Is He or Is He Not? Political Authority, Media Appearance, and the DPRK Leadership Question

By | May 20, 2014 | 5 Comments

Kim Jong-un in Samjiyon, November 2013. His grandfather, Kim Il-sung, can be seen looking on from behind. | Image: KCNA

Kim Jong-un in Samjiyon, November 2013. His grandfather, Kim Il-sung, can be seen looking on from behind. | Image: KCNA

Heads of state, even democratically-elected ones, are inevitably engaged in acts of theater. When Richard Nixon descended onto the Beijing Airport tarmac in 1972 to meet Zhou Enlai, the American President had note cards sewn into his blazer diagramming precisely how many steps he would take, the approximate timing of the military band’s songs, and (of course) the location of the cameras. Kim Jong-un’s apparently limitless self-confidence is likewise carefully stage-managed, and projected on a daily basis to the people of North Korea–at least those whose localities are provided with enough electricity to enable the watching of evening television news. To analyze Kim Jong-un’s mode of charismatic leadership, we must necessarily penetrate the application of theatrical principles.

In the following essay, Pekka Korhonen does that, and far more. Engaging with substantive assertions that Kim Jong-un is not, in fact, in control of his own state, the visiting professor at Kyoto University takes us on an impressive tour through imperial courts in Japan and Manchukuo, an armload of news reels from Pyongyang, the theories of Kenneth Burke, and a few Twitter feeds. It is an impressive performance by a scholar who has also positioned himself as one of the foremost analysts of the Moranbong Band. — Adam Cathcart, Editor-in-Chief  

Is He or Is He Not? Political Authority, Media Appearance, and the DPRK Leadership Question

by Pekka Korhohen

Kim Jong-un walks in a self-assured manner into the scene, say, the opening of the national parliament, and eyes the clapping crowd. Is he apprehensive? From a titular standpoint, he has no reason to be: Kim Jong-un appears as the absolute embodiment of the supreme leader of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), and, additionally holds a clutch of formidable titles. He is also the First Secretary of the Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK), First Chairman of the National Defence Commission of the DPRK, and Supreme Commander of the Korean People’s Army. He is addressed as the Supreme Leader, or as the respected Marshal. Accordingly, most external comment and analysis on North Korea uses a similar frame, conflating Kim Jong-un with the state and personalizing the DPRK in the young leader. Examples abound: the UN Human Rights Council’s Report of the Commission of Inquiry, Sheena Greitens’ “Illicit,”  and the US Congressional Research Service’s North Korea report, to name just a few. In all these sources, there is no space between Kim Jong-un and the state he purportedly runs.

Various analyses, such as Nick Miller’s recent effort, of the rapid change of personnel in publicly visible DPRK posts, however, point to the difficulty of this type of analysis.

To be sure, Kim Jong-un is something important, but we do not know exactly what. Stephan Haggard points out that in regard to North Korea, ”It is not only hard to get interpretations right; it is hard to get basic facts right.” Such a critique is clearly true; however, it is not enough to merely point out the problem. As facts make sense only within a sensible conceptual framework, we should also consider the analytical lens through which we observe events.

Kim Jong-un as Supreme Leader, and as Mere Figurehead  |  Haggard has done a skillful analysis of a number of theoretical forms with which to understand the leadership structure of the DPRK. However, his de facto position on the matter is that Kim Jong-un is what he seems to be, the supreme leader. Christopher Green, in an intellectually intrepid piece of analysis, treats Kim as a masterly player in the power games of the regime, systematically consolidating his power over rivals—but at the end Green semantically dismisses Kim Jong-un as a ”30-something, corpulent male… with an appalling haircut.” However, the political meaning of the corporeal being with the newly fashionable haircut is exactly the theoretically and practically interesting issue.

The counter-argument to treating Kim Jong-un as the true leader of the DPRK has been most extensively presented by New Focus International and its chief editor Jang Jin-sung in a series of articles in 2013 on December 20, December 23, December 27, and December 31, followed by yet another stream of articles during the spring, such as on March 7, 2014. The argument presented is that the Organization and Guidance Department (OGD) of the Korean Workers’ Party, its structure put in place by Kim Jong-il, holds real power, while Kim Jong-un, who never had the time to organize his own personal power base, is only a facade. North Korea thus has a power structure without a head. With the emergence of Jang Jin-sung’s memoir and his active work on the lecture circuit, this argument would appear to be primed for further expansion.

