North Korean Nationalism: Lessons from Pyongyang

By | June 08, 2016 | No Comments

KIS-KJI_04.15.2016

Citizens and soldiers bowing to bronze statues of Kim Il-sung (left) and Kim Jong-il (right) on Mansu Hill during the “Day of the Sun,” i.e., the anniversary of Kim Il-sung’s birth. Image: Steven Denney/Sino-NK

In 1948, the division of the Korean peninsula began in earnest with the formation of the ROK and, shortly thereafter, the DPRK. At time of writing, what was initially an ad hoc, expedient solution to the collapse of the Japanese Empire in East Asia has lasted for by far the better part of seven decades.

Rooted in this early tumult, the division system inflicts an array of distortions on socio-political life on and around the Korean peninsula. For one thing, there are now twin, divergent forms of Korean nationalism. The two share a common core — most obviously, they are both rooted in ethnicity. However, the differences between them are arguably more captivating, as they speak loudly to the contrasting socio-historical paths that the two Korean states appear to be on. In this new essay, Steven Denney pauses to reflect on a recent trip to the DPRK, and considers where North Korean nationalism is today. — Christopher Green, Co-editor

North Korea Nationalism: Lessons from Pyongyang1)This essay was written following extensive debate with Christopher Green, and forms part of the joint project Reproducing Contested Identities and Social Structures on the Korean Peninsula. This research was supported by Academy of Korean Studies Grant AKS-2015-R-49.

by Steven Denney

North Korean state-nationalism, like South Korea’s, is based on an ethnocultural understanding of Korean national identity. Ethnicity, or race,2)Ethnicity and race are often, but not always, conceptually indistinguishable. Conventional wisdom holds that ethnicity is a social construct, whereas race is physiologically defined and thus less open to interpretation. But nationalism scholar and sociologist Rogers Brubaker argues that ethnicity and race, while not entirely similar, basically belong in the same conceptual domain; this author’s perspective broadly accords with Brubaker. has long been a salient feature of Korean nationalism on both sides of the DMZ, denoting a strong sense of cultural distinctiveness. The Park Chung-hee and Kim Il-sung developmental regimes instrumentalized Korean ethnicity for the purpose of mobilizing national populations for nation- and state-building purposes.

Ergo, the Korean ethnicity/race has long been indistinguishable from the Korean nation. This understanding of the nation is changing in South Korea, but even before now, when ethnic nationalism was every bit as strong in South Korea as it was in North Korea, understandings of the ethnic nation differed between the two polities. In North Korea it was defined as more than just the Korean race; the North Korean people were Kim Il-sung’s people. This has not changed, it seems. Kim Il-sung is still perceived as defining the North Korean nation. This point was reinforced during a recent trip to the DPRK and finds partial support in recent North Korean public opinion data.

None Shall be Greater than the Sun | I visited the DPRK during the preparation for and celebration of Kim Il-sung’s birthday (태양절; lit. “Day of the Sun”). I spent nearly all of my time (approximately 5 days) in the capital — Pyongyang. As a roundabout way of furthering my understanding of North Korean nationalism (or perhaps Korean nationalism in northern Korea), I asked anyone that I could what they thought about Ahn Jung-geun. Ahn is an important historical figure in Korean national(ist) history; an anti-imperial independence fighter, he fatally wounded the first Japanese governor-general of colonial Korea on a train station platform in Harbin (currently the capital of Heilongjiang province in northeast China) in 1909 and was tried and executed shortly thereafter.

According to conversations with my North Korean guides (i.e., citizens of Pyongyang), the life of Ahn Jung-geun is taught in primary schools, and Ahn is portrayed as a patriotic martyr who gave his life in order to protest Japanese encroachment upon Korea’s national sovereignty. At the Grand People’s Study House on Kim Il-sung Square, a computer database search for “Ahn Jung-geun” turned up several sources, at least two of which (both published in the 1980s) dealt exclusively with Ahn Jung-geun’s “patriotic activities” (애국적 활동). Alas, attempts to acquire one or both texts were unsuccessful.

In South Korea, where partisan struggle against Japanese imperialism is also celebrated as a great patriotic virtue, Ahn is exalted as a national hero and has been instrumentalized politically for nation-building and nation-reifying purposes. However, he is downplayed in North Korea because there he does not meet a necessary condition for revolutionary martyrdom: having fought in Kim Il-sung’s Revolutionary People’s Army (this army was apparently founded in 1929, two decades after Ahn’s death).3)Interestingly, upon discussion of this point with Christopher Green in a restaurant later in the day, we failed to recall the exact date of the army’s founding. I thought perhaps a nearby waitress would know, and, lo and behold, she recalled it without delay.

revolutionary-martyrs-cemetery_PY

A bust and tombstone at the Revolutionary Martyrs’ Cemetery (of Kim Hyung-kwon). The first date inscribed on the tombstone indicates Kim’s date of birth; the second shows when he first participated in anti-Japanese struggle; the third when he joined Kim Il-sung’s People’s Revolutionary Army; and the fourth when he lost his life, or was “sacrificed.” All tombstones follow this template. | Image: Steven Denney/Sino-NK

North Koreans do not deny Ahn was a Korean patriot, but they fall short of elevating him to status of national hero on a par with the revolutionary martyrs interred in Pyongyang’s cemetery of the same name. Ahn is portrayed positively as an independence fighter, but his legacy is dwarfed by that of Kim Il-sung. No one individual can transcend or compete with the DPRK’s founding father, and having met and been guided by or fought alongside Kim Il-sung is a necessary condition of entry to the pantheon of revolutionary martyrs.

