“Victory Day,” the Canonization of Kim Jong-il, and North Korean Succession Politics
By now, North Korea’s celebration of its own survival against the United States, South Korea, and the United Nations forces in the Korean War should surprise no one at all. We have come to expect Pyongyang’s firm exclusion of Chinese comrades from these narratives and the engorging personalization of North Korea’s local battlefield victories within the war as engineered solely by Kim Il-sung, around whose alleged genius the people had firmly united.
But what if something else is going on within the commemoration? Is it possible that Kim Jong-un’s own power consolidation remains partial, and that a reinterpretation of North Korean history is taking place to facilitate this ongoing process? And why is the propaganda apparatus so fixated on pushing a narrative of Kim Jong-il’s own youth? With these questions in mind, Sino-NK’s editor in chief explores a few folds in the massive drapery that is Pyongyang’s commemoration of the Korean War’s Armistice. — Steven Denney, Managing Editor
“Victory Day,” the Canonization of Kim Jong-il, and North Korean Succession Politics
by Adam Cathcart
July 27 is no ordinary day in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. Celebrations of the 1953 “victory” (via the signing of an armistice by the United States) form a fundamental part of North Korea’s concept of itself as a state. Kim Jong-un’s rare direct verbalization about President Obama on July 26, complaints about Obama’s use of the V-word in his July 27 proclamation, and the DPRK state media’s often steadfastly counterfactual interpretations of the war indicate very much that the Korean War “Victory Day” is a key inflection point for the regime in Pyongyang.
It has already been remarked upon by many observers and news outlets that China formed no part at all in this year’s commemoration, and that this absence means that Sino-North Korean relations are “on the rocks.” At last year’s commemoration, after all, a Chinese Vice President, Li Yuanchao, had been an honored guest. For observers eager to find fissures in North Korea’s international relations, this apparent snub to China in the aftermath of Xi Jinping’s trip to Seoul has taken on some significance.
While it is true that China did send an important envoy to participate in last year’s festivities, China and the DPRK have been moving in different directions on this particular commemoration for some time. (For perspective, Sino-NK covered the July 27 commemorations in 2012 and 2013 with an eye toward the delicate historical politics between China and North Korea). The absence of a Chinese envoy at the 2014 ceremony in and of itself tells us very little about the Chinese-North Korean relationship; nor does such an observation meaningfully illuminate the way in which North Korea is changing its own story of the Korean War.
So how is that story changing? Is it possible for North Korea to change the story and its narrative of the Korean War? In a divided country, such an adaptation is certainly important; and while it may be occurring slowly, it is surely happening.
One thing that has been indeed happening is that China has been written out of the war. The best that we have seen from North Korea are a few statements from men like Choe Ryong-hae. Another conciliatory public event was a surprise undertaken by Kim Jong-un and his entire cabinet to the tomb of Chairman Mao’s son. China’s contributions to the North Korean war effort were therefore noted in front-page fashion in late July 2013, but we should expect very little after this. And surely there is little political benefit to a North Korean leader to be perceived as kowtowing to China; offering thanks when none is needed or expected. To my knowledge, there is very little mention of China in the huge new Korean War Museum, and Kim Jong-un seems very unlikely or disposed to later acknowledging China’s huge role in saving North Korea during the Korean War.
Cultures of Kimist Commemoration | What is changing much faster, by North Korean standards certainly, is the incorporation of Kim Jong-Il into the Korean War narrative. This is particularly interesting and meaningful in the North Korean hyper-commemorative context, i.e., the state’s extremely narrowly historical viewpoint on news and propaganda. This is a country, after all, where a story about a meeting in 1974 can be front-page news for almost a week, and forty years after the fact.
North Korea’s culture of commemoration naturally coils around and magnifies the personalist rule of the Kim family. That the adulation of the Kims extends back into the Korean War is a given: Kim Il-song (1912-1994), the state founder, ignited and survived the war, and himself immediately moved to solidify a narrative of his own unblemished record after the war by purging his Foreign Minister as the architect of every wartime error. What is perhaps surprising is that the state is now bringing his son, Kim Jong-il (1942-2011), increasingly into this wartime narrative.
Even for readers whose acquaintance with history and North Korea is casual, this may seem strange, because the math seems a bit off. After all, Kim Jong-Il was eight years old when the Korean War began in June 1950, and he was 11 years old when it ended in July 1953. Why, rationally, would North Korean propagandists and publicists and writers and historians bring Kim Jong-il into the foreground when it comes to celebrating the Korean War? Why would the current leader wish to do so, or approve of this depiction of his father? What does it tell us about the North Korean system that this is happening?
