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North Korea: Witness to Transformation

Summer Reading IV: Kwon and Chung’s North Korea: Beyond Charismatic Politics

by | August 8th, 2012 | 07:00 am

We are decidedly consumers rather than producers of work on North Korean culture, so caveat emptor. But given the tremendous effort the regime devotes to propaganda, we find it useful to read what is being written on the ideational as well as political and economic aspects of the regime.

Heonik Kwon (Cambridge) and Byung-ho Chung’s (Hanyang) North Korea: Beyond Charismatic Politics locates itself in the arcane academic literature on postcolonial states, trying to figure out if and how North Korea is distinctive. They note that it is distinctive in the unusual triumph of home-grown ideas over imperial ones. They thus focus on the Weberian dilemma of how to sustain charismatic authority. They argue the regime did so by fusing the concepts of ch’ung—loyalty to the sovereign in the public sphere—with hyo–the filial piety traditionally confined to the domestic sphere of kinship—and stretching this fusion across generations.

Focusing largely on the post-1994 period, the book has a chapter on the “theatre state”—following Clifford Geertz’s classic on Indonesia—that details the purposes of the Arirang games and the political use of earlier films such as The Flower Selling Girl and Sea of Blood.  An interesting chapter on songun notes that the concept had a strong international dimension. As the North Korean leadership watched the Soviet Union collapse, it reached the conclusion that the failure was a result of the party losing control of the military. This is a wonderfully naked interpretation of the collapse of the Soviet Union, even if almost certainly wrong. But the collapse created an opportunity; that North Korea would pick up the mantle of global socialist leadership. This role was re-enforced to the North Korean public through its endless display of the gifts the world showered on the Great and Dear Leaders (Chapter Five).

All visitors to Pyongyang complain that visits to the capital are nothing but a succession of monuments; Kwon and Chung provide an analysis of the Graves of Revolutionary Martyrs and the creation of a maternal icon in the various statues and paintings of Kim Jong Suk.

In a final substantive chapter on moral economy, Kwon and Chung detail the effort by the regime to show that all goods are ultimately gifts from the leader, creating dependence on the part of the recipient. How, exactly, did the great gift givers avoid blame for the Arduous March of the famine years? In a clever twist, the leadership treated the hardship that it had itself created as an opportunity to show loyalty to comrades—and the regime—in the face of adversity.

It is hard to subsume the complex North Korean propaganda effort into a single, coherent paradigm; Kwon and Chung themselves cycle through a number of different ways to think about the North Korean state (postcolonial, partisan, familial, theatre). in a way, the book shows how ad hoc, Gerry-rigged and contradictory the ideological order is. But its wrong to dismiss the theatre state as incidental to any understanding of the political order and Kwon and Chung provide good introductions to many of the pieces.