Symbolic Truth: Epic, Legends, and the Making of the Baekdusan Generals
In his tome on mythology in the Western world, American mythologist Joseph Campbell claims that one of the functions of mythology is to support the current social order, into which the individual is organically integrated. Such a characterization seems almost unimpressive when compared to the use of myths in North Korea, which generally rotate around the odyssey and godlike aura of Kim Il-sung. Considering myths that support and sustain the Kim regime every bit as much as foreign currency, Sino-NK contributor Benoit Berthelier (Yonsei University) shows that myth in the DPRK not only elevates the position of the three Kim leaders in succession, but implicates individual Koreans into the myth and binds them closer with every retelling.— Darcie Draudt, Assistant Editor
Symbolic Truth: Epic, Legends and the Making of the Baekdusan Generals
by Benoit Berthelier
Some time ago, KCNA reported “endless streams” of visitors heading to Mt. Baekdu to mark Kim Jong-il’s birthday at the deceased leader’s mythical birthplace, where a variety of extraordinary natural phenomena are said to have taken place. Shortly after Kim Jong-il’s death, the ice on top of Mount Baekdu was said to have cracked while a mysterious red glow allegedly appeared over “Jong-il Peak.” A closer look at some of these legends and their historical formation reveals a different picture—one that can help us understand the mechanisms of the country’s “regime of truth” and the political longevity of its ruling family.
Kim Il-sung and Baekdusan: The Man, The Legend | Supernatural tales about Kim Il-sung were already in circulation before the 1945 liberation from Japanese colonial rule (a feature common to many post-colonial leaders). Some of these tales later would be reused to embellish the biography of the DPRK’s founder. However, the systematic use of legends and supernatural imagery in literature and cultural products really started with the introduction of “revolutionary romanticism,” a genre borrowed from the Soviets that regarded legends and mythology as powerful tools to edify the masses. This literary tradition began in 1947 when Cho Gi-cheon, a Soviet-Korean, published Baekdusan (백두산), a long epic with mythological overtones that would exert tremendous influence over the country’s cultural policies.
The poem retraces the events surrounding the June 4, 1937 Bocheonbo incident (보천보 사건), during which Kim Il-sung managed to gain control of a Japanese outpost in northern Korea. Despite dealing with a historical event, the action of Baekdusan does not start on a precise date but in a distant timeframe reached by riding the “boat of memory,” a sort of illud tempus, the undefined time of the mythical. The setting of the action, the Manchurian border region, is depicted as a mystical area in which legends and fantastical tales abound: sleeping warriors waiting to come back and free their land, leaders that can jump from one mountain to another, magic that bends time and space.
While the Manchurian landscape also served as the background for previous literary works about Kim’s guerilla warfare such as Han Seorya’s Path of Blood, it merely appeared as a topographical reference point. In Baekdusan, the geographical space is transcended to create a mythological place in which the leader, the land and its people are bounded by fate and blood. Consequently, natural elements are also shown as being engaged in the anti-Japanese struggle, either working alongside the partisans or reflecting their emotions in time of victory or defeat. Snowstorms help the partisans by covering their tracks or start roaring in protest against colonization and reactionaries in Seoul, while mount Baekdu speaks up as a witness of Japanese oppression and prophet of the nation’s fate.
As the birthplace of Dangun, the father of the Korean nation (in the “Dangun myth,” or 단군신화), the mountain’s sacred aura and national symbolic value is here used to legitimize the new ruler. Cho created a mythical link between Kim Il-sung and the nation’s natural elements, presenting him as Baekdu’s son, “[its] conscience, [its] will, [its] faith and [its] hope”. And so was born the line of the Baekdusan generals (백두산 장군) along with one of the major motifs of North Korean culture. The emphasis on his birth at the “Baekdusan secret camp” was a major element of legitimization for Kim Jong-il’s power, linking him to the anti-Japanese struggle but also presenting him as the heir to the organic tie between his father and the nation’s legendary mountain. Shortly after Kim Jong-il’s death, Kim Jong-un was quite similarly hailed as the next Baekdu general by the state media and, in January 2012, a DPRK’s central TV aired a documentary about this new son of Baekdu.
With these legends, Cho’s Baekdusan started a trend of “revolutionary romanticism” which still pervades many aspects of North Korean culture. The myths and tales related in the poem would subsequently be reused and enriched, eventually giving rise to a whole literary tradition of “revolutionary legends” (혁명 전설) and “revolutionary tales” (혁명 일화), regularly appearing in newspapers and literary magazines. A sub-genre of “tales in memoriam” (추모설화) also began after the death of Kim Il-sung, with titles such as “The Sky and the Earth are Crying” or “Endless Cries of Nature”. An anthology of “Baekdu Legends” compiled by a children’s book publisher is now past its fifteenth volume. From drifting fishermen miraculously reaching shore after reciting pages of Kim Il-sung’s biography to natural phenomena foretelling the birth of Kim Jong-il, the legends range from the anecdotal to the miraculous and show influences from both indigenous folklore and foreign mythologies.
