Yongusil 65: Adam Cathcart on the Footprints of Legitimacy

By | April 07, 2015 | No Comments

Time Compression on Mangyongdae: Kim Il Song and Kim Jong Il, both looking roughly 40 years old, emerge on February 15, 2012. | Image: Rodong Sinmun

Time Compression on Mangyongdae: Kim Il Song and Kim Jong Il, both looking roughly 40 years old, emerge on February 15, 2012. | Image: Rodong Sinmun

The importance of tradition and precedent are familiar to any scholar of the Korean peninsula. Historical scholarly-adventurers of the Korean Peninsula such as Isabella Bishop-Bird, Charles Campbell, and Alfred Cavendish were renowned for the production of travelogue and reportage from the outer limits of colonial adventure, producing the first draft in many cases of Anglophone perceptions of Korea. These Victorian and Edwardian explorers’ accounts privilege the unexpected and unlikely encounter with the no longer “imagined” Korea almost above all else. For scholars today, though we are weighted also with theory and more than a few decades of new reading, their footsteps surely weight heavy and authoritative, to the extent that they remain capable influencing later works of extraordinary insight such as Tessa Morris-Suzuki’s To the Diamond Mountains.

Though very differently expressed, these footsteps of legitimacy are of course a feature common to local North Korean narratives of historical encounter. Pyongyang’s “legacy politics” is vitally dependent on the historical and geographic reality of these footsteps and footprints, its political and ideological culture firmly grafted onto terrains and engagements of history and mythos.

While Kim Il-sung’s authority was formulated and articulated by politics and literature contemporary to his appearance in Pyongyang in 1945 (at the behest and engineering of Soviet forces), in the ur-narratives of his pre-Liberation encounter with the forces of Imperial Japan, the North Korean political milieu has demanded that each proceeding generation be similarly marked by this resistive, violent, urgency. For the person of Kim Il-sung and his attendants, returning to anti-colonial resistance, even when fully overblown, contained within it a kernel of truth, even as competitors who had been part of different factions were gradually squeezed (and edited) out of political and narrative spaces. For Kim Jong-il and Kim Jong-un however the gusts and breezes of authenticity seem further and further away, more and more diffuse; North Korea’s narrative and mythic pistons must pump ever harder to connect the two with any real utility.

Adam Cathcart, in his working paper for the School of Oriental and African Studies, “‘Kim Jong-un Syndrome’: North Korean Commemorative Culture and the Succession Process,” explores the processes by which the mythic spaces of Manchurian guerrilla struggle are translated into the North Korean contemporary everyday. Cathcart ponders how Kim Il-sung’s authority forged in battle at Ponchobo and Huanggouling is bestowed upon Kim Jong-un as he examines the work of the KPA at Masik Pass or takes pleasure in the polo grounds of the Mirim Riding Club. Engaging in extensive narrative exegesis Cathcart tracks the connections and disconnections through North Korea’s presentational and historical production, considering at some length the challenges posited by the University of Vienna’s Rudiger Frank, specifically the logic of Pyongyang’s continued assertion and dependence of the diffuse and tenuous generational connections between Kim Il-sung and his grandson.

Cathcart’s paper leaves the space and realm of narrative to investigate those moments in which necessity demands Kim Jong-un, previous Kims, and the narratives of combat and struggle (though not those of the pre-Liberation guerrilla struggle) be constructed and contrived into a physical, corporeal, and commemorative space. The Sinchon Museum is one of a number of intriguing sites of memory and memorialization focused on the war of 1950-1953 in which the period of combat is recounted from a North Korea or Chinese perspective. Equally, Pyongyang’s new Korean War Museum (opened by Kim Jong-un in 2012) blurs the notion of which Kim, exactly, is currently embodied and represented by the many statues located across North Korea; to this extent Cathcart recounts art historian Martha Haufler, who quipped “There he stands — whoever he is!’

As Cathcart sees it, Kim Jong-un is represented in both current and historical narratives as “a man comfortable within the folds of this history.” He insightfully and artfully explores these restive footprints and folds even as it seems their fate is to be deployed eternally in the service and process of North Korean succession.

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