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North Korea: Beyond Charismatic Politicsby Heonik Kwon, Byung-Ho Chung
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This timely, pathbreaking study of North Korea’s political history and culture sheds invaluable light on the country’s unique leadership continuity and succession. Leading scholars Heonik Kwon and Byung-Ho Chung begin by tracing Kim Il Sung’s rise to power during the Cold War. They show how his successor, his eldest son, Kim Jong Il, sponsored the production of revolutionary art to unleash a public political culture that would consolidate Kim’s charismatic power and his own hereditary authority. The result was the birth of a powerful modern theater state that sustains North Korean leaders’ sovereignty now to a third generation. In defiance of the instability to which so many revolutionary states eventually succumb, the durability of charismatic politics in North Korea defines its exceptional place in modern history.
Kwon and Chung make an innovative contribution to comparative socialism and postsocialism as well as to the anthropology of the state. Their pioneering work is essential for all readers interested in understanding North Korea’s past and future, the destiny of charismatic power in modern politics, the role of art in enabling this power.
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North KoreaBeyond Charismatic Politics
By Heonik Kwon Byung-Ho Chung
ROWMAN & LITTLEFIELD PUBLISHERS, INC.Copyright © 2012 Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThe Great National Bereavement, 1994
For anthropologists, doing research normally entails a long immersion in the rhythms of everyday life in the society or community that they are attempting to understand. This includes a careful survey of the existing literature about the society, learning its language, and, when the time comes to do the fieldwork, making patient efforts to be accepted by the community so as to enter the dynamic, exciting milieu of communal cultural life. This established and cherished way of practicing anthropology cannot be applied to North Korea, however. North Korean society is one of the most sheltered and jealously guarded in the contemporary world; it is also an intensely proud political society and invests heavily in preventing outsiders from seeing anything that might make a negative impression. This is familiar to all foreign visitors to Pyongyang and elsewhere in North Korea, and it appears frequently in their reports and reminiscences. The situation is quite discouraging for anthropologists. The author of this book did fieldwork in the former Soviet Union and later in rural Vietnam. Although he became familiar, while conducting fieldwork in these places, with the state hierarchy's regulation of movement and investigative activity, this never approached the intensity of control over foreign visitors in North Korea. Coauthor Byung-Ho Chung has on a number of occasions visited North Korea as well as China's borders with North Korea since the mid-1990s. He also has had extensive humanitarian and research experience with North Korean youth migrants now settled in China and South Korea. However, like all other foreign visitors to this land, which is proud of its revolutionary heritage and its self-reliant economy and politics, he was always carefully taken care of by the minders assigned to him by the authorities and had few chances to get to know ordinary North Koreans. Yet, even in a highly controlled society that allows outsiders very limited contact with the actual lived reality of its citizens, one experiences fleeting moments of revelation and catches glimpses of truth.
In Pyongyang, in the beginning of 2000, Byung-Ho Chung joined a South Korean humanitarian mission to North Korea and had an experience that left a lasting impression. After a series of meetings with the mission's North Korean counterparts about the impact of the country's food and health crisis on schoolchildren, members of the mission were invited on a tour of the city's important monuments, museums, and memorials (most foreign visitors to the reclusive country are expected to join in such a tour and pay respect to the sites). The group saw the imposing Tower of Self-Reliance, erected in 1982, and the new, sumptuous Mankyongdae Children's Palace, completed in 1989, before heading to a more recent memorial complex. Their North Korean guide was eager to make clear that all these monuments were built under the direction of Kim Jong Il and dedicated to the honor and authority of the nation's supreme leader, Kim Il Sung. The guide also explained that the more recent monuments built after the death of Kim Il Sung in 1994 arose out of the Dear Leader Kim Jong Il's profound respect for the eternal memory of the Great Leader Kim Il Sung and that the sites can only be fully appreciated with the knowledge that they demonstrate the Dear Leader's sublime filial piety toward the nation's founding father.
After the visit, Byung-Ho Chung had a chance to walk alongside the guide away from other members of the group and accompanying North Korean officials. He asked the guide how people in North Korea managed to complete such large memorial projects during such a difficult time. He did not have to explain what he meant by a difficult time, knowing that the guide would understand he was referring to the time of the Arduous March—the North Korean name for the period of extreme energy and food shortages that devastated the country during the second half of the 1990s. The famine and accompanying epidemic crisis reportedly killed more than half a million people (some reports claim up to 2 million victims). Upon hearing the question, the guide turned his head, looked at the memorial tower dedicated to the late leader, and said, "For us in North Korea, the thing that really matters is politics. The economy is nothing compared to politics. We are ready to endure hunger and sacrifice our lives for politics if necessary." Upon hearing this explanation, Byung-Ho Chung wished to say something back to him but did not know how to articulate his thoughts. He could not find the words to continue the conversation, which in any case was interrupted when a North Korean official approached. Back at the hotel, he wondered what the middle-aged man meant by "politics" and how to make sense of this meaning within the generally accepted meaning of politics in the outside world. He also pondered the sudden change of tone and the look on the face of the guide when he spoke of politics, wondering whether that abrupt change related in any way to a hidden story about North Korean politics—its unspoken, unspeakable consequences for human lives and relations.
