The Passing of Kim Jong-il: North Korea Still Mired in “Charismatic Politics”

By | December 17, 2012 | No Comments

North Korea, bucking the Weberian trend | Original Image: KCTV

North Korea, now under a 3rd Kim and still bucking the Weberian trend. | Original Image: KCTV

Kim Jong-il may have passed away, but his political style lives on. In the first of an anniversary collection musing on this and much, much more, SinoNK coordinator Roger Cavazos seizes on a must-read title and starts staring intently at the tea leaves. — Christopher Green, Assistant Editor

North Korea Still Mired in “Charismatic Politics”

Kwon, Heonik and Chung, Byung-Ho, North Korea: Beyond Charismatic Politics, Rowman and Littlefield, 2012. ISBN: 0742556794.

by Roger Cavazos

As Common as “Gangnam Style:” A Successful Succession | Over the last year, a refrain almost as common as “Gangnam Style!” has been that the preparation of Kim Jong-un to assume the role of boy-king was rushed compared to the process Kim Il-sung set in place for his own son. However, one argument has it that the process really began when the young man returned from school in Switzerland at the dawn of the 2000s; regardless of the veracity of that particular claim, all the indications are that Kim Jong-il’s preparations were indeed thorough enough, and that Kim Jong-un is secure in his role for between one and five years at the very least.

My colleagues have comprehensively addressed the key aspects of what Kim Jong-un has done to add to his burgeoning international rap sheet-cum-hagiography. However, there are also some key steps we haven’t seen yet, and should look for in the very near future (12-24 months). Lest we should forget, the Great Bereavement that followed Kim Il-sung’s passing was three years long, as tradition dictated that it should be. Kim Jong-il may have withdrawn from the public gaze for much of that spell, but his activities during it were manifold, and by 1997 he had completely assumed Kim Il-sung’s charisma and authority.

Using as our guide “North Korea: Beyond Charismatic Politics” by Kwon Heonik and Chung Byung-ho, and by extension employing the sociologist tones of Max Weber, Wada Haruki and Clifford Geertz, we can find some incomplete steps to watch out for as the theater-state, partisan-state amalgamation we call North Korea completes the “routinization of charisma” in the hands of the young man. In other words: lo! Like the three kings pursuing a star across virgin desert, some untrodden paths we should expect to see Kim Jong-un take as he completes the assumption of charisma.

Symbolic Transfer of Armed Revolution: Passing the Torch | Kim Il-sung was given two pistols as a gift when he was young. The guns solidified in Kim Il-sung’s mind, as did the all important Party raison d’etre narrative, that revolutions and struggles are armed. Later, Kim Il-sung gave the ten-year old Kim Jong-il a pistol in the middle of a bitter fight over a hill in the Korean War. (pp 85-86)

Has Kim Jong-il handed the reins to Kim Jong-un in the form of a pistol? Did we miss the transfer, or has that piece of history yet to be written? Or will last Wednesday’s successful missile launch act as a surrogate symbol of armed revolution passed from generation to generation as part of the “routinizing charisma” transfer? The symbolic transfer of armed revolution is clearly part of the script. If it’s missing, something’s amiss.

Demonstrating that one relishes armed revolution is primarily for a domestic DPRK audience, but is also a factor explaining the country’s relative insensitivity to their Chinese patrons’ concerns and desire to see a stable peninsula. Nevertheless, China, which abandoned much of the guerilla dynasty approach many years ago, likely has more of a binary on/off switch with North Korea rather than some finely tuned rheostat, and will likely not use the off switch unless the DPRK crosses some as-yet uncrossed red-line.

Cultural Productions: Let the Shows Begin | Clifford Geertz theorizes that the “theater state”  has long been the mechanism for bringing the origins of North Korea as a partisan state from past to present, and so it continues. The concept relies heavily on performance art such as Arirang, Sea of Blood, Flower Girl, etc and other forms of artistic production that can be portrayed as “gifts” for the people and “gifts” of a filial son to his antecedents. Kim Jong-il played a major role in creating previous “gifts,” many of which had some artistic value; however, the truly important value was political, that of sublimating Kim Il-sung’s authority in order to transfer “charisma” to Kim Jong-il. This was an important step in “routinizing charisma.” (pp 52, 57-60, 85-86)

Thus, we should expect to see some new art forms and/or nation-impoverishing extravaganzas that Kim Jong-un can present to his father and to the state in the next year or two. Statues are important, but are not the same as involving the populace in the way performance art does. Is this what the Moranbong Band is about? If it is really a gift, then Kim will have to work hard to make it more like a Webber and Rice and less like a theme park side show, but the seed of an idea is there.

