In My Father’s House There Are Many Bunkers: Assessing the Kim Jong Un Speech

By | May 13, 2012 | No Comments

Kim Jong Un’s pre-centennial speech to the WPK, admonishing the functionaries to hold his grandfather and father — now the eternal General Secretary of the WPK — in high esteem, occurred in what are anything but thriving times.  In North Korea, such behavior is the continuation of an old tradition.[1]  The April 15 speech, analyzed by Adam Cathcart in this installment, points toward various histories after which Kim Jong-un is modeling his public persona. – Steven Denney, Assistant Editor

In My Father’s House There Are Many Bunkers: Assessing the Kim Jong Un Speech

by Adam Cathcart

Amid the upsurge in mobilization in North Korea, ground-level cells of the Korean Workers’ Party are working to overcome logistical, material, and caloric deficiencies while praising the Army as the primary means through which national prosperity will be achieved. Schoolchildren and nominally Christian groups were recently modeled in Wonsan for their contributions to the KPA’s new armaments, and Generals like Chae Ryong-hae, 62, a man on the rise, are making their own glorified on-site inspections of parks littered with new monuments. (One of the main overlooked points of Kim Jong Un’s recent explosion at Fun Fair was its conclusion: that responsibility for such laggard enterprises might need to be given over to the more responsive Korean People’s Army, a point which was more or less followed up upon in a Saturday editorial in Rodong Sinmun.)

At the core and orchestrated center of this state-driven activity is Kim Jong Un, who, as we learned a month ago, is capable of reading a text.  Stephan Haggard and Jaesong Ryu have given some thought to the speech’s use of North Korea’s unique leadership terminology; this essay aims to go further in excavating the roots of the document and what it intended to convey to its various audiences.

Posing Kim Jong Un as Master of the Mythos  |  In a recent, absolutely essential, overview of April propaganda in the DPRK, Vienna University professor Ruediger Frank asks a very troubling question: “Could it be that Kim Jong Un…lacks an understanding of how his own system functions? “  Is it possible that overemphasis on “Kim Jong Il-style patriotism” represents a displacement of Kim Il Song and the rock of legitimacy which this represents?

Consider the following data from the April 15 speech. Kim Il Song may indeed be the model for the new successor’s public image, but the lion’s share of the leadership references are indeed shared.  Not visualized is the data that 11 of 16 references to each Kim were joint: that is, Kim Jong Il and Kim Il Song were often treated more or less as the same entity:

The speech was intended to signify Kim Jong Un’s grasp of the KPA tradition and position himself as the just and correct inheritor of those two Mausers which, in North Korean myth, were the germ of revolt against Japan and the basis for an army that eventually became large enough that one needed NASA photos to see the whole thing snaking through Pyongyang.

The Speech |  As will surprise precisely no one, Kim Jong Un’s speech is being interpreted within the confines of the North Korean propaganda state as a signal victory for the North Korean leader, the people, the state, the army, and their common future.

Both KCNA and Rodong Sinmun have been beating the drums in various ways to use the speech as evidence of Kim Jong Un’s brilliance and – in a nice loop involving consciousness of outside media like AP, Huanqiu Shibao, and the Phoenix media group, all of which are now cited regularly in North Korean propaganda – used as “proof” that the outside world, too, sees Kim Jong Un as a strong hand at the wheel.

No one expects North Korea’s propaganda arm, guided by the ancient Kim Ki-Nam, a man who studied in Moscow in the 1950s and was an integral part of the previous two Kimist personality cults, to start conveying the essential content of anything particularly critical. There are, after all, monuments to be build and huge public budgets to be distributed for their manufacture.

Thus, while exceptional, Kim Jong Un’s injunctions for Party officials during his “weeding” episode already have been softened into more general calls to serve the people. What a surprise!  The main message to everyone is to work harder, or in the calcified argot of the state media, “give full play” to one’s sweat glands.

But criticism abounds, especially among allied one-Party states, as can be seen from a survey of China’s burgeoning magazine market and its various articles about Kim Jong Un published after April 15.

Take the April 23 cover story of Nanfang Renwu Zhoukan (Southern Biography Weekly, connected to the ostensibly reformist group of journalists in Guangzhou).  The headline, “North Korea Enters the Kim Jong Un Era” is followed by a subtitle: “Kim Jong Un, a youth whose stature precedes his experience, occupies the third generation at the pinnacle of national power. Does he or does he not really wield power, and to what extent can he implement his own agenda?”

