Kim Il-Song as Logocentric Fundament: Ideology as Written Inheritance in the DPRK

By | November 04, 2012 | No Comments

Photo by Eric Lafforgue, Pyongyang, May 17, 2009

Kim Il Song as Logocentric Fundament: Ideology as Written Inheritance in the DPRK

by Adam Cathcart

This past Friday at Stanford University, Sonia Ryang asserted that Kim Il-song was “more logocentric” (i.e., more centered upon words and texts) than his son, who tended more toward the sensory side of ideology in the form of music, film, and opera.  The point bears repeating, and it was: the New York Times‘ own Choe Sang Hun quickly weighed in, stating something along the lines that “Kim Il Sung is more logocentric than his son because he is God [in the North Korean worldview]…He already said everything; you don’t add to the Bible.”  If Kim Il-song’s works are the sine qua non of North Korean ideology, then we surely need to remain focused upon those works and how they are being interpreted and re-interpreted in the DPRK.

Sometimes such references are marginal, such as a new state commemoration of a teenage friend of Kim Il-song who was both submissive to the leader but also relatively kind to landlords.  At other times, the references are central, even blindingly obvious, as when a new article about “Guardians of Socialism” emerges and Kim Jong-un renovates the Korean War Museum or cites both his father and grandfather chapter and verse.


In a North Korean system that prizes precocious gravitas among its leaders, the model of a young bureaucrat-king holds true in the third generation of Kimist dictatorship.  Watching the aftermath of Kim Jong-il’s death, we — and, more importantly, the North Korean population — have been reminded at every turn how brilliant the deceased Dear Leader had been not just during the Arduous March of the 1990s, when his rule truly took hold after a three-decade process of succession, but during his twenties.

The celebration of Kim Jong-il’s youthful years has again taken on mass overtones: Students were required to reenact his camping experience as a college graduate; other campaigns were focused on the lathethat the young Kim Jong-il had used during a factory stint.  An “on-site inspection” Kim Jong-il had done with his father at the age, roughly, of 4 has been held up as proof of the effectiveness of the Kim system, and the inclusion of images of the current leader working as a “young General” at a similar age seem to be posed in the most serious manner.

Kim Jong Un, already considering a reworking of Korean War history at age 3, thanks to his Songun mother

During the fulsome Korean War commemorations that took place this past July and August, the North Korean press and performing media took pains to depict Kim Il-song’s youth as an asset for the DPRK in its earliest battles.  A KCNA editorial that I took the time to read aloud (listen here) reflected as much.

These notions of youth and its inherent competence are in keeping with the overall general emphasis in the DPRK with “youth as the future,” but they are also a reminder that, when one is in the right family, anything is possible.

That Kim Jong-un’s own potential deficiencies are being cloaked by the commemorations described above seems fairly obvious, but yet we too rarely ask some simple related questions.  How is Kim Jong-un proving his own ideological chops as a juche-style leader?  In what ways is this work being undertaken not as an evolution of the North Korean system, but as a confirmation of its strange efficacy?

Kim Jong-un still has a sparse paper trail, and few ideological innovations to speak of.  In the essay “In My Father’s House are Many Bunkers,” SinoNK analyzed the young man’s major public speaking debut on April 15, an event which fastened him firmly to the Songun/military-first status quo.  (Nothing like 55 mentions of military or army to 2 vague allusions to economic progress.)

We surely plan to continue our intensive analysis of Kim Jong-un’s signature achievement and “innovation” when it comes to agitation and propaganda.

However, even his allegedly intensive work with the Moranbong Band is held up in the light of the model of leadership created by his own father, his Vorbild: Kim Jong-un’s work with the Sea of Blood Opera Troupe dates from his early 30s and was also meant to show command of the arts of mobilization.

