Ancestor Shadows and Strategic Fog: A Parting Shot at the Kim Jong-un Speech

By | January 04, 2013 | 3 Comments

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Fog over rice paddies in the North Hamgyong Province | Image: Benjamin R. Young

The past few days have seen a deluge of reports on Kim Jong-un’s New Year’s address broadcast on North’s Korean Central TV and Korean Central Broadcasting Station. The young dictator’s reading of the address on live television, rather than having it printed as an editorial like his father, is being reported by the international news media as another sign that the dynastic ruler is following in the footsteps of his grandfather and founder Kim Il-sung, with little to no reference to history. Furthermore, though some exercised restraint, others, abounding in optimism, went on to suggest the younger leader is interested in both economic “change” and some form of détente with the US and South Korea. Like the fog that wraps the country domestically, it seems that the international community has, again, jumped to ill-conceived conclusions without even as much as a clear view of the city. A foggy day in Pyongyang-town it is! – Steven Denney, Managing Editor

Ancestor Shadows and Strategic Fog: A Parting Shot at the Kim Jong-un Speech

by Christopher Green and Steven Denney

Evoking the Distant Patriarch: Buying into the Bloodline | It is seemingly en vogue to draw a line from grandfather to grandson, Kim Il-sung to Kim Jong-un. Perhaps this is hardly surprising when the Korean Workers’ Party leans so hard on hereditary relations as a means of conferring legitimacy upon itself. And yet, despite the presence of aesthetic similarities—”on-the-spot guidance,” the haircut, the neo-Maoist wardrobe and now the televised New Year’s address—Kim Jong-un is almost nothing like his grandfather.

Professor Dae-sook Suh provides a detailed and authoritative source on the Eternal President with his 1988 monograph Kim Il Sung: The North Korean Leader. Though Suh’s politically tinted analysis of the latter half of Kim Il-sung’s life may not sit well with some, his detailed description of the brave Manchurian guerilla’s rise to power as “a new Communist Man in the tradition of the partisans” still has much to convey about the conditions under which Kim Il-sung cut his teeth en route to dominating the early history of the DPRK. Conversely, it is not a text from which scholars of the young Kim Jong-un will draw much of relevance for their own work.

There is, however, one noteworthy similarity between the two thoroughly different men. And it lies in the way Kim Jong-un attempted in his debut New Year’s address to convince the people of North Korea that, in the true spirit of juche, they have or are on the way to having everything they need at home and need not look elsewhere, while at the same time calling for “a radical turn in the building of an economic giant on the strength of science and technology by fanning the flames of the industrial revolution in the new century” (and only one century late!). Unfortunately for most of the North Korean populace, there is almost no chance of any such thing taking place. Kim Jong-un, like his grandfather before him, may have briefly succeeded in convincing a portion of the people that all is well, but much as it was with Kim Il-sung’s North Korea in the 1970s , the problems are not political but technical: “It was the helpless feeling of isolation from the technologically advanced countries, too proud to learn and too poor to buy from them” that troubled the founder then, and most likely troubles the young leader now.[1]

Watching Addresses, Reading Tea Leaves: Missing the Point | The two points, above all the rest, that were misread or overplayed in the post-address analysis were, first, Kim’s call for “[t]he building of an economic giant,” an assertion read by the optimists and the ill-informed as signifying a “Deng moment” in North Korea. The second came in the form of an omission—the absence of any threatening remarks directed towards the US or South Korea, which was taken as an indication that Kim is serious about peace.

That Kim Jong-un’s general admonition to improve the state of the economy received any attention at all is perplexing, much less that it should have been blown out of all proportion. It was not, as one CNN report has it, a call from Kim Jong-un for “radical change in North Korea’s economic development.” Quite the opposite; Kim’s emphasis on hard work, innovation, and technological breakthroughs is, as Marcus Noland put it, a call from the “playbook of the last 50 years.”

His supposed peace overture was equally mundane; pure political theater as usual wherein, “All the compatriots in the north, south and abroad should launch a dynamic struggle to carry out to the letter the June 15 Joint Declaration and the October 4 Declaration, great reunification programs common to the nation in the new century and milestones for peace and prosperity.”

Explicit references to the joint declarations of June 15 and October 4 were no more than an attempt to exploit the eminently exploit-able progressives in South Korea and test the fresh-faced Park Geun-hye administration’s willingness to serve up concessions. This happened in 2003 and 2008, to both Roh Moo-hyun and his alter-ego, Lee Myung-bak.