When examined epistemologically, New Focus presents an empirically based and logically constructed argument, while the idea of Kim Jong-un as the real supreme leader is only a presupposition. This presupposition appears so self-evident that few people actually see it necessary to defend it empirically. Analyzed this way, the New Focus argument is thus clearly stronger, the idea of Kim Jong-un as the true leader weaker; its strength lies only in the numbers of its espousers, and the ensuing constant repetition. Serious attention should thus be given to the New Focus International argument.

Perhaps the reason why belief in the supreme decision making position of Kim Jong-un is so strong is that Western political theory does not deal well with the idea of a religious political authority that does not hold actual power. The concept of dictatorship points to an active leader, who holds the reins of power in his hands, and does evil deeds. From Machiavelli’s use of Plato and Aristotle to modern theory, analysis of dictators tends to deal exclusively with active secular leaders. Even Hannah Arendt’s analysis of the “banality of evil” in her Eichmann in Jerusalem is premised on the vision of a dictator operating behind the scrupulous everyday work of wartime German bureaucrats.

A middle position in the debate on the actual position of Kim Jong-un would appear to be analysis premised on the concept of ”regents,” namely a group of older men handpicked by Kim Jong-il to help in transiting power to his son. However, after the execution of Jang Song-taek such analyses—including those of Zhang Liangui or Robert Marquand—now necessarily lead us to the conclusion that the regents are gone, and Kim Jong-un reigns supreme.

Seeking Leadership-Model Comparisons in Asia | In China, the prevailing domestic simile used in observing North Korea appears to be the period of Cultural Revolution, which was the pinnacle of Mao Zedong’s power. Although he in one sense appeared as a Kitchen God resembling the Kim dynasty now, and also stayed aloof from the practical running of state affairs, Mao remained the chief ideologist of China, and during the manifold crises of succession maintained his hold on supreme authority, especially on top-level personnel appointments. This simile easily leads Chinese analysts to take the same position with respect to contemporary North Korea as Western ones do, namely, to regard Kim Jong-un as the final authority. But to compare Mao (who spawned no dynasty) with the contemporary Kims is hardly an easy fit: There is a wide difference between a charismatic first generation leader and a young third generation monarch, who simply steps in to fill an empty space.

Looking further East for precedents, there certainly exists a Japanese theory about the mutual relations of religious and secular authority which could give a different perspective on the situation. Can a Japanese political theory be applied to North Korea? Not necessarily in the sense of B.R. Myers, who uniquely argues that during the colonial period the Japanese implanted a number of sinister aspects in Korea, and that North Koreans have since made them even more sinister.

So, to raise the parallel of Japan hardly tantamount to espousing the Myers argument. Simply speaking, North Korea is not sui generis in East Asia. The country has established a hereditary monarchical system, which creates, over generations, its own bureaucratic dynamics. In this regard, when seeking to understand Kim Jong-un’s place in his own system, the autobiography of Pu Yi is rather instructive. The Manchu royal succeeded in being the emperor of two states, China and Manchukuo, without ever holding any real power in either of them. He was utterly unable to reform even his own household bureaucracy. Yet, throughout all the imperial years everyone—except his Japanese controllers—around him treated him with the utmost respect.

Impotence in terms of power and reverence in terms of position were two sides of the same imperial phenomenon. Maruyama conceptualizes this type of monarchical rule in his classical study entitled Thought and Behavior in Modern Politics. According to Maruyama, the Emperor in Japanese history acted as the national focus of reverence, but he was essentially treated like a mikoshi (神輿), a portable shrine or palanquin used to transport Shintō deities throughout streets during religious festivals, with lots of commotion. The Emperor as a Deity established the legitimacy of rule in the state, but he did not hold practical power, which was in the hands of those who held aloft the palanquin, namely civilian and military Officials. They took care of the day-to-day decisions of the state.

The division of labor between the Deity and the Officials can be drawn in the following way. Officials take care of space, namely the territory, organization, and practical functioning of the state in a bureaucratic, anonymous manner. The Deity concentrates on the dimension of time, explicating in his person the ideological narrative of the state, from its mythical origins to its equally mythical future. He does not actually “act”, but as the physical embodiment of the temporal dimension of the nation he needs to be visible.

Graph depicting Maruyama's theory of the duties of the Deity and the Officials. | Image: Pekka Korhonen

Graph depicting Maruyama’s theory of the duties of the Deity and the Officials. | Image: Pekka Korhonen

Throughout the great extent of imperial rule in Japan, the main work of the emperor was simply to sit still cross-legged every day on a platform in the balcony of his castle in Kyoto, in the heat of summer and in the cold of winter, and be visible as a corporeal god. The Japanese took centuries to perfecting this kind of stable hereditary monarchy that lasted easily over a millennium.