Open doubts about who is running the show, particularly on the cover of a national news magazine, does not represent a worldview to which the DPRK wishes to allow purview, except maybe among the occasional Marxists in Ontario, Canada, who continue to quite earnestly insist that North Korea runs “three-party elections.”

Kim Jong Un as KPA Historian |  As Andrei Lankov reminds us in a new essay, there is a historical sub-context for nearly everything in the DPRK.

The most prominent aspect of the April 15 speech was its emphasis on history, particularly the history of the Army.

It was as if April 15, the anniversary of Kim Il Song’s birth, had become a stand-in also for February 8 and April 25, both regarded at various times as the Founding Day of the Korean People’s Army.  A basic study of the document reveals that of the 3100 words of the speech, about 1200 dealt in some way with the history of the KPA.

Not only that, but in the competition for bureaucratic supremacy, the statistics in Kim Jong Un’s speech clearly favored the Army.

Damning the Father with Slight Praise, Lifting Up Kim Il Sung’s Korea | It has been remarked by repeated commentators, and the North Koreans themselves, at the efforts being made to liken Kim Jong Un to his grandfather.[2]  An interesting aspect of both the speech and related propaganda is how this process effectively minimizes Kim Jong Il.  Take, for example, this KCNA dispatch:

DPRK People, Encouraged by Kim Jong Un’s Speech

Pyongyang, April 16 (KCNA) — Kim Jong Un, supreme commander of the Korean People’s Army, delivered a speech at the military parade on Sunday, President Kim Il Sung’s 100th birth anniversary.  His speech has inspired the Korean people with conviction of sure victory.

Pak Pong Ik, a war veteran, told KCNA: ["]The voice of the dear respected Kim Jong Un reminded me of the voice of Kim Il Sung, which I heard 59 years ago in a ceremony arranged in celebration of the Korean people’s victory in the Fatherland Liberation War (1950-1953). I have been waiting for a chance to hear his voice. In his speech I saw a bright future of the DPRK. Kim Jong Un is really a symbol of the strength of the DPRK and the destiny of Kim Il Sung’s Korea.["]

Paek Hwa Ryong, an officer of the Korean People’s Army, said:  “Listening to Kim Jong Un’s voice, I thought of General Secretary Kim Jong Il, who said, ‘Glory to servicepersons of the heroic Korean People’s Army!” in a military parade 20 years ago. Kim Jong Un’s concluding remark ‘Let us advance towards the final victory!’ will serve as the banner of the Korean people in building a thriving nation.”

Is the reference to Kim Jong Il’s single sentence at a public rally a means of equating him with Kim Il Song, or, does it merely make him look ridiculous?  And though statues are being built splitting the one into two, Kim Jong Il is shorter than his father in all the statues.

In the fourth paragraph of the Kim Jong Un 4/15 speech, we see, perhaps unintentionally, a similar slap at Kim Jong Il.  Whereas Kim Il Sung manifestly built the armed forces, Kim Jong Il is merely admired by them.  Kim Jong Un’s apparent ease with being filmed and public speech, and the successor’s damn-near ebullient first solo on-site visit in early January 2012 (emerging out of the old man’s shadow, as it were) would appear to indicate something of a subterranean loathing for the departed Dear Leader. That damn grey parka and fur hat have served their purpose and need not be worn again.

Of course, as a filial son, Kim Jong Un is correspondingly smaller than his dad, but perhaps this is how history works; red armies turn into red princelings.  In another universe, Kim Jong Un is Bo Guagua, going to Humboldt University in Berlin and driving around in a black BMW. But in our world, the performance continues.


[1] In a similar spirit, in his “Speech at the Meeting of Active Industrial Workers” on March 3, 1975, North Korea’s baketu-born founder Kim Il Sung, in addition to putting forth his idea of the “three revolutions” and admonishing all workers to increase industrial output, set a precedent for speaking in public during trying times – 1975 being the year of the “great divergence” on the Korean peninsula.   – Steven Denney

[2] Speeches aside, it also appears that the youngest in the Baektu bloodline is shaping his outwardly appearance like that of his grandfather’s as well.  Close shaven behind the temples with the hair slicked back, Kim Jong Un is not only supreme commander, he is a trend setter. Shirking the olive drab for a dark grey Maoist suit, Kim Jong Un seems to have taken fashion cues from his granddad. In fact, the chubby cheeks and gregarious smile so closely resemble that of his grandfather’s that some have speculated the boy-dictator went under the knife of six plastic surgeons in order to “revolutionize his face” prior to taking the reigns. Perhaps the only thing he has in common with his father is their love for sports.  – Steven Denney

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