dealing with NK:

The Kim Il Sung Monument at Mansudae Hill.

During Japan's approx. 35-year occupation, Mansudae Hill was the location of a large Shinto shrine dedicated to the Japanese imperial lineage.

It is true that Japan tried to stamp-out Korean culture during those years, but a parallel effort was made to co-opt and absorb the Korean national identity. Throughout the '20s and '30s Japan asserted that the Choson bloodline was one and the same as that of the "divine Japanese race." Furthermore, a lot of Korean collaborators worked as propagandists in crafting this message.

After World War II ended, some of these same propagandists got brought-in by the North Korean regime. (They were not punished, contrary to what you might guess.) For the first year or so, they had trouble getting the story straight. By 1948, they picked-up the old narrative, kicked Japan out of the bloodline and added two new ingredients: communism and Kim Il Sung.

This is not a coincidence. Nor is the similarity between Mts. Fuji and Paektu.

So, among other things, the aforementioned Shinto shrine on Mansudae Hill was razed and the Kim Il Sung Monument was built on top of it. The new ideology picked-up where the old one left-off: the Kim dynasty stepped into Hirohito's shoes while waving a red flag. Critically, the core of the propaganda-- the purity of the Choson bloodline-- remained intact.

Rather than being like something out of eastern Europe (Soviet propaganda never claimed racial superiority; that was too Nazi), the paranoid and blood-based flavor of North Korean ideology is more like something from an Axis power. Surely, that's also related to the use of kamikaze rhetoric as well.

A supposedly typical day in the '50s under U.S. occupation.

In this genre, the Yankees (nom, "bastards") and Japanese (eo, "Japs") come-in for a special brand of dehumanizing vitriol. They do not "die" and they are not "killed." Cruder verbs analogous to "croak" and "rubbed-out" are used instead. Furthermore, in NK media, whenever foreigners speak to Koreans, they are portrayed using the politer word-forms. Like they are speaking-up to superiors. When Koreans respond, they use informal word-forms. To speak-down to subordinates.

It is a stark, race-based, paranoid worldview in which no negotiations can be had and no lessening of tensions can be allowed. In fact, the regime openly brags to its own people that it has no intention of honoring the treaties it signs. Pyongyang doesn't deny that South Korea is economically ahead; that's simply irrelevant because 'Hanguk' is allowing the national bloodline to be polluted.

Pounding fists are another favorite theme; the enemy is shown as flimsy toys or bugs.

Sure, this is real-life brainwashing but how many people actually buy-in to what the regime says? No one knows and this really is kind of a mystery. Maybe over a third? In Pyongyang, where only the most loyal people are allowed to live, the proportion of believers is surely the highest. (People in the NK Foreign Ministry really seem to believe it.) And yet, smuggled DVDs and videos of South Korean media are popular; the information barrier dissolved long ago. A lot of people surely know that the regime is propagating lots of untenable lies, but these people basically have guns pointed at the backs of their heads.

Finally, Here's what I find to be the darkest thing of all: NK propaganda not only uses kamikaze rhetoric, it mocks the USSR for it's "surrender" which happened "without a shot being fired." Then, of course, there is the fact that the regime barely changed course when the so-called Arduous March famine killed-off perhaps 5% of the population. In the last couple of years, the regime has stumbled pretty badly, but it keeps-on ticking somehow. This, and the succession presents a real challenge for their leadership. What this heavily suggests is that when the regime collapses (one day it will) it will not go quietly. Gigantic numbers of people could die very horribly. Maybe Battle of Okinawa horrible. Faced with the prospect of a serious Libyan-style collapse, I wouldn't be surprised if the government started nuking its own cities as some kind of last stand.

Whoever survives the regime is going to need a hell of a lot of understanding from the outside world.

Update: Turns-out that just this past week, the AP agency opened a full bureau in Pyongyang. It will be located in the same building as the KCNA, which is the bureau that produces the English-language press releases. One general rule of NK propaganda is: The farther away from what foreigners see, the more overt the regime's worldview becomes. Future AP reports from that bureau will probably not be more enlightening than what they are now.


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