“Be Prepared!” Reflections On The North Korean Children’s Union

By | June 13, 2013 | No Comments

Korean Children's Union delegates arrive for the 2012 rally | Source: KCNA

Korean Children’s Union delegates arrive for the 2012 rally | Image: KCNA

In reviewing the official handbook of the Boy Scouts of America, John Atherton writes, “The connection between a society’s view of its past and the world it creates for its youth has always been a close one.” If youth is, indeed, “a period of recuperation of outmoded forms of behavior,” then we might view the North Korean Children’s Union’s (KCU) revival over the past year as more than just an insight into the ways in which the youngest members of North Korea are mobilized in service of the Songun state. Looking at the structure, ritual, and uniforms (down to the signature red neckerchief) at last week’s congress for the Korean Children’s Union, Christopher Richardson, doctoral candidate at the University of Sydney, delves into the renewed significance of the organization just as the nation marches onward in the second year under its young leader. – Darcie Draudt, Assistant Editor

“Be Prepared!” Reflections On The North Korean Children’s Union

by Christopher Richardson

On June 6, 2013, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) celebrated the Seventh Congress of the Korean Children’s Union (KCU) in Pyongyang. A feature of North Korean civic life since the organization’s inception in 1946, the Children’s Union (조선소년단) has experienced a revival under the leadership of Kim Jong-un. This year repeated the mass spectacle of 2012, as delegates from across North Korea arrived in Pyongyang for a week of celebrations, publicly re-consecrating the commitment of Kim Jong-un to his youngest constituency, and binding children to the political aims of the state. Moreover, whilst the Union continues to engage in all its usual activities–singing, dancing, and parading–this is undoubtedly a Children’s Union for the songun era. On June 3, Rodong Sinmun reported that members of the Children’s Union in Hamhung had “donated multiple launch rocket systems” to the Korean People’s Army (KPA), as an example of the Union’s long-tradition of “Do Good” activities. [1] Not your typical Bob-a-Job, then. This post will consider the revival of the Korean Children’s Union under Kim Jong-un, and its continued importance in North Korean civic life.

All Songun, All Dancin’ : Exultation of the Leader through the KCU | Following 2012’s Day of the Sun centenary of the birth of Kim Il-sung, marked by Kim Jong-un’s first public address, and the disappointment of a failed missile launch, it was notable the DPRK chose the 66th Anniversary of the foundation of the Korean Children’s Union as the next focal point for mass public attention. Given the fragility of the economy, the need for agricultural reforms, failure of the Leap Day Agreement with the United States of America, and even fissures in the Sino-North Korean relationship, it could be argued there were more pressing matters than lavishly commemorating the work of the Children’s Union. In fact, the Children’s Union made, and continues to make, an ideal rallying point for a state in political and economic transition.

Korean Children's Union delegates made the obligatory trek to Mansu Hill in Pyongyang at the 2012 rally | Source: KCNA

Korean Children’s Union delegates made the obligatory trek to Mansu Hill in Pyongyang at the 2012 rally | Image: KCNA

Officially, commemoration of last year’s anniversary was an unalloyed triumph. State media covered the story for a fortnight, telling and retelling stories of excited children and their parents, accompanied by images of immaculately attired boys and girls waving, smiling and laughing as they entered Pyongyang from every corner of the country, joining a rolling parade of tours, games, and rallies, culminating in the second public address of Kim Jong-un himself. In his speech on June 6, 2012, Kim celebrated the fact that:

There are in the world no such schoolchildren as those in the DPRK, millions in all, reliably growing to be pillars of the future… treasures more precious than a hundred million tons of gold and silver as they represent hope and future…. There were no such great fathers in the world as the Generalissimos [Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il] who put forward the children as kings of the country and devoted everything to the schoolchildren all their lives, regarding it as the most important affairs of the Party and state to show love for the younger generation.[2]

Continuing Pyongyang’s tradition of rhetorically partnering exultation and love with hate and the redemptive power of ultra-violence, the celebration coincided with an escalation of rhetoric against the Republic of Korea (ROK), culminating in threats to turn Seoul to ashes, following President Lee’s criticism of the April missile launch as a wasted opportunity to spend $850 million dollars on feeding children. The KCNA accused the ROK’s conservative press of defamation for comparing the Union to the Hitler Youth of Nazi Germany, declaring that Lee, “seriously slandered Korean children, misinterpreting everything in the world…a folly that could be done only by Lee, an imbecile and idiot ignorant of what the KCU is like.”[3] Perhaps the North protested too much, simultaneously broadcasting images of primary school children attacking effigies of the South Korean President and American soldiers on national television.

