Warfare by Feelings: Strategy, Spontaneity, and Emotions in Kim Il-sung’s Tactical Thinking

By | May 10, 2016 | No Comments

Kim Il-sung addresses the partisan troops prior to the Battle of Pochonbo in 1937. | Image: KCNA

Kim Il-sung energizes the partisan troops and civilians prior to the Battle of Pochonbo in 1937. | Image: KCNA

In modern industrial societies, overt displays of great emotion are systematically devalued. Work for a blue chip company? The last thing you should — most of the time — do is respond to the demands of those above with outrage. Although occasional outbursts may be tolerated, those who do it repeatedly risk censure. Excessive emotion is mostly bad news for careers. 

Emotion is also undesirable for modern professional armies in the theater of conflict, where the presumption is that a surfeit of emotion — other than warrior passion and controlled, righteous anger — is a danger to self and others. In 1957’s The Soldier and the State, Samuel Huntington posits a theory of military professionalism that pursues an effective civilian-military control system within which emotion has practically no role. When contemporary scholars appropriate Huntington’s title for their own work, it is often to highlight instances of abject failure, such as in Thomas Barron’s 2013 work The Soldier and the State in the Congo Crisis: The Unprofessional Legacy of the National Congolese Army.

Not so in North Korea. In a new essay for Sino-NK, Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein1)Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein is a PhD Student in History at University of Pennsylvania, focusing on North Korean history. He is also co-editor of North Korean Economy Watch. looks at the role of emotion in DPRK military and political culture. He makes no claims for the actual command and control structures of the Korean People’s Army, much less what senior commanders – who are professional soldiers with a job to do – actually value most highly in their subordinates. But he does demonstrate clearly that in North Korea’s “legacy of partisan struggle” rhetoric, emotion is not a problem, it is a solution. — Christopher Green, Co-editor

Warfare by Feelings: Strategy, Spontaneity and Emotions in Kim Il-sung’s Tactical Thinking

by Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

War is a central theme in North Korea’s political culture. At the time of writing we are only five months into 2016, and the year has already seen a claimed (but probably not fully successful) hydrogen bomb test, and a satellite launch that served as a test of North Korea’s ballistic missile capability. Scholars have long used labels like “guerrilla dynasty” and “partisan family state” to describe the centrality of war to the North Korean national saga, arguing that the roots to many of its current policies can be traced back to guerrilla warfare against the colonizing Japanese in the 1930s.

But how is war and warfare portrayed in North Korea? What are the military ideals that the regime espouses, and how does regime propaganda describe a good soldier?

Kim Il-sung's protracted memoir, With the Century, which contains many clues to the role of emotion in DPRK political and military culture. | Image: Tongil News

Kim Il-sung’s protracted memoir, With the Century, which contains many clues to the role of emotion in DPRK political and military culture. | Image: Tongil News

Partisan Warfare: The North Korean Ideal | There are no uniform answers to these questions, but studying one of the core parts of the North Korean propaganda canon provides interesting insights. Kim Il-sung’s autobiography, With the Century, hails several warfare ideals that may seem surprising. Here, warfare is not mainly conducted for reasons of strategic rationality and tactical wisdom. The ideal soldier, as embodied in the example of Kim’s partisan troops, is one that fights based on emotional conviction and love for the homeland. The partisans do not win out in the war against the Japanese because they follow orders and strict discipline, but because of their strong emotional dedication to their cause. This ties in with a broader theme of how social relations are portrayed in North Korean propaganda. Sonia Ryang has observed that the portrayal of Kim Il-sung, for example, is far from that of a stern “Big Brother”-esque figure.

Rather, she notes, “Just like the gods of Greek mythology, Kim Il-sung can be playful, angry, whimsical, and very, very intelligent.” Ryang’s description is apt not only for Kim himself, but even applies to North Korean military ideals writ large. The North Korean soldier is not a stern, iron-disciplined character, but is instead driven by emotional dedication, and his emotional dedication sometimes turns into spontaneity and even outright defiance of military norms.

Pochonbo: Spontaneity and Emotionality circa. 1937 | To understand how spontaneity and emotionality fits into the picture, consider the two chapters from With the Century that describe the famed battle of Pochonbo. The battle of Pochonbo holds a special place in the North Korean historical narrative, as one of the seminal events of the anti-Japanese struggle upon which the guerrilla tradition rests.

When discussing the reasons for attacking Pochonbo, Kim often cites the importance of propaganda victories to awaken the spirit of the Korean people, rather than achieving military objectives:

[The people] watched in surprise as Japan swallowed Manchuria in a breath, and thought that there was no army in the world that could take them on. Some people even thought that taking on a strong country like Japan in a war of independence would be absurd and impossible as trying to crack a rock with an egg.

Kim continuously emphasizes the emotional and propagandistic value of warfare, rather than military-strategic gains. The ideal fighter is the polar opposite of Samuel Huntington’s ideal professional soldier, meaning some who steadfastly carries out orders from the civilian branch. Instead, Kim’s ideal soldier is driven by dedication to the cause, and by love for his/her nation:

Korea had turned into a living hell where no person could live. In eastern Korea, the chilling cold of the dark middle of the night had become permanent. Even when the days went by and the moon came and went, those nights had no daybreak in sight. ‘This dreary night of subjugation, if the end of this night did not come, how could we fearless call ourselves men of Korea. Let us move into the homeland fast. Let us go into the homeland, and bring life back into the spirit of the nation.’ These were the thoughts that the commanders and soldiers were thinking as we prepared to march into the homeland.

Kim (or, again, his team of ghostwriters) highlights his own desires to be in the midst of the action. Going against the advice of his colleagues, he is prepared to take risks just to partake in the fighting:

I took up my command position under a poplar tree at the entrance to the main road. From there, it was only 100 meters to the outside of the police station. In street battles, it is almost unknown to take up a position so close to the main road and street. You could say that this was one of the particular features about Pochonbo. My commanders recommended that I take up a position a little further from the city center, but I did not take their advice. My hope was to find a position where I could capture the movement of every moment and throw myself into the turmoil of battle.

The strongest example of the emotional and spontaneous nature of Kim’s ideal warfare comes when he recounts their retreat from Pochonbo. As the guerrillas are crossing back into Korea, they go against all common norms of military discipline, break ranks and scatter about:

[The fighters] suddenly, without orders, scattered from the ranks. The fighters (daewondul) gathered soil and put it in their backpacks. The commanding officers, too, delved on to the ground and gathered the soil of the motherland. Compared to a land of two hundred and twenty thousand square kilometers, a handful of soil is a very small piece…. Today, we only took with us a handful of soil, but tomorrow, let us liberate the entire country and cry out its independence!

Here, spontaneity, passion and emotional warfare come together. The soldiers are so filled with passion and nationalistic fervor that they defy military orders and break ranks. Emotional fervor is such an important trait that going against the ordered military formation is hailed as an example of the fighter’s strong dedication to the national cause.

Rhetoric and Reality: Conclusion | This is not to say that warfare is only portrayed as an emotional endeavor. Strategic rationale is always part of the calculation, and this essay does not argue that these observations can explain North Korean military behavior or strategic thought. Relatively speaking, though, tactical thinking takes the backseat. Observations from With the Century highlight how important emotional dedication is to North Korean military culture. Similarly to Mao Tse-tung’s ideas on guerrilla warfare, military superiority can only take you so far. The real key to decisive victory lies in the fighter’s heart.

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1. Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein is a PhD Student in History at University of Pennsylvania, focusing on North Korean history. He is also co-editor of North Korean Economy Watch.

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