Myths and Juche Theory of Media | The creation of a mythology surrounding the leaders came to be seen as a creative way to express their greatness (위대성) and to instill revolutionary fervor through literature. This followed the evolution of Soviet fiction under Stalin following Gorky’s speech before the first congress of Soviet writers in 1934, in which he reassessed the value of myth for socialist realism. As the metaphor for a “cardinal idea” extracted from reality, myth in its structure could be “highly beneficial in that it tends to provoke a revolutionary attitude to reality, an attitude that changes the world in a practical way.”
To understand why these myths and legends also regularly show up in news reports, one only needs to look at the close relationship between print press and fiction in the DPRK. From early on, the principles of socialist realism and its definition of truth came to serve as the basis for the Juche theory of media. Kim Il-sung’s first speeches on print press stress that factuality and veracity in the news must be shown through the prism of party and popular spirit (당성화 인민성). Much like in literary socialist realism, truth is not the mere reproduction of reality, but its recreation in a way that reflects party guidelines.
Similarly, in 1974, Kim Jong-il delivered a speech in front of the North Korean journalists’ committee, stressing the importance of “seed” (종자, i.e., the main ideological component of a cultural product) and “speed battle” (속도전), two concepts he had earlier developed to orient the production of art and literature. Later indications on the proper way to write a press article would invariably echo the guidelines given to fiction writers while doctrines such as the “hidden hero movement” would be set as standards for both literary and journalistic narratives.
The Power of North Korean Myth | Before being an information media, the North Korean news is first and foremost part of a wider cultural policy aimed the mobilization of the masses through the creation of a collective imaginary. In journalism like in fiction, the truth value of a fact can only be determined in relation to its ability to maintain party loyalty and educate readers about “revolutionary tradition.” Similarly, legends and myths can be considered as true in the sense that they can be actualized as social practices with material effects. If we only consider the North’s mythology as falsification, as made-up stories presented as fact, we would fail to consider that the production of a national mythology is not firstly aimed towards making citizens believe in the supernatural essence of its rulers but towards establishing a mode of subjection on a culturally pervasive scale.
That these myths consolidate the legitimacy of the powers in place is quite obvious. They do so by offering simple and entertaining narratives illustrating the hierarchy and categories of the state’s ideology. But this process works on different levels. The first and most visible one could be called legitimization by analogy (Kim Il-sung <-> Kim Jong-il <-> Kim Jong-un, Kim Il-sung <-> Dangun, DPRK <-> Goguryeo, etc.) which builds up the leaders’ and the nation’s legitimacy through sets of historical equivalences. The second level is ubiquity: North Korea is Kim Il-sung’s country because he is omnipresent in it, occupying space (monuments), time (juche calendar), as well as consumer and cultural products. Here the sheer pervasiveness of the leaders’ figures acts as a force that establishes their political legitimacy as an irrefutable empirical evidence.
These two levels are the most easily noticeable, but to limit the North’s ideology to a constant hammering of far-fetched comparisons would prevent us from seeing a deeper set of ramifications. Policing and availability while certainly effective, cannot fully explain the spontaneous militant behaviors or the large number of migrants who still adhere to the ideology of their home country.
To step out of the “brainwash” and “mindless robots” clichés so often associated with the North’s culture, we need to overlook the historical inaccuracies and physical impossibilities of these legends and to understand that they operate on a metaphorical level where their symbolic truth is constantly reinforced through social and individual practices. The various myths associated with the leaders are versatile and meaningful, working as signifiers that exceed the political and encompass all areas of life within an organized worldview.
For instance, one of many possible interpretations for the myth of the Kims as masters of Mount Baekdu is that of continuity: continuity between fathers and sons (the Baekdusan generals), continuity of the Korean nation since its creation by Dangun five thousand years ago, continuity between the anti-Japanese struggle and the current political establishment. And it is in this aspect, that of its symbolical interpretation, that the myth can extend to citizens’ everyday lives, turning every social or individual event into a potential political statement.
Reprocessing a History of Myths in the Kim Jong-un Era | In a recent letter addressed to students of the country’s Revolutionary Institutes, Kim Jong-un thus reused the Baekdu myth by stressing the need for the contiuation of the “Baekdu bloodline” (백두혈통). This was referring to the students’ future role as the nation’s next leaders and the successors (계승자) of the revolution. Similarly, in 2012, a relay race linking Mount Baekdu to Pyongyang was organized. The race can be seen as symbolizing the efforts of the political capital to uphold the original Manchurian revolutionary struggle. But it also effectively engaged citizens in the actualization of this narrative through a concrete event, making them the agents responsible for the preservation of this very continuity.
What appears then is that these myths are not only perpetually repeated but that each repetition is also an attempt at reinterpretation or reenactment, an attempt at bringing new meaning to an old story. While all of the revolutionary legends are rooted in a political or historical statement that is ultimately a tribute to the leaders, they also work as the symbolic backbone of the entire culture, engaging artists and common people to take an active role in interpreting, recreating and spreading them. Through this constant reproduction, staging and repetition of the national mythology individuals are incorporated and unified in a coherent horizontality of shared experience.
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