All the World’s a Stage. Looking Again at North Korea: Beyond Charismatic Politics

By | March 25, 2013 | No Comments


Arirang Mass Games in Pyongyang | Image: Wikicommons

The practical effect of state ideology on a target audience is notoriously tough to measure. In North Korea, unless a sheer lack of violent uprisings is taken as a sufficient metric, it is impossible. But, just as advertising clearly works because a well-advertised product sells, there evidently is some effect. Last year, Heonik Kwon and Chung Byung-ho set about describing the value of theatrical ideology to the maintenance of the North Korean regime. SinoNK called it a must-read on the subject; Peter Ward, who drinks deep from the Stalinist historical wellspring of Professor Andrei Lankov over in Seoul, disagrees. — Christopher Green, Assistant Editor.

All the World’s a Stage. A Review of North Korea: Beyond Charismatic Politics

by Peter Ward

Heonik Kwon and Byung-Ho Chung, North Korea: Beyond Charismatic Politics, (Rowman & Littlefield: Lanham, MD, 2012).

A Charismatic and Theatrical Performance: Weber and Geertz in Pyongyang | All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players. According to the authors, the North Korean leadership has turned itself into a “theater state”: a regime that relies on the use of rituals to perpetuate the charismatic rule of the leadership. The authors point to what Weber called the “routinization of charismatic authority.” What Weber meant in a nutshell was that charisma was an inherently unstable form of political authority. It cannot be easily be renewed or “routinized,” and is further prone to decay and erosion; this means of course that charismatic authority usually cannot be inherited because it is invested in one leader alone (pp. 42-45).

The authors make liberal use of the ideas of Clifford Geertz, an anthropologist who pioneered the concept of the theater state with reference to Bali in the 19th century (pp. 44-45). They also make use of the notion of the “partisan state.” The idea of North Korea being a “guerrilla state,” as the authors point out, is that of the Japanese historian Wada Haruki. Haruki is Japan’s foremost authority on Kim Il-sung’s Manchurian partisan days, as well as being a noted historian of North Korea in general. The authors make use of the theory to describe the mythology that the North Korean state relies upon, and how that mythology, i.e. of the Manuchurian partisan ethos, has been actualized in state ideology (pp. 15-19).

Utilizing the “Theater State” model, the authors’ stress the use of theatrical spectacles and rituals to instill a sense of loyalty to the Manchurian partisans in the North Korean people, centered on Kim Il-sung himself. These rituals take many forms, be they mass parades, mass games or theatrical plays. The authors also stress the importance of monuments and cemeteries for the authority of Kim Il-sung, the Manchurian partisans in general, and the fact that Kim Jong-il was instrumental in creating said landmarks. The authors state that in sanctifying the Manchurian partisans, above all Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-suk (Kim Il-sung’s first wife, who was also a partisan fighter), Kim Jong-il and the regime in general has been able to practice “legacy politics” (유훈정치). This form of politics has been crucial to the regime’s “routinization” of charismatic authority (pp. 43-63).

North Korea’s military-first (Songun, 선군) politics are the ideological vehicle for this partisan political line. Songun itself is of importance in the way that it ties the military-dominated regime of Kim Jong-il to the legitimacy of the regime under Kim Il-sung. The military’s role in protecting the legacy of Kim Il-sung helps to legitimate Kim Jong-il, as the successor to his father. Ergo, the Manchurian partisan “tradition” is protected and perpetuated by Kim Jong-il’s Songun Korea (pp. 71-93).

The authors also highlight the importance of the Great Leader’s bestowal of gifts on his people, while the act of gift-giving to the leader by the peoples of the world is also seen as of great importance to the regime. North Korea’s theater state relies on the so-called “moral economy,” in which relations between people are characterized by “general reciprocity” – i.e. generosity and gift-giving, rather than mere selfishness. The authors assert that before the famine of the 1990s, this was an operating norm within North Korean society. The gift functions as a symbol of both power – i.e. economic largess – and also as a symbol of paternal benevolence. Gifts received by the leader, from the rest of world, symbolize the love of the peoples of the world for the leader (Kim Il-sung, and later Kim Jong-il, too).