In other words, any over-reading that has gone on reflects wishful thinking and optimistic expectation overwhelming reality.

If It Walks Like a Duck: The Ten Principles Return | Which, as readers will have noticed, it all too often tends to do. For while it is said by amateur poets that if it walks like a duck, smells like a duck, and quacks like a duck then it must be a duck, this is only a sound approach to adopt for as long as, on every occasion when something that walked, smelled and sounded like some form of waterfowl crossed one’s path, it did indeed turn out to be a member of the Anatidae family.

However, as Robert Winstanley-Chesters, SinoNK’s voice on matters environmental, will attest, North Korea has a statistically insignificant population of ducks. But what it does have, as explicated in previous essays here and here, is a lot of fog. This fog, which represents more than the collection of liquid water droplets on a cloudy day in Pyongyang, is the primary tool employed by the Kim regime to ensure that both enemies and well-wishers at home and abroad remain confused as to the underlying aims of those who dwell in the Keumsusan citadel.

This feat is achieved, we argue, under Article 9 of the quintessentially under-researched text for North Korean policy-making, the Ten Principles for the Establishment of the One-Ideology System, “We must establish strong organizational regulations so that the entire party, nation and military can move as one under the one and only leadership of the Great Leader comrade Kim Il Sung.”

In Suh’s seminal text, he points out why it is so easy for North Korea’s ruling clique to wield this tool in the process of comprehensively baffling much of the domestic and international audience with carefully choreographed oscillations between friend and foe, rocket launch and New Year’s address. For is it not true that beneath the entire house of cards lies the inter-Korean division, and is it not also true that, as Suh says, “Passion for fellow country men across the parallel and an intense desire to reunify their country may have obfuscated the issues, and compromised their scrutiny of each other’s true intentions”?[2]

Rhetorical Stuff to Inspire “Geniuses:” Conclusion | Scholars such as Patrick McEachern, the author of Inside the Red Box: North Korea’s Post-Totalitarian Politics, are right to assume that much about North Korea has rusted heavily since the 1970s when, as Suh notes, Kim Il-sung fully consolidated what could legitimately be called his totalitarian rule over North Korea. However, arguably less has changed than many scholars seem keen to believe, and this is why all it takes is a KCNA article to send US policymakers to the bar, and a rhetorically fluffy New Year’s address to get every journalist from London to Lima reaching for the reset button just 19 days after the launch of Gwangmyungsung-3.

“When I was in North Korea I was bothered by the ‘extraordinary genius’ of Kim Jong Il,” Hwang Jang-yop once said. “But my head also hurts now, because there are too many geniuses.” Alas, the all-important fog remains heavy, and the ducks, along with the geniuses, remain grounded.


[1] See: Dae-sook Suh, Kim Il Sung, Chapter 15, “The Shift from Party to State,” esp. 274-275.

[2] Ibid., 259.

3 Comments

  1. Love the back-to-basics 10 principles. Fog-ography represents such an appropriate visual and concept.

    ..and the beauty of a dead guy as President is that he never gives a straight answer.

  2. What defines our view of the world (except for the issues we really care about) is a short attention span. The press – that’s the industry which “informs” us, usually) and the audience have long moved somewhere else. What strikes me about the global press – not only in totalitarian countries – is their almost complete disregard for facts. Who cares about them, as long as an article catches emotions.

    In the world of numbers, they’d call this creative accounting.

  3. JR,

    Thus the problem of what Bruce Cumings has often identified (at least in the United States) of being continually _reintroduced_ to North Korea or being offered a picture of our relations as being completely tabula rasa. As if, for example, the Korean War had never happened at all or nothing had been done by us (the United States/UN/ NATO countries, Japan) to shape North Korean thinking or strategic posture whatsoever.

    I don’t believe North Korea is Dr. Frankenstein’s monster or by any means wholly created by, say, the annihilation of basically every large structure in their country by Curtis LeMay’s bombers from 1950-53, nor is it necessary to engage in unceasing acts of self-flagellation to expiate our presumed sins in dealing with the North (who are reminded in any event continuously if they had ears to hear of their own sins and atrocities), but you’re right: It’s silly to pretend that nothing has a context and that assertions of North Korean reform so seldom look back any further than 6 months in time, if that.

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