When the current Kim came into power, he and his advisors made the most conscientious and consistent attempt to elevate Kim Jong-il in the minds of the North Korean people, rather than allowing for any expression of doubt about the Kim Jong-il years which might have created a centimeter of distance between the father and the son that might imply the possibility of policy shifts. This is what I would call “Kim Jong-il revisionism.”
Kim Jong-il Revisionism | In some ways this is a process was happening even before Kim Jong-il’s death. Dramas from the late Kim Jong-il era, like “Now We Will Remember” and movies Wish, were already explaining the broader outlines of how Kim Jong-il really had a wonderful dream for Korea’s development, but it was the failure of the people to work hard enough to bring it into reality. (It is surely possible to remark how similar this particular propaganda trope is to the early postwar Japanese expressions of collective guilt for having failed Emperor Hirohito without capitulating wholesale to BR Myers’ rather problematic argument that the North Korean state is essentially a reflection of Japanese wartime fascism.) Today, Kim Jong-il’s contributions to the North Korean revolution are being interpreted as equal in weight to those of Kim Il-sung, and statues of the younger leader are increasingly (and expensively) being paired with those of the state founder around the DPRK.
When it comes to Kim Jong-il revisionism, Kim Jong-un surely has to be considered its foremost exponent. His filial moves to commemorate Kim Jong-il are hailed by state media as proof of his intelligence. Calls for “Kim Jong-il Patriotism” are ubiquitous, and the concept continues to be fleshed out as, essentially, whatever the regime wants it to mean — usually something rather conservative. Kim Jong-il may have approved of massive new Special Economic Zones with Chinese investment, but those kind of legacies are best amputated (brutally so, in the case of Jang Song-taek’s execution). Vaguely un-socialist economic tendencies are thus left firmly excluded from the category of “Kim Jong-il Patriotism.”
In promoting his dead father as a living political entity, the current North Korean leader has a great deal of help from the people around him–men that rose along with Kim Jong-il and abetted his rise, who are helping to cement, engrave, paint, and bronze the dead man’s legacy even now. What this means is that the 1990s and early 2000s are now being interpreted as an era of great foundation building and sacrifice for the current year of prosperity and nuclear superiority. Kim Jong-il is seen as great modernizer, someone who sacrificed for the people’s living standards and took the necessary steps to make North Korea a “strong and prosperous nation” (강성대국), amongst other efforts.
Kim Jong-il’s Youth as a Focal Point for Patriotic Education | The recent Korean War commemorations accelerated the ongoing revision by the state of the historical record of Kim Jong-il’s childhood and teenage years. These are being built up with a kind of mania by the state; there is a real zeal among the propaganda apparatus for new and detailed narratives of Kim Jong-il’s youth as a model loyal patriot. Perhaps this is a simple updating of the country’s patriotic myths for its own use. There is, after all, a mound of challenges waiting in the future, and the difficulty of maintaining orthodoxy in patriotic education for the demographic balloon of youth is clearly something about which the state is thinking a great deal.
North Korea has recently been bringing Kim Jong-il’s biography more firmly into line with the Korean War narrative. What this means is that Kim Jong-il, who actually spent most of the Korean War not in Korea but in Manchuria, within the relatively peaceful embrace of the People’s Republic of China and the city of Jilin, is now being brought back firmly into North Korean territory for the duration of the conflict.
He is seen studying at his fathers side, already on the road toward “Songun (military-first) leadership,” preparing himself to rule over North Korea. Is very much what we see in the dynastic succession. It creates a sense of normalcy around the notion that an 8, 9, 10 or 11-year-old can prepare conscientiously to become the ruler of the state, and foremost above all, is capable of learning the arts of military leadership at such an age.
The state has already been pushing this line with respect to Kim Jong-il’s activities some ten years later, in 1960:
… the North Korean state has been busy layering on artifacts, stories, narratives, and events to add ballast to the Songun ideology. Not least of these fell due on August 25, 2013, the “anniversary” of the 18-year-old Kim Jong-il’s 1960 visit with his father to a tank corps that had pushed south into Seoul only a decade prior…. Effectively back-dating the succession from Kim Il-sung to Kim Jong-il, the celebration of precocious Kimist militarism took center stage this August  in Pyongyang.
