Spiritual Tradition, Presentation and Power in the DPRK

3 10 2010

by Konrad Mathesius (Renlai Magazine, 30 Sep. 2010)

Snooping around for information on the DPRK isn’t really rocket science, but you have to read between the lines. With the Dear Leader, Kim Jong-il, in bad shape, both international and domestic media have been quick to cover recent shifts in power and the promotions of his son, Kim Jong-un. Taking into consideration the amount of energy that was invested in building up Kim Jong-il’s reputation as a gifted, nurturing and obvious choice for his father’s successor, it’s unnerving to think that the state has neglected to strike up an equivalent propaganda campaign for his son in DPRK media, nor has his inherent genius been lauded to the point of conviction. Considering the high levels of ideological indoctrination in the DPRK, the state seems to be neglecting necessary prerequisites for a legitimate leadership.

The state ideology, Juche, is often simplistically translated by one-time analysts as ‘self-reliance’. Others have mislabeled it a state religion. Based on these perceptions, the fear of instability is warranted. But despite the lack of fanfare surrounding Kim Jong-un, the true mechanism of power is likely to remain unchanged.

The state claims that Juche is based upon concepts developed by Kim Il-sung during his time spent as a guerilla in Manchuria. However, Juche wasn’t standard vocabulary until the early-to-mid 1960s when Soviet relations with their North Korean brethren cooled and Kim Il-sung was obliged to seek friends in the Third World. These ideas were then later refined by Kim Jong-il who published his contribution, ‘On the Juche Idea’, in 1982. There is a significant amount of debate surrounding whether or not the works of the Kims are original; nevertheless, these ideas touch on a number of socio-political subjects, with arguments based in ad hoc interpretations of history. The dichotomy that analysts often neglect to observe is between what was originally written as a guide to Juche, and how media coverage of the leadership and publications of their ideas have since conveyed the purpose of the State. On the books, Juche is political and devoid of overtly religious statements, but its presentation and the tone of the media support claims that North Koreans are living in a politically religious state.

[…] Since 1994, Juche has become less and less commonplace in the media, even though the state’s style and presentation has remained consistent. In need of military support following the death of his father and waves of natural disasters that wreaked havoc upon the population, Kim Jong-il was obliged to introduce Seongun Cheongchi, or military-first politics. It has come to dominate the slogan banners around Pyongyang although the occasional reference to Juche still manages to makes its way into the limelight. Slogans and policies reflect the shift from the old guard of the Korean Workers Party to the military. In addition to this, the rift between the party and the military seems to be growing.

[…] Kim Jong-un might be the face for the new regime, but the real decisions will be made by the two men pinned to the gills with medals standing on either side of him. If they outlive the Dear Leader, from what little information we will be able to gather on them, Hyon Chol Hae and Ri Myong Su are two potential regents to watch.

The State will continue to utilize spiritual concepts to prop up the leadership. Although somewhat uncreative and excessively repetitive, propaganda in the DPRK works as a well-oiled machine. Its word choice and methodology stem back to pre-DPRK times and will employ the same strategy to prop up the leadership in the future. To the disappointment of both China and pundits predicting the imminent collapse of the DPRK following the death of Kim Jong-il, the state will putter along as it always has. Although the people will still be reading about the New Leader’s ability to instruct farmers how to grow more crops or, say, his gifted talent in foreign literature, Seongun Chongchi will continue to dominate the ideological arena and the military will continue to enjoy an internal position of strength in relation to the Party and the Kim Family.

Konrad Methesius visitited North Korea as a member of the Internatiuonal Association for Contemporary Korea Studies delegation in 2007, and graduated from the Australian National University in 2008.

See the full text of this OpEd here…


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