Eternal Recurrence: North Korean Iconography
Eternal Recurrence: North Korean Iconography
Politics leans inevitably upon symbols, and nowhere is this more true than in North Korea. The state generates iconography in profusion, rotating around the leadership whose sacred bodies are hovered around by note-taking acolytes, honed in glorious repetition, and manipulated for audiences both domestic and international. A leader, or a clique, in the process of ruling must be adept at deploying imagery, not least because it can confuse (if not awe) outsiders while cultivating a sense of pride of association amid domestic viewers. The body of the leader is the body of state; there can be no DPRK — indeed, no Korean revolution — without Kimist leadership, whose historical inevitability is reinforced at every turn.
Fortunately, those of us who live outside of the national body of the DPRK are not without analytical tools to describe and analyse that country’s presentational narratives. Participants in a recent “Engage Korea” conference at Oxford were particularly stocked with insights by Dr. Heonik Kwon, the Cambridge University professor overflowing with with bon mots on kingship, commemoration, and legacy politics in the DRPK. In a new piece for e-IR based upon his conference presentation, Kwon notes how the North Korean state is now engaged in efforts at parallel commemoration:
How can North Korea’s current third-generation leadership relate to the proud, sovereign legacy of the first generation and the ambiguous, instrumental legacy of the second?
The answer seems, so far, to center on a certain parallelism. Kim Jong-il has become, posthumously, the eternal Chair of National Defence Commission—a powerful position in the combined hierarchy of the Workers’ Party and the People’s Army which he had kept during his rule (Kim Il-sung had become, after his death, the eternal supreme leader and head of state). He is honored with a song “The Great General is forever with us,” just as was Kim Il-sung, after his death, with the song “The Supreme Leader is forever with us.” Numerous memorial projects have been completed, which typically depict the two leaders together as the eternal guardians of revolutionary North Korea. This way, the legacies of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il are made to coexist in parallel with each other.
As Rudiger Frank noted in a now-classic essay researched in Pyongyang and entitled “North Korean Ideology after April 2012: Continuity or Disruption?“, the method of overlapping the Kims is not entirely without peril.
Today, two key memorial projects are finally linked: the high-tech weapons programs, and the statues of Kim Jong-il. The first of these does not so much belong to Kim Jong-un as it does to his father (and, as a radically substantial new Chinese history journal essay argues, to Kim Il-song). However, the statues of Kim Jong-il do belong very much and very fully to Kim Jong-un’s era. Both the rockets and the statues are manifestations of the successor’s loyalty to the behest of his father and his further intent to institutionalize songun chong’chi, or “military first politics.”
The amount of care taken in creating these statues and protecting them from possible harm — even in a warfare scenario, the relics are to be safeguarded foremost — is significant. It is also clear that Kim Jong-un himself takes a great personal interest in their creation, often making trips to the Mansudae Art Studios to supervise the evolving iconography of his predecessors.
This past week, observers were treated to the mind-bending spectacle of Kim Jong-un striking a pose in perfect harmony of an image which he himself had commissioned of Kim Il-song. The entire tableaux appeared to have been created precisely to call attention to the present young commander’s to the portrait of the dictator as a young man, Kim Il-song in the Korean War, with his love of giant maps and appropriately giant gestures, a man (the subject of the sentence, like the subject of this North Korean art, now being perfectly and suitably ambiguous, so long as it evokes genius and Kimist charisma) being tested not simply by war shadows but by the stresses of depicting war, which as everyone knows is rather stressful.
When it comes to depictions of conflict, care in depiction is paramount. Take, for example, the example of Choe Hwi (seen wearing black above, and navy blue here, with a First Lady whose Dior handbag is a kind of talisman against her “reincarnated Kim Jong-suk” persona). Choe worked in the late 1990s and early 2000s as head of the Kim Il Sung Socialist Youth League, and he now appears to have emerged as a successor-figure to the octogenarian chief regime propagandist Kim Ki-nam. Choe Hwi has a lot to say about statues, monuments, and inscriptions, as well as the functional need of university students to bow to such icons. As he, a man sensitive to such things who prefers black, would surely agree, the choice of clothing matters. Thus:
A new ream of statues of Kim Jong-il was unveiled in February 2012, just in time for the Dear Leader’s 70th birthday. (He had, of course, inconveniently died but three months prior to that milestone, being wrapped within the tunneling fervor of one last speed campaign.) Even on his equestrian monstrosity, amid that wave of statuary, the leader was primarily depicted wearing vinylon and/or a trench coat. As for Kim Il-song, he lost his Mao suit for a Western suit and tie, and had glasses and a rictus smile added, presumably to depict his satisfaction at having seen the fruition of his dream for a powerful and wealthy DPRK, or just to look better for his Economist cover.
However, in the leadup to Kim Jong-il’s 71st birthday in 2013 (the second such anniversary which had to celebrated without the Dear Leader being present, and thus unable to protest), a new design for Kim Jong-il’s clothing was added to the most famous of the statues.
At the time, I speculated that the apparent “breeze from below” lifting up the corner of Kim Jong-il’s blazer was in fact a reference to the country’s third underground nuclear test. Now, a painting from the Mansudae Art Studios (seen at the top of this essay) would appear to argue that the lift under the parka is in fact a completely unsubtle nod to the country’s missile test.
Lest this interpretation be seen as far-fetched, consider that Kim Jong-un as recently as May Day had been explicitly likening Kim Jong-il’s favorite band (the Unhasu Orchestra) to a nuclear bomb, and that the program at that event was completely suffused with Kim Jong-il melodic memorabilia. And the same resonance (obvious to North Korean observers) was true for the DPRKs own coverage of the Unhasu Orchestra and its visit to Paris in 2012, as this piece edited by Max Fisher argues.
For North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons and its missiles, therefore, would also mean that it would need to change its statues, and the way it talks about its deeply-entrenched musical and artistic cultures.
To turn a brilliant sentence by Jeffrey Lewis completely on its head, it is we who would thereby demand “the destruction of both the past as well as the future” by removing the nuclear underpinnings that are presently evoked in the sculpted bronze and sculpted melodies which Pyongyang has been producing in such abundance. The art, in a word, would become meaningless.
The king’s two bodies may be dead, but the struggle to depict their living legacies — elemental, spiritual, exploding and genetic — remains very much in effect.
Blog by: Adam Cathcart