Returning to the regime’s narrative of Kim Jong-il as having been active in the Korean War:
The eight-year old Kim Jong-il’s poem to his father at the Korean War battlefront has taken on the privileged position of a historically relevant document–now set to music by none other than the Moranbong Band. While this could be seen as what Max Fisher has termed “The Infantilization of Kim Jong-il” or some neat Oedipal tricks, the fact remains that Kim Jong-il’s youth is vitally important for the securing (and re-securing) of legitimacy for the North Korean notion that youth and leadership go hand in hand.
What This Means for the Kim Jong-un Succession Process | The tendency to bring out Kim Jong-il’s youthful exploits has obvious import for the current leader, who arrived in office very much under the age of 30, and whose own sketchy biography remains open to much speculation. The idea from Pyongyang’s point of view is, of course, that from the age of three the young Kim was essentially predestined to rule the country, and in a very Confucian way he thereby indicates that he was preternaturally destined to be a just ruler who understands all the precepts of the state and its ideologies. Naturally, the best way to learn this is from the lap of the leader himself.
But even where the state tries to create a strength, it reveals a weakness. Thanks to North Korea’s famous opacity, we actually know little about the extent to which the current leader was exposed to such militant arts by his father. There is very little photographic evidence to suggest that between the ages of three or four and 25, that the current leader had anything whatsoever to do with the North Korean military state or that he was in some way preparing for his current role. Not least: there are no public photographs of Kim Jong-un with his grandfather, who was very much alive and in command of the DPRK for the first nine years of Kim Jong-un’s life. At some point down the road, these pictures may be shared, but then again, they might not exist. The thought that Kim Il-sung himself might not have explicitly approved of Kim Jong-un as an heir is not one which state historians and propagandists are eager to broach. Still less, the possibility that Kim Jong-un was in fact kept far away from the aging but still potent state founder in the 1980s and early 1990s, is not something which is brought up.
Even North Koreans within the country surely have some sense that their leader, as a youth, was gone from the DPRK for number of years and was very divorced from North Korean realities, precisely during the difficult period of the Arduous March (고난의 행군; the great famine in the 1990s) — a point that rarely follows from the standard evocations of Kim Jong-un’s youthful worship of Michael Jordan, whose zenith also coincided with the Arduous March. Kim Jong-il’s newly “discovered” time in the DPRK for the duration of the Korean War (not just the traumatic flight from Pyongyang under a very real and heavy US bombing) is meant to deepen assertions of the young man’s empathy for the suffering of the masses. Here his son has received no such treatment; there are no anecdotes — real or manufactured — about the young Kim Jong-un roaming the countryside during the Arduous March, understanding the horrors of life and death at the county level.
If the purpose of such portrayals is not purely to depict empathy, then what are they about? Under Kim Jong-un’s rule, these portrayals of Kim Jong-Il as young man are becoming more and more important due to the fact that they roll back Kim Jong-il’s functional presence at the center of national decision-making toward an earlier and earlier date.
To state things more dramatically, the North Koreans are now backdating the Kim Jong-il succession, essentially, to the Korean War. This is remarkable, because it puts forward a pattern of succession and dynastic politics that goes back to the very origins of the North Korean state itself. The fact that Kim Jong-il’s own succession was not really solidified until the early 1980s is not simply immaterial here, it is literally three decades too late for the new North Korean historiography.
So What? | At this point the reader can be forgiven for thinking “So what? The North Koreans are crazy about making their leaders look like geniuses; there is nothing to see here.” As ever, this may be true. But North Korean propagandists do not change the biographies of their leaders just simply because they have nothing better to do.
At the very least, the renewed emphasis on Kim Jong-il’s youth goes beyond standard hagiography. It may indicate a level of concern among North Korean propaganda officials that Kim Jong-un is perceived as illegitimate, that there are doubts about the depth to which he has mastered–or even understands–the North Korean system over which he presides. Perhaps there are sensitivities in Pyongyang to assertions that he has still failed to consolidated power because Kim Jong-Il gave him access to so little, so late.
By creating allegories of Kim Jong-il at a young age at which the young North Korean heir was being entrusted with the keys of state and actively discussing governance and policy, the state now creates a clear allegory whereby Kim Jong-un can emerge as very much in the same model. In this model, young North Korean leaders are given access to privileged information and are predestined to rule; they are adept the military arts from young age. To such a system there appear no challenges, no alternatives, and no turning back. The appearance of a genius child predestined to lead the North Korean people forward into a nuclear workers’ utopia has now become part of the bedrock of the Pyongyang regime.
An earlier version of this essay incorrectly stated that Kim Jong-il was 11 years old when the Korean War ended in July 1951; the Korean War Armistice was, in fact, signed in July 1953 (when Kim Jong-il was indeed 11 years old), and the Korean War has never been formally concluded.