Oct 9th 2017

The North Korean Cult


NEW YORK – The absurdity of the North Korean dictatorship is easy to caricature. Kim Jong-un, with his 1930s-style pudding-bowl haircut (cultivated, it is claimed, to make him resemble his grandfather, Kim Il-sung, the regime’s founder), his antiquated Mao suit, and his short, plump body, is almost like a cartoon character himself. Officially regarded as an omnipotent genius, he is worshipped like a god and shown constantly surrounded by people, including his highest military officers festooned in medals, laughing or clapping, or shouting hysterically.

As we know, of course, life in North Korea is anything but amusing. Periodic famines devastate the population. Up to 200,000 political prisoners are kept as slaves in brutal labor camps, where they are lucky if they are not tortured to death. And free speech does not exist. It is not only forbidden to express reservations about Kim’s divine status; staying alive requires regularly proclaiming one’s devotion.

It is possible, even likely, that many North Koreans behave like worshippers only because they must. Others fall into line because they don’t know any better. Like people everywhere, they reflexively conform to the norms of the world around them, without thinking through their merits. But some North Koreans, perhaps many, might genuinely believe in the cult of the Kim Dynasty, which, like all cults (or indeed religious faiths), is made up of bits and pieces taken from other cultures, beliefs, and traditions.

The Kim cult owes something to Stalinism, something to messianic Christianity, something to Confucian ancestor worship, something to indigenous shamanism, and something to the emperor worship of the Japanese, who ruled Korea in the first half of the twentieth century. Kim’s father, Kim Jong-il, was supposed to have been born on Mount Paektu, believed to be a sacred spot where the divine founder of the first Korean kingdom, a bear-man named Tangun, was born more than 4,000 years ago. The birth of Kim Jong-il, also known as the Dear Leader (his father, Kim Il-sung, was the Great Leader), turned winter into spring and was illuminated by a bright star in heaven.

All of this might sound zany, but the stories of miracles in any faith invariably do. What matters is that people believe them.

In this respect, North Koreans are no weirder than believers anywhere else. There are often good reasons why certain beliefs have a strong appeal. Islam and Christianity found ready converts among outcasts and the oppressed because they offered equality in the eyes of God. The North Korean faith is altogether less inclusive. Indeed, at its core is a sense of ethnic purity, a feeling of sacred nationalism that must be defended at any cost against hostile forces.

Like Poland, which has a strong Christian self-image of national martyrdom, Korea has a history of being dominated by greater powers, mainly China, but also Russia, and, most notably since the brutal invasions of the sixteenth century, Japan. The Americans are latecomers, but official hatred of American imperialism in North Korea stems not only from the savage Korean War, but also from the long memory of foreign oppression.

Domination by outside powers created poles of collaboration and resistance in Korean history. Some of the ruling classes in various Korean kingdoms cooperated with the foreign powers, and some struggled against them. This resulted in deep hatreds among Koreans themselves.

Kim Il-sung began his career as a collaborator. He was handpicked by Stalin to be a puppet Communist leader in the North. This made the legend of Kim as a resistance hero against the Japanese during World War II, and later against the Americans and their South Korean “collaborators,” all the more important.

North Korean nationalism, with its cult of self-reliance known as Juche, is as religious as it is political. Defending the Kim dynasty, built up as a symbol of Korean resistance to foreign powers, is a sacred task. And when the sacred takes over politics, compromise becomes almost impossible. People can negotiate over conflicting interests, but not over matters that are considered holy.

Donald Trump, a real estate developer, believes that everything is negotiable. Nothing is sacred in business. His idea of making a deal is to overwhelm the other party with bluff and intimidation, hence his promise to “totally destroy North Korea” (a promise, by the way, that would mean more than 20 million dead). It is hard to imagine how Kim Jong-un, as the divine defender of his people, could be persuaded by such bluster to negotiate.

It is possible that Kim, and perhaps even some subjects of his despotic rule, would rather be obliterated than give in. It would not be the first time that a cult turned suicidal.

But there is another, more likely, risk. Because Trump’s hostile tweets and swaggering public utterances are usually followed by more cautious statements from senior members of his cabinet, Kim might not take them seriously. He may well think that Trump is all bluff and will never carry out his threats.

This might prod Kim into taking some reckless action – aiming a missile at Guam, for example – to which the US would feel it must respond in kind. The result would be a catastrophe, not only for the Koreans who believe in Kim’s sacred mission, but above all for millions of Koreans, just 35 miles from the North Korean border, who have no part in the Kim cult at all.


Ian Buruma, Editor of The New York Review of Books, is the author of Year Zero: A History of 1945.

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2017.
www.project-syndicate.org 

 


This article is brought to you by Project Syndicate that is a not for profit organization.

