Keeping Up with 38 North

By | June 23, 2012 | No Comments

Keep Your Eye on the Duck? North Korea’s Graphic Abundance Confounds the Very Question | Rodong Sinmun, January 19, 2012

Keeping Up with 38 North

by Adam Cathcart

In the field of North Korea analysts, few have a better blend of relevant erudition and appropriate snark than James Church.  In a June 19 essay written for the John Hopkins-SAIS-sponsored and heavyweight-punching website 38 NorthChurch arrives at a few very valuable conclusions: Kim Jong-un may in fact be initiating “creeping Dengism,” and, in spite of North Korea going comparatively soft towards the US since April, the North Korean leader is going to have to wait more or less until January or February 2013 to get anything substantive done with the United States. Once again, the realities and political necessities embedded in the North Korean and American calendars for succession have not worked to the advantage of the creation of a durable peace in Northeast Asia.

Since the author takes the privilege of every great novelist, electing not to include any links or citations in his otherwise magnificent essay, readers of 38 North might find following links convenient, should they wish to consult the sources cited or otherwise evoked by Church:

–  The May 30 Rodong Sinmun lead editorial, including an injunction for more “creativity” and grasp of “reality” by KWP officials;

– The sole apparent — and completely elliptical — North Korean reference to the USFK (US Forces in Korea) statement that commandoes could be airdropped into the DPRK, dated June 19 KCNA.

– The Aspen Institute press page which includes multiple links to the meetings between Ri Gun and American diplomats in Berlin in early April, including this remarkable 24-minute interview in German with Evans Revere, a source which to my knowledge has not been made available in English.

Church’s injunctions to keep your eye on the duck, and on the metaphor of belt-tightening, might be extended to the question of larger political slogans in Pyongyang.  This Rodong Simmun item over confusion surrounding the naming of a new baby girl — the name “Kang Song” is pointedly rejected — indicates in its own strange way that signifiers are still problematic for the propagandists in Pyongyang.

Smiling Statues and Men in Ties |  Questions of ideology and propaganda have been raised most powerfully since April 15 by Ruediger Frank, who had the advantage of observing the evolving iconography of North Korean revolution up close though his own on-site inspection in April.  Probably because of his own caveats within the work, Dr. Frank’s superb essay at 38 North (“Continuity or Disruption?“) has generated less overt frisson than the blunt and supremely self-confident writing of B.R. Myers, but it remains one of the most cogent and cautionary arguments about a very different type of resistance which might emerge in the DRPK, something we might call “conservative dissent” growing out of the new regime’s ill-considered decision to equalize Kim Jong-il in death with his far more popular father.

Frank’s assertions about the role of ideology and of changing icons in post-Kim Jong Il Korea have been very much on our mind as we keep an eye on what state media is promoting in the DPRK. And it appears that the “legacy” strategy of the Korean Workers’ Party is very much to sally ahead with a constant and largely undifferentiated bliz of triple-Kim nostalgia, such that the only real rational psychological response to the notion of Kim Jong Un as mother-figure is to relent.  A good example of this trend might be seen in this KCNA dispatch, in which Kim Jong Un emerges in the eyes of a child as some hybrid between Jesus, Hirohito and Kim Il Song.

However, if we read a bit more carefully, we can find smaller clues that justification needs to be given for melting down the statue of founding father Kim Il Sung, shrinking him, giving a necktie, glasses and a rictus, and joining him with his son Kim Jong-il, who is wearing a vinylon suit underneath a trench coat.  Here, the KCNA provides justification for the Kim Il-sung grin, at least: the dead leader is clearly pleased at the new apartment quarter which has arisen nearby.

A few new Kim Il-sung murals and mosaics have sprung up as well, meaning that iconographers are at least in part backtracking on what appeared to be, after February, an incessant and mandated pairing of Kim Il Sung with his vinylon-clad offspring.  Other KCNA sources provide indications that the Korean Workers’ Party finds it smarter to detach the two dead Kims so as not to injure the founder’s intact prestige.  However, the overall picture remains confused, and is likely to remain so for some time.

Related Essays: 
Kim Jong Suk and the Search for a Usable Past,, April 28, 2012.

Foundations (2): Kim Jong Il on Inheritance,, January 6, 2012.

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