My argument is that, with the help of modern propaganda technology, the North Korean leadership is attempting to create something similar. This process started already during Kim Il-sung’s time in the 1960s, and was perfected during Kim Jong-il’s period from the 1990s onwards. It is carried on now with Kim Jong-un – but with the difference that a Kim no longer fully controls the process. Of course eternity in politics can end suddenly, as demonstrated by Alexei Yurchak’s Everything Was Forever, Until It Was No More, but this cannot be known beforehand.

Locating the Data | Let us take an empirical look at how Kim Jong-un is explicated in North Korea. In her penetrating criticism of US and South Korean human rights activities (which regrettably does not include Japan), “War by Other Means: The Violence of North Korean Human Rights,” Christine Hong rightly points out that defectors’ testimonies and satellite imagery are not necessarily the best empirical research material for analysis on North Korea. Presumably, then, a search for other material and empirical basis for investigating the DPRK is warranted. North Korea shows a lot of itself on the Internet nowadays in the form of news, documentaries, speeches, movies, and concerts. This is material where the state can explicate its ethos exactly the way it wants to present itself to the rest of the world.

To put it bluntly, we see a lot of Kim Jong-un. A recent documentary, published on April 8, 2014, is a typical example of the genre. Kim Jong-un travels ceaselessly, in the dead of night, before sunrise, or early in the morning; by car, by train, by boat; in rain, in freezing cold, but even in sunshine. He arrives at numerous destinations, inspecting construction projects, Kimist memorials, factories, research institutes, hospitals, farms, fisheries, and storages of food. Food, its production and storage, is important, because it assures in the most concrete terms that the nation has a future: as long as there is something to eat, there is life, and with it, hope. Industrial production, scientific research, and all the construction projects tell the same narrative, only adding dignity to the national endeavor.

Documentaries of visits to military bases are not different; production of defense capability also points to the future. Kimist memorials and portraits of previous Kims reinforce the historical dimension of the nation. Kim Jong-un moves continuously along the temporal dimension of the nation, showing that he cares for the people; the exact physical locations where he does this are irrelevant. The same thing happens in all places.

People whom he meets can display six different forms of behavior. They can 1) smile, 2) cry, 3) jump, wave, and shout, 4) behave with respectful attentiveness, 5) bow reverently, and 6) pose stiffly for the memorial photo. These set forms of behavior make the films emotionally loaded, strengthening the impression of love and care. Kim Jong-un smiles, waves, points with his hand to various directions, and talks with the people around him, sometimes making jokes, sometimes giving ”guidance.” We know that it is guidance, because people around him make notes, although we are never shown what they actually write on their notebooks. We also know it because the narrator tells it is so. We never hear what Kim Jong-un says. We only see him. Judging from the fact that sometimes the hoorays of the people can be heard, the original shooting of the films apparently has taken place with full audio, but most of it has been edited away. The sound in the films is composed of background music by military bands, such as the State Merited Choir, or the Moranbong Band, performing popular Kimist songs, and the voice of a female narrator telling what is happening at each moment.

Rather than merely describe the action, we might better turn to Kenneth Burke’s analytical pentagon for deciphering what is actually taking place in these videos, namely the concepts of scene, actor, act, agency, and purpose. Without questioning these elements, it would be deceptively easy to conclude that Kim Jong-un is the real actor in these films. He is not; he is only an element of the scene. Agency is the analytical key concept here, and sound is the main element with which meaning is formed in the films. The real actor is the narrator, who explains what is taking place in the film, ceaselessly repeating the term Wonsunim (원수님; respected marshal). The true act in the films is the telling that Kim Jong-un is the leader of the country. The purpose can be inferred to be the upholding the front of the Kimist dynastic ideology.

It is hardly thinkable that he himself would have edited these videos; these are the work of nameless propaganda bureaucrats. Kim Jong-un is treated as a Deity, who does not need to have a mind of his own. A rather telling film is a documentary from July 2013, where at the end (28:55 onwards) various athletes are shown, late in the evening, using a rather tired looking Wonsunim like a bronze statue, beside which they pose for photos.

A female athlete posing for a memorial photo with Kim Jong-un | Image: 경애하는 김정은원수님께서 여러부문 사업을 현지에서 지도 주체102, 7 (2013), Youtube.

