North Korea is Kim-land
No 20th-century communist state pursued the personality cult as long and thoroughly as North Korea.
In April, Kim Jong-un referred to North Korea as the “Kim Il Sung nation.” This struck me as a preposterous exaggeration. Kim Il Sung isn’t even alive any more, and the notion of a communist monarchy is a laughable oxymoron. Then I traveled to the North in August and learned that, rather than being Marxist, Korean or Confucian, the country 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 North Korea. 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 legitimize 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 North Korea 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 Kim Il Sung’s role. Again and again, we were told of his leadership in completing some great task, where he stood, where he looked, pointed, smiled, walked, sat, wrote, ate, drank .?.?. Kim Jong-il got attention, too, but almost no one else in the 65 years of North Korean history. So slavish were the expositions that I asked semi-seriously if we would go to the Kim Il Sung “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 North Korean engineers were apparently so foolish that they thought a submerged, unventilated subway was a great idea until Kim Il Sung 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 Kim-cult version of Christianity’s “holy grail,” a water ladle from which Kim Il Sung had drunk during the construction of the metro had been preserved and placed under glass. A 40-year-old spoon that touched his lips is apparently a holy object now.
Location after location provided evidence of the “Jesus-ization” of Kim Il Sung - the regime’s insistence that he is akin to a divine presence. The North Korean constitution insists he is the “eternal president.” Huge murals, billboards and statues are everywhere with his benevolent gaze shining down. At a bowling alley, the ball and pins he had bowled were sealed under glass, with his inscription above them and surrounded by flowers. The founding father’s writing was regularly carved into walls, columns and freestanding edifices erected just to record his insights.
At the Juche Tower, admirers could leave dedicatory plaques praising North Korean ideology. Several simply gave up the pretense of juche, songun or communism, stating “long live Kimilsungism.” At the Three Revolutions Museum, a huge plaque noted that Kim Il Sung had written 18,300 books. At Mount Paektu, the regime’s exaggeration of Kim arguably reaches its apex. A huge complex of completely faked camps “verifies” the wholly farcical notion that he fought the Japanese from Mount 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.” North Korea has ginned up an entirely bogus history solely to deify Kim Il Sung.
I could go on like this for pages, but my concern is to suggest that we outsiders look at the country as the North Koreans themselves call it - Kim Il Sung nation. To answer the “what is North Korea 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. The dominant ideology is the personal awesomeness and perfection of the leader, 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 North Korea 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 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 North Korea. Finally, it goes without saying that, despite its “Choseon” propaganda, North Korea is scarcely “Korean.” It 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 alongside fears of the North’s economic collapse or nuclearization. Kim Il Sung is everywhere, but he’s been dead now for almost 20 years. Time marches on, and no matter what the regime does, eventually he will become a distant memory - a frozen, mythic great leader.
The personality cult of Kim Jong-il was already a struggle and less convincing. He never equaled his father in (real or apparent) successes, and there aren’t nearly as many statues and such of Kim Jong-il as there are of Kim Il Sung. 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 North Korea has a strategy for the future.
* The author 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 Web site, AsianSecurityBlog.wordpress.com.
by Robert E. Kelly