There is Wisdom in Comparison | The different “uses” of Ahn’s legacy reflects an important but overlooked difference between South and North Korean state nationalisms. Both states claim to be the rightful inheritors of a 5,000 year-long national history and the guardians of the “spirit” of the March 1st Movement, i.e., the origins of the modern nation.

From this common ethnocultural baseline, however, divergent state nationalisms have developed over the decades. Following political division (and separate DPRK-ROK national foundations) in 1948, North Korean nationalism would come to be inextricably linked to Kim Il-sung and the revolutionary, anti-Japanese heritage of partisan guerilla warfare (a legacy since perpetuated through two hereditary successions). South Korea’s nationalism would come to be defined by a similar anti-Japanese sentiment, but rather than aggrandized and linked to the legacy of one man, state nationalism in the South would be accentuated broadly as not North Korea’s nationalism; that is, an anti-communist nationalism.4)Jaeeun Kim argues that a state-nationalism built on an anti-communist ideology manifested itself in the South Korea state’s strategy to not court ethnic Koreans living China. Whereas North Korea regularly interacted with Chinese Koreans during the Cold War, the South Korean state effectively ignored them given their Communist affiliation. This remark was made by Jaeeun Kim during a book talk about her forthcoming book Contested Embrace: Transborder Membership Politics in Twentieth-Century Korea at the University of Toronto on February 12, 2016. Despite his dictatorial reach, Park Chung-hee never achieved an eminence on par with Kim Il-sung; there was no cult of personality.

The main differences between North and South Korean nationalisms was first explained to me in a July 2013 interview in Seoul (part of a larger research project on nation and belonging in South Korea) with a resettled defector in his mid-20s. When asked whether there is a conceptual difference in the way “nation” is understood in North and South Korea, he responded that “In North Korea, the Korean race is Kim Il-sung’s people. “Kim Il-sung’s Korea” and “Kim Il-sung’s people” are the official words used.” [북한에서 말하는 민족은, 김일성민족을 말합니다. 북한에서는 김일성조선, 김일성민족이라는 말을 공식 사용하고 있습니다.]

Kim Kwang-cheol agrees, but takes the argument one step further. In The Political Strategies of ‘ Kim Il-sung Nationalism’: A Critical Analysis, Kim aruges that “Today’s North Korean ruling ideology takes the form of a Korean-ethnicity based ‘Kim Il-sungism’ or ‘Kim Il-sung Nationalism'” by which he means North Korean nationalism is a resolutely Kim Il-sung nationalism.5)김광철, 김일성민족주의 정치전략의 비판적 분석: 북한, ‘김일성주의를 바탕에 둔 봉건적 군주제’로 변화하다 [The Political Strategies of ‘Kim Il-sung Nationalism’: A Critical Analysis] (서울: 북랩, 2014), 237.

The North Korean nation cannot thus be understood apart from Kim; the ethnic nation and Kim Il-sung are inextricably linked. This differs significantly from South Korea’s brand of ethnic nationalism. Both share (or have shared) the common characteristic of defining “Koreaness” along ethnic lines, but the North Korean variant is more explicitly politicized, as it is tied to Kim’s revolutionary legacy.

In a conversation with a guide during my recent trip, Kim Kwang-choel’s thesis was supported and additional points about the state illuminated. In response to a request to explain the meaning behind the phrases “Kim Il-sung’s nation” (김일성 민족) and “Kim Jong-il’s Korea” (김정일 조선), seen on a Pyongyang main teacher’s college, the guide explained that Kim Il-sung founded the modern nation and state, and that his son (Kim Jong-il) inherited them. Asked if there is any difference between the state and the nation, the guide answered “No.”

Teachers-college_PY

The college under consideration in this essay. The text on the facia of the building reads, in full: “Make the world revere the Kim Il-sung nation and Kim Jong-il Chosun!” [위대한 김일성 민족, 깁정일 조선을 세계 우러러보게 해라!] | Image: Steven Denney/Sino-NK

To further assess the meaning of this guide’s comment and the placards posting throughout Pyongyang, we can say that Kim Il-sung is credited with creating the (North) Korean nation and the beginnings of the state, and that Kim Jong-il is credited with reinforcing the state by marshaling the nuclear weapons program (a key pillar of contemporary Songun, or “military-first,” Korea). This interpretation is supported by the preamble to the revised DPRK Constitution, which reads as follows:6)Through a close reading of the revised DPRK Constitution and the writings of high-profile defector and former Chairmen of the Standing Committee of the Supreme People’s Assembly, Hwang Jang-yop, Christopher Green elaborates on the argument that Kim Jong-il strengthened the state founded by Kim Il-sung in “Wrapped in a Fog: On the DPRK Constitution and the Ten Principles,” in Change and Continuity in North Korean Politics, Adam Cathcart et al. (eds.) (New York: Routledge, forthcoming), Chapter 2.