Project Syndicate brings original, engaging, and thought-provoking commentaries by esteemed leaders and thinkers from around the world to readers everywhere. By offering incisive perspectives on our changing world from those who are shaping its economics, politics, science, and culture, Project Syndicate has created an unrivalled venue for informed public debate. Please see: www.project-syndicate.org.

Should you want to support Project Syndicate you can do it by using the PayPal icon below. Your donation is paid to Project Syndicate in full after PayPal has deducted its transaction fee. Facts & Arts neither receives information about your donation nor a commission.

 

 

Browse articles by author

More Current Affairs

Jun 11th 2019
Extract: "I noticed this dynamic firsthand a few years ago in Blagoveshchensk, on the Siberian border, just a half-mile from the Chinese town of Heihe. A century and a half ago, Blagoveshchensk was part of China. Then the Cossacks took control of it, along with many other territories in Chinese Outer Manchuria, on behalf of the Russian czar. Blagoveshchensk’s local history museum presents the development of the town after the Cossack takeover as a civilizing mission. The Russians, it seems, still view themselves as superior Westerners. As for Heihe, it got rich a quarter-century ago, after capitalizing on Russia’s post-Soviet disarray to sell cheap goods to then-starving Russians. Its own history museum presents the Cossacks as “hairy barbarians” (Lao Maozi) and lists the towns of Russia’s far east by their historical Chinese names: Blagoveshchensk is Hailanpao, Vladivostok is Haishenwai, and Sakhalin is Kuye. Local behavior reflects these perspectives. At the ferry port, the Russians sneer at the Chinese traders who bring Russian vodka and chocolate to Heihe, while the Chinese move past the Russians as if they do not exist."
Jun 5th 2019
Extract: "....the Constitution, which established the impeachment process as a check on the president’s behavior between elections, says nothing about using it only when politically convenient. Moreover, given the results in 2018, Democratic Party leaders might well discourage making the disposition of the president the key issue in the next election. Most important, a decision not to initiate an impeachment process against Trump could set a terrible precedent. If Trump isn’t impeached for his numerous criminal acts and abuses of power, would impeachment remain a viable check on the presidency? "
Jun 3rd 2019
Extracts: "Sooner or later, all smaller powers dependent on global markets would have to choose a side, unless they are somehow strong enough to withstand both American and Chinese pressure. With China and the US both demanding clarity, even economic giants like the European Union, India, and Japan would be faced with an intractable economic dilemma."
May 24th 2019
Waging a war against Iran, or even thinking of doing so, is sheer madness. Trump has thus far wisely rejected the warmonger National Security Advisor John Bolton’s outrageous advice. Waging another war in the Mideast, this time against Iran, would have not only disastrous consequences for the US but will also engulf our allies from which they would suffer incalculable human losses and destruction. Bolton was the architect behind the devastating war in Iraq in 2003, which inflicted more than 5,000 US casualties and a cost exceeding two trillion dollars, allowed Iran to entrench itself in Iraq, and gave way to the rise of ISIS.
May 24th 2019
The private Tasnim news agency reports from Iran that in a speech to thousands of university students, Iran’s clerical leader Ali Khamenei made an unusual and extraordinary criticism of president Hassan Rouhani and foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif over their handling of the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action or deal on limiting Iran’s nuclear enrichment program.
May 21st 2019
Extract: "Brexit, after all, is as much a Kremlin project as it is anyone else’s. Putin wants to divide Europeans, and in the UK, Brexit has succeeded in dividing Britons like nothing since the Corn Law debates almost 200 years ago. Putin wants the EU to fragment, and Brexit is causing the biggest crack yet in the bloc’s history. Putin wants to sow doubt about the legitimacy of traditional news sources; pro-Brexit media consistently promote lies as truth and inveigh against reputable papers like the Financial Times as elitist enemies of the people."
May 16th 2019
Iraq’s population when invaded was 26 million. Iran’s population today is 81 million..........Whereas Iraq’s neighbors– Turkey, Iran and Saudi Arabia in particular– had been mauled by Saddam and so did not strongly oppose Bush’s invasion, Shiite Iraqis, many Syrians, the Hazaras of Afghanistan, and the some 40 million Shiites of Pakistan would support Iran.
May 15th 2019
It’s time that economists, pundits, and politicians start looking holistically at life in our times, and take seriously the long-term structural changes needed to address the multiple crises of health care, despair, inequality, and stress in the US and many other countries. US citizens, in particular, should reflect on the fact that many other countries’ people are happier and less worried, and are living longer. In general, those other countries’ governments are not cutting taxes for the rich and slashing services for the rest. They are attending to the common good, instead of catering to the rich while pointing to illusory economic statistics that hide as much as they reveal.
May 8th 2019