The man in Pyongyang is not the only person who tells of a conceptual antinomy of politics versus economy or a concept of politics that takes on such a supreme moral value that the pain of hunger and the tragedy of mass death can be justified. The same radical notion of moral politics is a familiar subject in North Korea's official media and literary productions. Eminent South Korean anthropologist and veteran North Korea observer Lee Moon-Woong writes, "Anyone who took interest in North Korean society would have observed the fact that politics is an essential element in daily lives in North Korea and in integrating these lives into a whole. Politics in North Korea is a vital mechanism of mobilization to link and tie members of society with the totality of its political system. What then are the meanings of this politics?" The preeminence of politics also appears frequently in conversations with recent refugees now settled in China, South Korea, and elsewhere. Most of these refugees left their homes due to the food shortage and can be critical, some more so than others, of the North Korean administration for its failure to ensure the basic subsistence of the population. However, it is relatively rare for these people, particularly recent arrivals, to criticize the politics of North Korea as such. Some of these refugees underwent the harrowing experience of being forcibly sent back to North Korea after escaping to northeastern China in search of food. The returnees were liable to be fined, confined in reeducation camps, or even physically abused, sometimes severely, at the hands of the security forces. In the view of the North Korean administration, placing economics, or anything else, before politics is a sign of selfishness and constitutes a serious and punishable weakness. That escaping in search of food is a public crime relates to the fact that it is criminal to think of anything before politics in the hierarchy of civic virtues and human values—or "[to care] about one's mouth before ideology," as a North Korean refugee we recently met in Brussels put it. Many North Korean refugees are aware that the core element of citizenship in North Korea is to respect the supreme virtue of politics and that failing to do so can constitute an act of betrayal or even treason. Another broadly related, recent example is the following remark made by South Korea's head of state on February 21, 2009: "I believe that a socialism that fails to provide daily meals to people is better to be abandoned." This offhand remark provoked some of the angriest reactions heard recently from North Korea, including the following: "We shall settle the scores with the band of traitors in most brutal and resolute manner."
What, then, is this "politics"—a politics that transcends economy? Why is it so vital to the lives of North Koreans? How do we make sense of this transcendental moral politics that exists before and independently of economic well-being and basic subsistence?
These questions are at the heart of any attempt to come to terms with the so-called enigmatic state of North Korea. The North Korean political system is unique in the world in that it has largely ignored the structural changes that have swept through most other former socialist states and societies since the late 1980s. Unlike other societies in the former Soviet bloc, North Korea did not experience the radical socioeconomic changes that observers of eastern and central Europe describe as postsocialist transition. Although there have recently been some limited, haphazard economic liberalization initiatives, mainly in relation to South Korea and China, North Korea is still a solidly single-party state (unlike former socialist countries in Europe) and still stubbornly adheres to a centrally planned and executed system of economic production and distribution (unlike other Asian socialist societies), be it functional or dysfunctional. Nor did North Korea follow the related yet different sets of changes associated with other Asian socialist polities, notably China and Vietnam. Unlike the latter, North Korea has not embraced a general move toward market economic reform, often called market socialism, and still less political reform toward a controlled social liberalization. In fact, its official media outlet sometimes accuses these streams of postsocialist transition of being treacherous. Because of its refusal (or inability) to embrace the predominant forms of postsocialist transition, North Korea has earned a reputation as a reclusive, isolated, and anachronistic polity not only among international actors in the liberal world but also among previous allies in the former Eastern bloc. North Korea itself seems clearly conscious of its public image in relation to the outside world. In the country's renowned public spectacle, the Arirang Festival, one of the most prominent recent messages sent to spectators (and the outside world) said, "Do not hope for any change in me!"
Despite this disclaimer, however, North Korea is clearly in a state of transition, as are all the other former members of the Eastern bloc. In a way, the need itself for public disclaimers against change indicates that a change is in progress. This view is shared by contemporary observers of North Korea, some of whom highlight changes in North Korea's economic organization and trade relations, particularly in urban areas and industrial zones and in the country's relationship with South Korea and China. Others emphasize the force of social change arising from below in opposition to the reluctant, confused administration, particularly regarding the distribution of food and other basic subsistence goods. If North Korea appears to be an unchanging, unchangeable actor on the international stage, it is probably because the changes the country is now undergoing are unfamiliar and therefore not easily perceptible to the outside world rather than because North Korea is truly defying change. In this sense, the declaration "Do not hope for any change in me" should probably be understood as "I am not going to change in the way you hope I will." The identity of this "you" to whom the statement is addressed is, of course, an interesting question. If North Korea is undergoing changes unlike those experienced by other former and existing socialist polities, an understanding of this change requires a more pluralistic understanding of the contemporary global processes and a departure from a perspective confined to the existing transitory forms, in light of which North Korea comes to stand as an outsider to the global process of postsocialist transition.