The Problem of a “Disciplined” Approach: Untested Theories | The book offers some very interesting readings of North Korean ideological texts, but the employment of anthropological methods to a closed country, as noted by the authors themselves, is highly problematic. Many of the issues with the book are indicative of broader problems with academia itself: an over-reliance within certain disciplines on “discourse,” i.e. words and ideas, and the elaborate but unsubstantiated analysis of said words and ideas without proper reference to how the words are actually understood by those involved and targeted.

The authors make use of second-hand reports from organisations like “Good Friends” in describing the social and economic situation in North Korea post-Kim Il-sung. However, they rarely if ever make use of refugee testimony when discussing the practical sources of the regime’s authority. They have clearly not checked whether their metaphysical analyses of the North Korean state and their interpretations of North Korean texts actually resonate with the average North Korean. As a reader one is left with the impression that the authors have put together a very interesting theory, but have not tested it. At one point in the book they even go so far as to assert that the ideology of Juche is a major reason why the regime did not collapse in the early 1990s (p. 128). This may indeed be the case, there are 24,000 North Korean refugees in Seoul, some of them could have been asked by the authors whether North Korea is indeed a theater state, and whether so-called “legacy politics” explain why North Korea’s regime has been able to maintain itself up until present. Unfortunately, the book does not contain any sources to substantiate the assertion.

It should be noted that the modern North Korean state’s projection of authority is indeed mass-based, highly theatrical, and often takes the form of dramatic display. However, from reading the book, it is not at all clear though that this form of authority construction – with Juche and Songun in tow – has kept the regime in power.

The definition of the North Korean state as a “partisan state” is also problematic. North Korea was not the only socialist state (or state in general) to be established and subsequently run by partisan fighters. Let us not forget that Marshal Tito, former leader of Yugoslavia, was a partisan fighter. The People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola – Labour Party (MPLA), who continue to run their country to this day, were also no strangers to the use of partisan tactics. Fidel Castro and his brother were partisans before they became the leaders of Cuba. And the reformist regimes in Beijing and Hanoi were both set up by former partisans, namely Mao Zedong and Ho Chi Minh. Though they must, these authors do not differentiate between a state founded by partisans and a “Partisan State” (pp. 15-16).

Watching the Shows: Missing the Institutions | The political, social and economic institutions of North Korea cannot easily be explained purely by describing North Korea as a “theater state.” The systems of social control, for instance the inminban (people’s unit/인민반), as well as the presence of a command economy until its collapse in the 1990s, and the regime’s use of other Stalinist rituals as a means of legitimation are overlooked by the authors. The Supreme People’s Assembly (SPA) continues to be “elected” every five years, and it continues to certify North Korea’s annual state budget. The successions from Kim Il-sung to Kim Jong-il and from Kim Jong-il to Kim Jong-un were confirmed and certified by the 6th Party Congress and the 3rd Party Conference respectively. These rituals confer a popular, modern political legitimacy on the regime, rather than that of theatrical symbolism. The regime’s authority does not merely rest on the charisma of its leadership, but also upon its putative democratic and representative institutions. While the authors do talk about the conference that confirmed Kim Jong-un as leader, its significance as a legitimating event is not discussed (p. 186). The leaders of North Korea have all been anointed by supposedly representative institutions of party and state; their authority does not merely come from their charisma, but also from rational-legal processes.

The entrance to People's Unit 63 and 64 in the Taedonggang district of Pyongyang | image ⓒDestination Pyongyang

The entrance to people’s units 63 and 64 in the Taedonggang district of Pyongyang | Image: Destination Pyongyang

The authors also make reference to the “new constitutional order” of North Korea after the death of Kim Il-sung (p. 73). Kim Il-sung was constitutionally declared “eternal president” posthumously. The issue is though, what kind of legitimacy does a constitution bestow? A constitution is a legal document, and therefore, the leaders of North Korea seem to seek legitimacy from rational-legal sources, as well as from theatrical display.