Political Literacy: Reading the Signs | Increasing political literacy has long been part of of “routinizing charisma”. Kim Jong-un may have mandated an extra year of schooling to ensure political literacy, though it wasn’t advertized as such. Sonia Ryang teaches us to decipher North Korean semiotics and why a logocentric fundament approach is so important  in “Reading North Korea: An Ethnological Inquiry.”  What, precisely, the North Koreans plan to teach during that extra year of mandated education is thus of great interest.  How they propose to pay for it is interesting as well, of course, since simply printing more money is an inflationary step easily measured in the prices of goods and services. Mind you, one may say it is unclear whether delaying the entry of an entire cohort of students into the marketplace by a year will translate into lost production in any case, given that the North Korean economy is already in a shambles.

Close Encounters: On the Spot Guidance | Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il were ethereal, larger than life figures, but they deigned incarnations and encounters with their people – throughout the country – as something desirable to convert every square inch of Korea, even the rural areas, into political space. (pg 59)

Kim Jong-un seemed to have been pressing the flesh like he was running for office early on, but now seems firmly rooted in Pyongyang, no longer enamored of the swarthy peasants. Getting out of Pyongyang means leadership movement, but this should not be a consideration. At least one of the takeaways for the regime’s wildly successful deception and denial program, the same one that allowed them to launch when everyone thought it was unlikely, is that intelligence agencies tend to miss their movements across half the peninsula.

However, whether he fears his own countrymen and therefore doesn’t travel outside Pyongyang is another matter. If so, he may be in trouble. The point is, we need to see Kim Jong-un step up his “on the spot guidance” visits soon. Making mountains come to Mohammed leaves a peninsula full of prairies, and it only takes a single spark to set the prairie ablaze, as Mao is apt to remind those who would create prairies.

Holding Up Half the Sky: Kim Jong-suk’s Role | The Kim Jong-suk campaign isn’t new, but there has been a resurgence since she’s the bridge to old partisan campaigns against Japan. (p 59)

No one can fill Kim’s role, so we should not expect a Ko Young-hee or Ri Sol-ju campaign of such weight. Ever. If we do see one, we’ll know there’s a major historical revision afoot; but, inevitably, we won’t know why for a while.

However, one option made available by Ri Sol-Ju is that of cementing the role of Kim 4.0.  She may soon be with child at a time that would make the 101st birthday gift of a great-grandson a possibility. Having a Kim 4.0 heir also effectively chops any other branches in a neo-Confucian society that heavily values primogeniture.

Spiritual Leader: Reinvigorating the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) | Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jong-il wanted to be seen as the spiritual leaders in a post-colonial world.  They show off gifts from “friends far and wide” in their major showcase of gifts from around the world. (pg 59)

We have already seen some of this in Southeast Asia and elsewhere, and should expect an increased pace of visits and agreements with various other states. In rapid succession North Korea has signed on with Iran, Cuba, Nigeria, Mongolia and Kuwait, following on from Indonesia and Singapore.  There are business aspects; raw materials, markets, ports that sort of thing, and there may also be a sub-text of setting up a string of locations that would make for convenient ground stations for DPRK satellites, since many of the agreements have been broadly “scientific” in nature. But the more important point is for those countries to recognize the Kim family’s greatness.

Conclusion | Kim Jong-un’s birthday on 8 January should be a full-on national-level production, and may be capable of showing us what kind of path the filial son is prepared to tread in order to see to fruition the routinization of charisma. Sometimes his steps will be broadcast, sometimes we will have to rely on rumor mills, and sometimes we’ll even have to brave the eye-glazing KCNA.  No matter the modality, SinoNK will train our senses on these developments and bring them to you.  This will be Kim Jong-il’s first time crossing the desert, and although he’s not the first Kim to venture forth, it won’t be easy. He’d hate to be the last. Journey with us as we follow that star.

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