A female athlete posing for a memorial photo with Kim Jong-un. | Image: KCTV/Youtube

But, the critic might exclaim, what about the speeches? Do these not imply a type of agency by the young leader? Unlike his father, but like his grandfather, Kim Jong-un does indeed sometimes give public speeches. One would expect films of these to be reverent, but surprisingly, they are not. He gave his first public address in April 15, 2012. The official video published by DPRK MusicChannel simply ends before he reaches the end of the text he is reading. Probably the original TV broadcast contained the whole speech, but in the Internet edition Kim Jong-un is not treated with as much respect as one would expect. The text is apparently written with very large characters, because he needs to change page often; the idea clearly is not that he would say anything spontaneous. The fact that the speech was not very skillful oratory does not in itself mean anything. Leaders who do not need to gather public support through their oratorical skills (the norm in a democratic and competitive setting) do not need to be enchanting. Lucian Pye’s analysis of Deng Xiaoping’s public style is illuminating and apropos. Deng knew that his words would be heard, so he did not need to put any demagogical effort into them.

The recording of Kim’s first New Year’s speech on January 1, 2013 is also somewhat curious. He performs in an apparently empty room save the camera crew. He is allowed to read till the end of the script, but his speech is frequently interrupted by noise, probably symbolizing applause, coming from a somber building cut into the video in these occasions. It is variously narrated either as the headquarters of the Korean Workers’ Party, or the aforementioned Organization and Guidance Department.

Even more curious is the January 1, 2014 address. It is a 26-minute film, where Kim Jong-un is shown in the beginning for 88 seconds in four different installments, delivering only the formal New Year greetings to Kim Il-sung, Kim Jong-il, the Party, and lesser Korean entities. At the end of the film he appears for 47 seconds in three installments, now intoning the Kimilsungism-Kimjongilism line under Party leadership. His voice can be heard throughout the film, but only the photo of the building is shown on the screen for the rest of the 24 minutes. New Focus International also commented on this. In 2012 and in 2013 Kim Jong-un was allowed to read from paper a 4-minute ideological address with full sound and video, although anything that he said outside the script was silenced. The speeches did not contain any policy announcements; they moved only at the ideological dimension. In 2014 this no more takes place; his mouth moves above the text (6:30 onwards), but the narrator explains what he is saying. All that we hear from the original event are ceremonial sounds; the applause, shouts, and music.

Kim Jong-un’s speeches definitely are not performances where an absolute dictator lays down to his underlings, and announces to the rest of the world, the details of his newest grand decisions. Still less is he mobilizing the masses with some kind of quasi-democratic charisma. He is shown every single time only in a purely ceremonial role. Apparently this is the way the leadership of the DPRK—taken by New Focus International to mean the OGD, but which the research material here cannot attest to —wants to present Kim Jong-un to North Korean citizens and to the rest of the world: As an object of religious veneration giving legitimacy to the regime, but not as a person who has anything to do with real policy making.

This does not mean that Kim Jong-un would not be extremely important. He clearly is, but only as a structural element. Many historical Japanese emperors reigned only for a few years, because as structural elements they were easily replaceable. Replacing Kim Jong-un would be a more perilous operation than eliminating Jang Song-taek, but it could be done if he became a burden or a danger. Perhaps we could say that instead of ruling, Kim Jong-un is being indulged. He is allowed to follow his whims, at least to an extent. He apparently smokes and eats as much as he wants to. He marries a beautiful lady. He invites colorful non-political foreign visitors, such as Fujimoto Kenji and Dennis Rodman. But he does not meet any foreigner on a serious diplomatic or business mission. Nor does he travel abroad on state functions. He is instead allowed to use a large amount of state resources to build an amusement park at Pyongyang, and a ski resort at Masik Pass.

Reading Moranbong Concerts as Significant Political Theater  |  We can assume that one of his creations is the Moranbong Band, which appeared on stage half year after Kim Jong-un started to reign. Their arrival marked the disappearance of the Unhasu Orchestra and the downgrading of the Sea of Blood Opera company, which were his father’s creations. One small detail from Moranbong Band concerts can perhaps illuminate the situation. During 2012, as the supreme commander of the Korean People’s Army with the rank of Marshal, Kim Jong-un without fail saluted the national anthem. In this October 10, 2012 concert he stands out clearly as a military leader among the civilians around him, including uncle Jang Song-taek and aunt Kim Kyong-hui.

Kim Jong-un saluting the national anthem at a Moranbong Band concert, October 10, 2012. | Image: Youtube.

Kim Jong-un saluting the national anthem at a Moranbong Band concert, October 10, 2012. | Image: KCTV/Youtube

During spring 2013 the military privilege of saluting the national anthem appears to have been taken away from him. He continued to be called the Marshal, no reason to change the title, but with his bodily demeanor he announced that he had been demoted to the position of a civilian. In this August 3, 2013 concert for KPA soldiers Kim Jong-un and Ri Sol-ju were the only persons among the thousands of watchers who did not salute.

Kim Jong-un not saluting the national anthem at a Moranbong Band concert, August 3, 2013. | Image: Youtube.