"........Meanwhile, Trump is leaving the door open for Russia to come to his aid again in 2020. The White House and congressional Republican leaders have been blocking a bill to secure US elections against foreign attacks. And administration officials have been instructed not to raise the issue of Russian interference with the president, lest it cast a shadow on his legitimacy.  The next phase in this affair is already coming into focus. Barr, with the help of Trump’s golfing buddy Lindsey Graham, the Republican chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, is now enlisted in peddling the president’s fantasy that the Mueller investigation was a “witch hunt” orchestrated by “deep-state” supporters of Hillary Clinton. Once again, current and former FBI agents will be targeted, either because they expressed criticism of Trump or because they opened a national security investigation into a hostile power’s meddling in the US presidential election (which continued in the 2018 midterms). FBI director Christopher Wray, commenting on the Mueller report, said that the Russians are “upping their game” for 2020. "
May 7th 2019
We are witnessing the loss of biodiversity at rates never before seen in human history. Nearly a million species face extinction if we do not fundamentally change our relationship with the natural world, according to the world’s largest assessment of biodiversity.
May 4th 2019
Accusing Iran of being a rogue country bent on acquiring nuclear weapons, supporting extremist groups and terrorism, persistently threatening Israel, and destabilizing the region in its relentless effort to become the dominant power may well all be justified. The question is, what would it take to stop Iran from its destabilizing activities and help make it a constructive member of the international community, and avoid military confrontation with either the US or Israel or both?
Apr 29th 2019
Some of the most famous scientific discoveries happened by accident. From Teflon and the microwave oven to penicillin, scientists trying to solve a problem sometimes find unexpected things. This is exactly how we created phosphorene nanoribbons – a material made from one of the universe’s basic building blocks, but that has the potential to revolutionise a wide range of technologies.
Apr 28th 2019
Easter visitors to London have found some streets and buildings occupied by “Extinction Rebellion” activists, warning of climate catastrophe and rejecting “a failed capitalist system.” Followers of central bank thinking have seen the governors of the Bank of England and Banque de France warning that climate-related risks threaten company profits and financial stability. Both interventions highlight the severity of the climate challenge that the world faces. But warnings alone won’t fix the problem unless governments set ambitious but realistic targets to eliminate carbon dioxide and other greenhouse-gas emissions, backed by policies to ensure the targets are achieved. Zero net CO2 emissions by 2050 at the latest should be the legally defined objective in all developed economies.
Apr 25th 2019
LONDON – Russian efforts to influence European elections have received plenty of media attention. But the same cannot be said of interference by conservative Christian groups based in the United States, some with links to President Donald Trump’s administration and his former adviser, Stephen Bannon.
Apr 24th 2019
.............the version of the report released is only the start of wide-ranging and intensive House investigations.
Apr 17th 2019
On the night of April 15, 2019, in Paris, the emotions were raw. “Notre Dame is burning, the whole of France is crying, the whole world is crying,” said Archbishop Michel Aupetit of Paris. “It’s terrible, frightening, painful, a tragedy, a nightmare.” “This place leaves no one untouched. When you enter this cathedral, it inhabits you,” said Anne Hidalgo, the Mayor of Paris, in front of the burning monument. “We will rebuild,” said the Rector of Notre Dame, “we will rebuild.”
Apr 15th 2019
High-level political purges are gathering pace in Russia. The latest evidence came in late March, with the arrests of Mikhail Abyzov, a former minister for open government affairs, and – two days later – Viktor Ishayev, a former Far East minister and ex-governor of Russia’s Khabarovsk region. Unsurprisingly, the arrests of such senior figures is having a chilling effect among the country’s elites. The authorities have now arrested or imprisoned three former federal government ministers and a supporting cast of regional officials
Apr 8th 2019
The reaction to this type of paternalism, sensible and well-meant as it usually was, came in the form of petulant populism. Like a child who refuses to eat his spinach, just because his mother claims it is good for him, supporters of Trump, Brexiteers, or Baudet want to give the finger to the politics of virtue. That is why Nigel Farage, the chief promoter of Brexit, likes to be photographed with a glass full of beer and a smoldering cigarette: if the virtuous elite want us to drink less and quit smoking, let’s have another and light up.
Apr 8th 2019
Chinese President Xi Jinping seems to be on a roll. He has sent a rocket to the dark side of the moon, built artificial islands on contested reefs in the South China Sea, and recently enticed Italy to break ranks with its European partners and sign on to China’s Belt and Road Initiative. Meanwhile, US President Donald Trump’s unilateralist posture has reduced America’s soft power and influence. China’s economic performance over the past four decades has been truly impressive. It is now the main trading partner for more than a hundred countries compared to about half that number for the United States. Its economic growth has slowed, but its official 6% annual rate is more than twice the American rate. Conventional wisdom projects that China’s economy will surpass that of the US in size in the coming decade. Perhaps. But it is also possible that Xi has feet of clay.