Comrade Kim Il-sung elucidated the fundamental principles governing the building and activities of the State, established an ideal State and social system, an ideal mode of politics and an ideal system and ideal methods for administering society, and laid solid foundations for the prosperity of the socialist motherland and for the inheritance and completion of the revolutionary cause of Juche.

 

The great leader Comrade Kim Jong-il was a peerless patriot and defender of socialist Korea who, true to the ideas and cause of Comrade Kim Il-sung, strengthened and developed the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea into Kim Il-sung’s State and placed the dignity and power of the nation on the highest ever plane.

North Korean Public Opinion | Of course, the official position of the state and what people actually believe are often two different things. They can even be in polar opposition. However, evidence that North Korea’s state-nationalism is actually internalized and reproduced, while not in abundance, does exist. A 2014 article published by the Korea Institute for National Unification (KINU; 통일연구원) in their journal on unification policy (통일정책연구원) is of relevance here. Entitled “A Study on Consciousness of Unification through 100 Interviews with North Koreans” 7)“북한주민의 통일의식 조사 연구: 북한주민 100명 면접조사를 중심으로” in the Korean., the article is based on 100 structured interviews with North Korean citizens legally residing in China. The interview findings were originally reported in July 2013 by the Chosun Ilbo in three separate articles and analyzed at Sino-NK by Christopher Green. The results indicate many things, but for those seeking to better understand North Korean state nationalism, national identity, and state-citizen linkages, two findings in particular stand out.

One, a vast majority of respondents support unification for the purpose of promoting economic development in North Korea. Two, nearly two thirds of the respondents “indicate that they are either ‘exceedingly proud’ or ‘moderately proud’ of the Juche idea,” writes Green. Being the somewhat nebulous concept that it is, what it meant to be proud of the Juche idea is open to interpretation. Green has his, and it stands to reason. He writes:

[This] result affirms the point that North Koreans, it appears, do not want their state to disappear; their interest is predominantly in seeing it develop. Respect for the Juche idea, synonymous as it is with (false impressions of autonomous) development in the era of Kim Il-sung, arguably implies that collective memory of what North Korea once was is sufficient to maintain its popular legitimacy today.

The two points, taken together, indicate that a distinct sense of North Korean-ness persists, originally created by and continually reproduced through North Korea’s state-nationalism, and despite the state’s regular failure to provide basic public goods, this state-nationalism continues to produce a distinctively North Korean national identity and it is upon this identity that some degree of political legitimacy remains.

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1. This essay was written following extensive debate with Christopher Green, and forms part of the joint project Reproducing Contested Identities and Social Structures on the Korean Peninsula. This research was supported by Academy of Korean Studies Grant AKS-2015-R-49.
2. Ethnicity and race are often, but not always, conceptually indistinguishable. Conventional wisdom holds that ethnicity is a social construct, whereas race is physiologically defined and thus less open to interpretation. But nationalism scholar and sociologist Rogers Brubaker argues that ethnicity and race, while not entirely similar, basically belong in the same conceptual domain; this author’s perspective broadly accords with Brubaker.
3. Interestingly, upon discussion of this point with Christopher Green in a restaurant later in the day, we failed to recall the exact date of the army’s founding. I thought perhaps a nearby waitress would know, and, lo and behold, she recalled it without delay.
4. Jaeeun Kim argues that a state-nationalism built on an anti-communist ideology manifested itself in the South Korea state’s strategy to not court ethnic Koreans living China. Whereas North Korea regularly interacted with Chinese Koreans during the Cold War, the South Korean state effectively ignored them given their Communist affiliation. This remark was made by Jaeeun Kim during a book talk about her forthcoming book Contested Embrace: Transborder Membership Politics in Twentieth-Century Korea at the University of Toronto on February 12, 2016.
5. 김광철, 김일성민족주의 정치전략의 비판적 분석: 북한, ‘김일성주의를 바탕에 둔 봉건적 군주제’로 변화하다 [The Political Strategies of ‘Kim Il-sung Nationalism’: A Critical Analysis] (서울: 북랩, 2014), 237.
6. Through a close reading of the revised DPRK Constitution and the writings of high-profile defector and former Chairmen of the Standing Committee of the Supreme People’s Assembly, Hwang Jang-yop, Christopher Green elaborates on the argument that Kim Jong-il strengthened the state founded by Kim Il-sung in “Wrapped in a Fog: On the DPRK Constitution and the Ten Principles,” in Change and Continuity in North Korean Politics, Adam Cathcart et al. (eds.) (New York: Routledge, forthcoming), Chapter 2.
7. “북한주민의 통일의식 조사 연구: 북한주민 100명 면접조사를 중심으로” in the Korean.