Kim Jong Il and his shadow in 1971, while directing musical accompaniment for the opera Sea of Blood

When it comes to analyzing Kim Jong-un’s own emergence or repetitive backpedalling as a North Korean leader, we are fortunate to have access to a huge body of work by his two predecessors.  If one thing has been made clear since the new leader has come to power, it has been that the works and life of Kim Jong-il and Kim Il-song are, at least in terms of domestic propaganda in the DPRK, more important than ever. While it stands to reason that Kim Il-song’s own legacy is going to be the focal point of the subtle reinterpretation of North Korean history that will be necessary as a means of justifying reform and opening up to foreign capital (if indeed that ever takes place), Kim Jong-il’s public interpretation is less clear thus far.  The amorphous notion of “Kim Jong-il Patriotism” remains poorly defined for the state, which continues to dissemble and improvise around the theme, probably in a bid for time or to paper over disagreements about what direction North Korean should take moving forward.

Any number of excerpts from the works of both of the dead predecessors (Kim Il-song and Kim Jong-il) remain relevant to the present situation.  These elements of the Works, we believe, should have some bearing on the present debates within and about North Korea.  The DPRK is hardly a tabula rasa, and its ruling system should not be treated as such.  If in fact the current cabal is going to lean upon tradition, it behooves us to recall that even tradition — especially tradition — is not without its dangers.

Kim Jong-un with his mother circa 1987, imitating grandfather’s work with the peasants after the 1946 land reform

Problem #1: Kim Jong-un’s lack of “revolutionary experience.”

Apparent Solution: Depict Kim Jong-un as “seasoned” and experienced, as well as brilliant, and having inherited the traits, both physical and mental, of his grandfather and prenaturnal father.  Align the son firmly, and perhaps surprisingly, with a somewhat critical quote from his own father (whose three years as an infant being brought up in a camp with the revolutionaries now counts as actual revolutionary experience) about how experience rather than blood counts the most.

Quote: Kim Jong-il: “If you cannot see the serious realities of the class struggle and are infected with revisionism, you may make mistakes such as forgetting your class origin and making compromises with the hostile class, even though you are the sons and daughters of revolutionaries.  The leader has said that sons do not become revolutionaries of their own accord because their fathers have conducted the revolution.”[1]

Quote: Kim Jong-un, “Children of Revolutionary Martyrs Should Become Dependable Backbone of Songun Revolution That Gives Steady Continuity to Bloodline of Mangyongdae, Bloodline of Mt. Paektu” at Mangyongdae School,” summarized in Rodong Sinmun, and excerpted also by KCNA, October 13, 2012.

Kim Jong-un in the letter pointed out that the revolutionary schools should strengthen ideological education before anything else.

He said:

The children of revolutionaries do not become revolutionaries of themselves. As the great generalissimos taught, the blood of man can be transmitted, but his idea cannot be.

The revolutionary idea can become a faith and guideline of struggle only by the steadfast ideological education and practical struggle.

As the days of revolutionary school are a very important period to equip the students with the essentials of a revolutionary world outlook, it is necessary to give priority to the education of political and ideological subjects, further stepping up ideological education.

In the Beginning there was the Word: Kim Il-song (wearing a glove?) prepares to apply his pen nib to the page of the 1953 Armistice

Problem #2: Managing Ideological Change and Foreign Influence

Solution: Remind the outside world that while the face of North Korea has changed, the policy has not. For Kim Jong-un, this means bucks up the security forces and letting it be known that he has taken a personal interest in cracking down on defectors, while opening up what appears to be a hand to those who might wish to return.  He has also overtly taken a very hard line on ideological changes among the youth even as he continues to promise them that the belt-tightening era is coming to an end.  This is among the most difficult challenges to bridge, as Haggard rightly suggests.

Kim Il-Song: “To tell the truth, ever since my visit to Chongsan-ri, I have always wondered when activists would appear in our countryside in large numbers to transform all laggards and include everyone to become ardent builders of socialism.  This has weighted heavily on my mind.  As you all know, the aggression and oppression of foreign imperialists have long exerted a very noxious influence on the ideological consciousness of our people.  A great many Koreans had their consciousnsess poisoned by nearly 40 years of Japanese imperialist rule, and during the period of the temporary retreat in the Fatherland Liberation War the American scoundrels, though for a short period, spread ideological viruses in the minds of our people, thereby corrupting many of them.”[2]

Kim Jong-Un: Kim Jong-un, Remarks at Unveiling of Statue of Kim Jong Il at DPRK Ministry of State Security, October 5, 2012.

