Historical Allegories and Revolutionary Credentials: Jang Song Taek

By | January 14, 2012 | 2 Comments

Kim Hyong Gwon | Image: KCNA

Kim Hyong Gwon | Image: KCNA

Kim Jong Un’s uncle, Jang Song Taek, prevalent in the ongoing discussions about who is wielding power in North Korea, now appears to be building up something of the beginnings of a personality cult himself, or at least, has succeeded in having public recognition of his role in today’s DPRK.  The evidence for this assertion is expressed in the obscure yet completely comprehensible topos of the North Korean revolutionary tradition wherein today’s KCNA carries a story about Kim Hyong Gwon, who attacked a Japanese police station in 1930 and who had “a brilliant life of a revolutionary faithful to the president.”

What does a revolutionary dead for nearly 80 years have to do with thte back-room power alignments in Pyongyang today?  Using Kim Il Song’s memoirs With the Century as a convenient guide, we can learn that Kim Hyong Gwon was not simply any old revolutionary, but was in fact Kim Il Song’s uncle.  His celebrated attack on a Japanese policeman in 1930 just so happens to have occurred when Kim Il Sung was 28 years old, the same age as Kim Jong Un today.

If allegory is the coin of the realm in the DPRK, the tale gets a bit deeper: Kim’s uncle associates Chae Jin Yong, a corrupt local official who had been driven to make money in Manchuria, and who, at the behest of hostile foreign powers, sells out the Kim family.  After describing Chae’s closeness to his family, Kim Il Sung wrote in his memoir:

Who could have imagined that this creature should have one day turned traitor? When I learned that Chae Jin Yong had turned informer against my uncle, I could hardly believe my ears. Even now I say it is good to believe in people but that it is mistaken to harbor illusions about them. Illusions are unscientific things, and if one harbors illusions, one may commit an irreparable mistake no matter how perceptive one may be (Kim Il Song, With the Century, p. 229).

The appearance of a prominent news item about Kim Hyong Gwon is about as close as we are likely to get at public acknowledgement of Jang Song Taek’s own independent efforts, or the efforts of those around him, to find a historical analogue, and to find a place for him in the regime’s mythos.  That this story — essentially an attempt to buff up the current uncle’s credibility by referring to the long-dead uncle, just as Kim Jong Suk, who died in 1949, serves contemporary purposes — is coming out so early in the Kim Jong Un reign seems to indicate a certain impatience in the ruling elites to cede all leader-glorifying activities to Kim Jong Un alone. And Kim Il Sung’s warnings about possible treachery within — after all, when was a culture of purges ever truly content with its own work? — seems more relevant than ever.

Citation: Kim Il Sung, With the Century (Pyongyang: Korea Friendship Association, 2003).  <http://www.korea-dpr.com/lib/202.pdf> (Note: the upload is large [7.2 MB] but worth it.]

2 Comments

  1. North Korean propaganda has long feted Kim Hyong Gwon (talking decades). How is this latest report different, in terms of language, timing, and coverage (domestic v. externally-oriented media)? The assertion that it might be related to building the cult of Jang Song Thaek depends on how it lines up with precedent.

  2. Kim Hyong Gwon also shows up in With the Century. To my knowledge, this recent “upswing” (detailed mention) is the first since Kim Jong Un’s elevation, and thus of particular note. I don’t recall if in the essay I cited one or two which appeared in KCNA in 2009 and 2011. The STALIN research tool on NKnews.org would be one rather simple way to track electronic references.

    I also think there is quite a bit going on by way of signalling in DPRK song culture which I am also trying to unravel, but have seen virtually zero songs about this particular person (by the same token, I have yet to get examples of Kim Jong Suk-related songs, of which there are surely handfuls).

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