Scouting For Boys (and Girls): Rallying the Nation through its Children | Perhaps a less inflammatory, and more useful, analogy might have been made with the Soviet Young Pioneers, or the British scouting movement, the model upon which all subsequent children’s movements were founded.[4] Established in 1946, the Korean Children’s Union combines the civic-minded wholesomeness of Robert Baden-Powell’s scouting movement, with the military-first (songun) ideology of the contemporary North Korean state. The Children’s Union and Scouts even share the same motto, “Be Prepared!” Chapter Nine of Scouting For Boys had been entitled, “Patriotism; or, Our Duties as Citizens.” Opening with a romanticized account of the natural and inevitable evolution of Empire and the moral authority of the British state, Baden-Powell linked the psychological and physical regimentation of the scouting movement to the very survival of these political institutions, and the lives of the scouts themselves. The obligations, and even the pleasures, of scouting, were elevated to existential necessity. In rhetoric today better suited to Sandhurst than the primary schoolyard, Baden-Powell wrote that, “Peace cannot be certain unless we show that we are always fully prepared to defend ourselves…that an invader would only find himself ramming his head against bayonets and well-aimed bullets if he tried landing on our shores. The surest way to keep peace is to be prepared for war.”[5] Yet after the initial publication of Scouting For Boys, Baden-Powell’s exhortation that children, “be prepared to die for your country,” would be excised from subsequent editions of the text, reflecting a waning militarism in British society after the trauma of the Great War. Henceforth, the scouting motto became less a call to defend the British Empire than a call to personal and community responsibility.

The Korean Children's Union donated multiple launch rocket systems, on view at a parade in Hamheung, South Hamgyeong Province, on June 1, 2013. | Source: Rodong Sinmun

The Korean Children’s Union donated multiple launch rocket systems, on view at a parade in Hamheung, South Hamgyeong Province, on June 1, 2013. | Image: Rodong Sinmun

In North Korea, on the other hand, time has not dimmed the patriotism and self-sacrificial militarism of the Children’s Union. Members pledge to “turn out as human bullets and bombs,” should the need arise.[6] To “Be Prepared” is to remain vigilant against the possibility of re-invasion by Japanese imperialists or re-launch of war with the United States and her puppet southern Korean ally, and the motto functions as a warning against the counter-revolutionary creep of anti-state ideology and culture. Thus, Kim Jong-un exhorted children to “become genuine juvenile revolutionaries and guards in the era of songun who safeguard the party like the heroes of the Anti-Japanese Children’s Corps and juvenile guerillas during the Fatherland Liberation War.”

Membership of the Union consists of every able-bodied child from the age of seven to approximately fourteen, the first of several formal associations a North Korean is expected to join, continuing upon graduation in mid-adolescence with entrance to the Kim Il-sung Socialist Youth League. An important training ground for future elites, Kim Jong-il’s own path to political prominence began in the Children’s Union, elected to the role of union chairman of the First Pyongyang Middle School, aged thirteen. Organizationally, the Union is divided into various tiers, legislating multiple strata for surveillance, the inculcation of vertical leadership practices, and rehearsal of the state’s communitarian values. These tiers consist of nation-wide, regional, then school-wide administrative areas, dividing further into classroom detachments, and finally into sub-cells of between five and ten children. Ultimate oversight of the Union is controlled by the Party in Pyongyang, via the Science Education Department of the Party’s Central Committee, reflecting the prominence of the Union in the organization of the state’s cultural life.[7]

The Union reflects the performance culture of the North Korean “theatre state,” engaging a child’s desire to belong with a finely choreographed ritual atmosphere. As Andrei Lankov writes, “sonyondan [the Children’s Union] is a deliberately ritualistic organization which skillfully exploits children’s love of ritual, oaths, and parades. The sonyondan induction ceremony is an especially important event in North Korean school life…held in some public place, with the participation of teachers, parents and local officials. A party functionary reads the Solemn Oath, which is repeated by the children, then parents and teachers approach the children and present them with red neckties.”[8] The success of the Union partially resides in the state’s ability to create an organization that simultaneously feels special and apart, distinctively for the child, whilst also an integral organ of the body of state.