Kim Jong-un not saluting the national anthem at a Moranbong Band concert, August 3, 2013. | Image: KCTV/Youtube

This analysis based on published films thus comes to the conclusion that Kim Jong-un at present has little to do with the actual leadership of the DPRK. Viewed as a Deity, we might say he is displayed frequently to the people for dutiful acts of veneration, but he himself has little control of the way he is displayed. Anonymous Officials decide the ceremonies, write the texts he reads, and dictate the style in which he is allowed to appear in the videos.

Oddly, much of that kind of editorial work involving Kim Jong-un has actually emerged as quite sloppy. Kim Jong-un does not have the 1000-year history that the Japanese emperor has. Bureaucrats of the Imperial Household Agency take extreme care of the public image of the Emperor. In North Korea all editors apparently do not care. The system occasionally spreads also rather disrespectful images of the Wonsunim to the public. He appears as a prolific smoker, he slouches in his chair, the viewer looks into his ear canal as he kisses a bewildered child, his teeth are shown as yellowed, and his large physical mass is often emphasized rather than downplayed. By following Adam Cathcart’s tweets one stays well informed on this, as well as on many other things.

This analysis is also rather pessimistic. A religiously governed state, where leadership is collective, is a difficult state. Maruyama’s analysis of wartime Japan reveals how irresponsible the system was, because no one would take actual responsibility of general policy. The state simply moved deeper and deeper into imperialistic aggression, pushed by disparate initiatives by actors who claimed to be acting for the honor of the empire.

To use another metaphor more objectionable to friends of the DPRK, it appears that in North Korea now there is no Hitler, but a collective of Eichmanns that run the country. The country is not susceptible to reform, as the status quo remains easiest to maintain in a bureaucratic decision making system. The country’s government is also prone to erratic and self-defeating behavior, as it prods itself onwards like a headless chicken, driven by its internal logic and a number of different actors holding on to their existing projects, but not considering themselves responsible for either the citizens, or the Deity. This takes place in acts like continuing the nuclear program, aggressive military posture, or showing appalling diplomatic disrespect to the president of a neighboring state.

Because it is not easily influenced from the outside, there is little that can be done in a world that also favors maintaining the status quo. Strong engagement policy, carried on for at least two decades on economic, political, cultural, educational, and academic fields, would certainly bring out quite a different North Korea, but the present system of sanctions upholding the status quo cannot have much effect, except worsening the life conditions of the general population; this is the position maintained by Emma Campbell, Tania Branigan, and Massimo Urbani.

Absent a major lapse in discipline or a high-level defection from the Kimist court, we are unlikely to have conclusive answers anytime soon to the degree to which Kim Jong-un himself is truly in command of the country he purports to lead. Critics of the New Focus International argument will note that Jang Song-taek’s death warrant could not have proceeded without Kim Jong-un’s active assent, just as other observers will point out that the sheer continuous mass of Kimist dictatorial power, even if receding, means that Kim Jong-un wields considerable power, and is unlikely to be content playing with the Air Force and hectoring his subordinates about the particulars of museum construction or fun park itineraries. Kim Jong-un may not be merely pantomiming when he visits the country’s missile testing facilities, and he is presumably more than fluent in the details about how his family’s considerable wealth is to be employed. And yet, faced with the question of if Kim Jong-un is a true dictator, we can only reply with a question of our own: Is he, or is he not?


  1. Prof. Korhohen I think is on to something. Whoever got rid of Jang Song-taek threw down the gauntlet to every power constituency in NK — the party, the army, the people and even the holy family itself. That wouldn’t have been a 30-year-old neophyte. Kim Jong Un represents his grandfather’s unfinished mission (as did his father) — that of uniting the Korean people and freeing them from foreign diktats. Strange that the author does not even notice that Korea is a divided nation.

  2. “The argument presented is that the Organization and Guidance Department (OGD) of the Korean Workers’ Party, created by Kim Jong-il” This needs restated. The OGD was formed when Kim Jong-Il was still a child, but didn’t take any real prominence until the 70s. Unless, of course, this is a reference to the conceptualization of the OGD by Kim Jong-il.

  3. Pete, you are correct. Thanks for the close reading!

  4. Thanks for comments. Well, I sort of analyzed North Korea and its leadership structure, not that of Korea.

    I am not deep enough in the history of KWP to be able to say anything decisive about the origins of OGD; the argument presented here is from the poet Jang Jin-sung. I do not doubt that you and Chris are factually correct, but it does not change much the argument itself. Thanks, anyway.

  5. Really enjoyed the theoretical on this, thanks for the intellectual stimulation!