Pyongyang, October 6 (KCNA) — The dear respected Marshal Kim Jong-un visited the statue of the great leader Generalissimo Kim Jong-ill standing at the Ministry of State Security of the DPRK. Kim Jong-un was greeted on the spot by the commanding officers of the ministry including KPA General Kim Won-hung, minister of State Security, and Col. General Kim Chang-sop, director of the Political Bureau of the ministry.  Kim Jong-un paid tribute to the statue of Kim Jong-il together with the commanding officers.

He watched the statue of smiling Kim Jong-il for a long while, the statue of the leader imposingly standing in a padded dress telling every event of the Songun revolution, one of his hands placed on his waist. He looks as if he were powerfully encouraging all servicepersons and people in the struggle to win a final victory, wishing the great Paektusan nation a rosy future. The statue was depicted very well, indeed, he said, adding that servicepersons and people were familiar with the image of Kim Jong-il wearing a pair of glasses in a padded dress. “I feel as if I saw him”, he said with deep emotion.

He said that the erection of the statue of Kim Jong-il at the Ministry of Statue Security is a vivid expression of the unshakable will of all security men to protect the work to accomplish the revolutionary cause of Juche generation after generation. He had a talk with the commanding officers of the ministry in front of the statue.

“The Ministry of State Security has a very important duty to perform to protect the sovereignty of the country and the nation”, he noted, calling on the security men to be fully aware of their heavy yet honorable combat mission. “The security men should wage a fierce struggle against the enemies on the invisible front as they did always”, he said, adding: “The security men should make a revolution, remaining loyal to the party to the last in any storm and stress”, he noted, adding that to this end, they should cherish unshakable faith like pure gold remaining unburned even in flames.

He underscored the need to intensify the struggle to decisively foil the ideological and cultural poisoning and psychological warfare of the enemies, while following their moves with vigilance, and make sustained energetic endeavors to put the work for state security on an ultra-modern and IT basis.

He had a photo session with the commanding officers of the ministry in front of the statue of Kim Jong-il, expressing conviction that all its security men would fulfill their honorable mission on the road of decisively foiling the moves of the imperialists and reactionaries to stifle the DPRK by displaying a do-or-die spirit and matchless courage. He was accompanied by Vice Marshal Choe Ryong-hae, director of the General Political Bureau of the KPA.

University students in Pyongyang, April 25, 2012 | Image via Rodong Sinmun

Conclusion |  It is hardly coincidental that the Workers’ Party of Korea, in its first major rally in Pyongyang after Kim Jong-il’s funeral, emphasized the role of youth so heavily.  While Western news agencies tended to run the same old captions, treating the rally as if it were just North Korea getting back to its goose-stepping ways, it is worth noting that Rodong Sinmun’s photographs emphasized the role of university students, particularly those uniting around the writing brush.  If the Party is making a virtue of necessity by emphasizing youth and vitality in the propaganda surrounding Kim Jong-un, it is also probably busily scrounging through the Works of both late great leaders for justification and indications that this is the natural order of things.  Quotes like the above, and even apparently innocuous quotations from Koguryo poetry present in published materials in the DPRK, are now potentially seditious if said in public.  Even the bulwarks of orthodoxy are a bit of a minefield.

[1] Kim Jong Il, “Children of the Revolutionary Martyrs Must Become Political and Ideological Bodyguards Protecting and Defending the Leader: A Talk to Children of Revolutionary Martyrs Graduated from the Mangyongdae Revolutionary School,” October 12, 1967, in Kim Jong Il Selected Works, Vol. 1 [pp. 305-313], p. 312.

[2] Kim Il-Sung, “The Main Thing in Party Work is to Educate, Remould and Unite All People: Speech Delivered at the General Membership Meeting of the Party Organization of Rihyon-ri, Sungho District, Pyongyang City,” January 23, 1961, in On the Building of the Workers’ Party of Korea (Pyongyang: Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1978), 454-481; 460.

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