While some of the ideological elements of the regime’s authority are discussed by the authors, they have missed more classically nationalistic or state socialist ideologies that have emerged from North Korea’s official media in the last 20 years. The cult and its theatrical elements notwithstanding, it is worth recapping some of these ideological motifs that the authors largely ignore. From the late-1980s, great stress in North Korean ideological publications and news media was placed upon “Socialism in our style” (우리식사회주의). During the famine in the 1990s, “the principle of national superiority” (우리민족제일주의) became a popular ideological leitmotif. Another often repeated idea is that of the “Red Flag Idea” (붉은기사상). Leading up to the centenary of Kim Il-sung’s birth in 2012, the importance of building a “Strong and Prosperous Nation” (강성대국) was ubiquitous. Throughout North Korea’s entire history, words like revolution (혁명) and socialism (사회주의) have been ever-present in North Korean ideological publications and general propaganda output. Such ideological themes could probably have been fitted into the model, there is no reason one cannot have a “theater state” involving socialism and revolution, but the authors neglect to discuss these elements of the regime’s ideological discourse, and one is therefore left with a rather limited understanding of North Korea.

The personality cult and its state not only have theatrical form, but also Stalinist content. The authors stress the human-centeredness of Juche in contrast to Marxian materialism (p. 145). North Korean ideology is indeed more focused on ideas than classical Marxism. However, Stalin did often stress the importance of ideas under state socialism. North Korea was, until 1994, a Stalinist state. The presence of collective farms, state planning and party-state domination over society is best explained through an understanding of Stalinism in practice, not through comparing Marx with Juche.

The “Theater State” Is Not the Real State: Conclusion | The authors, whilst purporting to offer a holistic model of the North Korean state, ignore its socialist content, its political structure, and its actual socio-economic realities; instead, they focus almost exclusively on certain cultural elements of the regime and the society that it has constructed. This approach is not without merit. The role of symbols, ideological norms, and performance in the creation of legitimacy is an area that remains largely unexplored in the context of North Korea. Nonetheless, the “theater state” in the form presented in this book is highly limited even when it comes to dealing with North Korean ideological publications, let alone how North Korean state and society actually work. It represents a limited model of authority creation, not a model of the entire North Korean state, its inner-workings and how state-society relations are constituted.

The survival of the North Korean state is not merely the product of a regime centered on the personality cult of two (three?) men, nor is the Manchurian partisan “tradition” a sufficient explanation for its survival. The closed nature of North Korea leading up to the famine meant that its people could not countenance an alternative. The seemingly cohesive nature of the North Korean elite who fear change is also a major reason why the country remains intact. Institutional inertia and the general lack of dissent because of the closed, monolithic, and controlled nature of North Korean state and society explain the regime’s longevity.

The cult that surrounds the Kims certainly also plays a role. This author has frequently met refugees who believe much of the cult that surrounded Kim Il-sung. However, almost all of them are (and were before they left) united in their hatred of Kim Jong-il. The cult of Kim Jong-il, according to refugee testimony at least, seemingly never really took hold as a popular phenomenon in the country. It is important to remember that what actual North Koreans think and feel may be quite different from what the regime wants them to.

Peter Ward is a research assistant to Dr. Andrei Lankov and a student at Korea University, where he is majoring in history.

Further Reading:

Roger Cavazos, “The Passing of Kim Jong-il: North Korea Still Mired in ‘Charismatic Politics,'” a review of North Korea: Beyond Charismatic Politics, SinoNK [online], December 17, 2012.

No Comments

  1. I considered it a reasonable take on the cultural foundation of the NK regime, stressing its independence, protection of its cultural heritage and “by our nation itself” unification slogan.

    In the same sense, NK frames SK culturally as deformed and debased by the US occupation and its the western-supported dictatorships from Rhee onward. I suspect this resonates with more SKs than the media experts admit.

  2. Does the regime’s offering Kim Jong-Un as a neo-Kim Il-Sung reflect an awareness on the regime’s part that the cult of Kim Jong-Il never took hold?

  3. I imagine it reflects the fact that Kim Jong-il presided over a period of normatively unacceptable loss of life that has left the people worse off than they were in 1993 but a good deal less indebted to the state for their survival!!!

  4. To reinforce Chris Green’s point, I quote Teacher Hwang Jang-yop: “Kim Il-sung would never let his people starve to death. To Kim Jong-il, people were just numbers.”

  5. Well, sure, but I’m really asking to what extent the regime is aware of that sentiment among the population; i.e., how self-aware is the regime? Is there an upward flow of information from the masses that the regime keeps track of, gauging attitudes toward specific people and adjusting propaganda accordingly? If someone is arrested for saying something bad about the Kims’ economic policies, does that actual content of the complaint get reported up the hierarchy?

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