Over 3,000 North Korean children celebrated International Children's day last week at the Mangyongdae Amusement Park on the outskirts of Pyongyang | Source: KCNA

Over 3,000 North Korean children celebrated International Children’s day last week at the Mangyongdae Amusement Park on the outskirts of Pyongyang | Image: KCNA

Annually, there are three such induction ceremonies. The first is held on the February 16 birthday of Kim Jong-il, the second on the April 15 birthday of Kim Il-sung, and the third is held on the June 6 anniversary of the Union itself. There are also state prizes to be won. On the 100th anniversary of the birth of Kim Il-sung, the state distributed prizes to 211 members of the Union, rewarding those children best “equipped with Kim Il-sung’s revolutionary idea, the juche idea … distinguished examples in study, organizational life of the children’s union, socio-political activities and do-good-thing campaign to be reliable heirs to the songun revolutionary cause, knowledgeable, moral and healthy.”[9]

Red Tie, Blood Ties: Another Example of Songbun at Work | In many ways, the 2012 Union Anniversary was an early triumph for Kim Jong-un, generating power through the enchantment of a constituency easy to please, and eager to please. Yet beneath the surface symbolism remain the familiar fault-lines of contemporary North Korean society. The spectacle of mass unity depicted in state media concealed the fact that selection for entry to celebrations operated principally along class lines, with children from elite families competing for privileges. A source in Sinuiju suggested the extent to which biology has become bound to questions of songbun (genealogical status system) in shaping political identity, alleging that children seeking to attend celebrations in Pyongyang were subjected to physical examination, including blood tests.[10] Framing identity this way, the state propagates a notion that the bloodline of the Kims might be tainted by nothing more than the presence of biologically inferior children.

Likewise, those selected to attend were expected to provide their own garments, including the characteristic red tie of the Union. Thus, the celebration highlighted not only ideological and biological distinctions between children, but also related, and rapidly expanding, economic differences. Even amongst those able to attend, the quality of fabric used to sew suits and ties betrayed distinctions. The exacerbation of division and competitiveness amongst children is one of the central paradoxes of life in North Korea. On the one hand, such rivalry betrays the fundamentally non-egalitarian nature of contemporary society, yet on the other hand, such competitiveness fosters an uneasy cohesion, as outsiders yearn and strive to join the inside ranks.

Members of the Korean Children's Union at the 2012 rally in Pyongyang | Source: KCNA

Members of the Korean Children’s Union at the 2012 rally in Pyongyang | Image: KCNA

Despite such divisions, the Korean Children’s Union remains a powerful instrument of state. With its emphasis on discipline, community and a sense of belonging, it represents the most admirable virtues of North Korean culture, as well as its vices. Patriotism and austere civic-mindedness may be antiquated values to modern Western eyes, but often childhood memories remain the most favorable, even amongst defectors. Whilst Kim Jong-un’s youth is counted as weakness in much analysis of the North Korean future, it also brings opportunities to renew the social contract between the state and a generation of children from whom legitimacy must be derived. The Korean Children’s Union will remain a key institution for securing it.

[1] “KCU Members Donate Multiple Launch Rocket Systems to KPA,” Rodong Sinmun (Pyongyang), 3 June 2012. http://www.rodong.rep.kp/InterEn/index.php?strPageID=SF01_02_01&newsID=2013-06-03-0002&chAction=T

[2] “Kim Jong-un Makes Congratulatory Speech at Joint Meeting of KCU Organizations,” KCNA (Pyongyang), 6 June 2012.

[3] “S. Korean Regime Hit for Defaming Celebrations of KCU Anniversary,” KCNA (Pyongyang), 19 June 2012.

[4] Catriona Kelly, Children’s World: Growing Up In Russia 1890-1991 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007), 547-555.

[5] Robert Baden-Powell, Scouting For Boys: The Original 1908 Edition (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), 277-8.

[6] “Korean Youth, Children Denounce Lee Myung Bak Regime’s Malignant Outbursts,” KCNA (Pyongyang), 5 June 2012.

[7] Min Cho-hee, “Political Life Launched by Chosun Children’s Union,” The Daily NK (Seoul), 7 June 2010. http://www.dailynk.com/english/read.php?cataId=nk02900&num=6466

[8] Andrei Lankov, North of the DMZ: Essays on Daily Life in North Korea (Jefferson: McFarland, 2007), 203.

[9] “Kim Il-sung Children Honor Prize Goes to Exemplary Children′s Union Members in Pyongyang,” KCNA (Pyongyang), 10 April 2012.

[10] Choi Song-min, “Medical Exams to Meet the Boss,” The Daily NK (Seoul), 6 June 2012. http://www.dailynk.com/english/read.php?cataId=nk01500&num=9329


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