The inclusion of North Korea in any discussion of global postsocialist transition involves some conceptual difficulties, however. Of these difficulties, we would like to highlight the lack of attention to colonial and postcolonial histories in existing public and academic interests in postsocialist social and political transitions. Elsewhere, we have raised the point that the scholarship of postsocialist research is too narrowly focused on European examples and does not consider a broader comparative historical horizon. The history of socialist revolution has different ramifications and varying significance across regions; in a large part of the world, this history is thematically inseparable from colonial and postcolonial politics, which differ in significant ways from those in Russian or European experiences. The narrow, Europe-focused understanding of socialism and what comes after hinders the existing postsocialist research from engaging the broad scholarship of international studies and a comparative understanding of Cold War history.
The Cold War was a global conflict, but it was hardly experienced in identical ways worldwide. Although closely interrelated in the geopolitical imaginations of the superpowers, the bipolar conflicts in the European theater and in non-Western postcolonial regions were radically different. The Cold War in Europe was primarily an "imaginary war," consisting of competition in economic development, political organization, and war preparedness that made it possible to thwart the outbreak of actual wars such as those that had destroyed Europe in two world wars. In many postcolonial nations, however, the Cold War consisted of nonimaginary, actual wars, often following revolutionary upheavals and related domestic armed conflicts and other exceptional forms of organized political violence (often with heavy international intervention). For example, Mark Bradley writes that the political history of Vietnam's socialist revolution is not to be considered separately from the experience of devastating wars as part of a postcolonial transition involving protracted fighting by French and then American (and also Korean) forces. Bradley defines the Vietnamese revolution as the pursuit of a postcolonial vision of a fully independent, prosperous nation-state in the era of the Cold War. It follows that the nation's contemporary social transition, after the initiation of the doi moi reform, involves much more than a shift from one economic form to another, just as Vietnam's past historical struggle was not merely about realizing a particular economic order.
A similar point may be made—and indeed has been—about the political history of North Korea. In the view of the outside world, today's North Korea may appear to be a highly anachronistic political entity, unable to shake off the political ethos of the Cold War era and therefore incapable of joining postsocialist developmental streams. Prominent in the domestic political arena of North Korea are, however, issues of colonial and postcolonial history rather than those of Cold War bipolar history. North Korea stands out as unique among other existing or historical socialist polities, its political history having been shaped by a set of powerful postcolonial questions—questions that continue to shape the country's development today. In this book, we emphasize the fact that today's North Korea is a profoundly postcolonial polity—even more so now, after the breakdown of the Soviet empire, than in earlier years. The analytical significance of this argument is that, to understand modern North Korea, it is necessary to attend carefully to the political process in which colonial history and postcolonial rhetoric are being reinvented during the course of postsocialist transition.
The last point brings us back to the question of "politics" mentioned at the outset of this chapter and to the succession of power associated with this politics, that is, the political process after the death of Kim Il Sung in 1994 and, as we will show, the revitalization of colonial memory and postcolonial rhetoric that this process entailed. To consider this idea within the context of contemporary North Korea, it will be necessary to introduce briefly certain fundamentals of the North Korean political system. The idea of the preeminence of politics was invoked by the man in Pyongyang with specific reference to the town's monuments. Here, we focus the discussion on the country's public art and political aesthetics. From several recent scholarly attempts to define North Korean political culture, the concepts of the "partisan state" and "family state" stand out as having particular relevance to our discussion. Chapter 2 discusses another concept, the idea of a "theater state," which is meaningful for grasping how the partisan and family state ideas are interconnected.
Excerpted from North Korea by Heonik Kwon Byung-Ho Chung Copyright © 2012 by Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of ROWMAN & LITTLEFIELD PUBLISHERS, INC.. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
Heonik Kwon is professorial senior research fellow at Trinity College, University of Cambridge, and previously taught social anthropology at the London School of Economics. Author of several prize-winning books, including Ghosts of War in Vietnam and The Other Cold War, he currently directs the international project “Beyond the Korean War,” which investigates the history and memory of the Korean War in local and global contexts. Byung-Ho Chung is professor of cultural anthropology and director of the Institute for Globalization and Multicultural Studies at Hanyang University, South Korea. He has visited North Korea as well as China’s borders with North Korea on numerous occasions for humanitarian purposes. He also has conducted research into issues and concerns relating to the educational and social integration of North Korean refugees in South Korea.
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