Oct 9th 2017

The North Korean Cult

by Ian Buruma

 


Ian Buruma is the author, most recently, of The Churchill Complex: The Curse of Being Special, From Winston and FDR to Trump and Brexit. 


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

Apr 16th 2021
EXTRACT: "When we examined the development of nations worldwide since 1820, we found that among rich Western countries like the United States, the Netherlands and France, improvements in income, education, safety and health tracked or even outpaced rising gross domestic product for over a century. But in the 1950s, even as economic growth accelerated after World War II, well-being in these countries lagged.
Apr 11th 2021
EXTRACT: "Some presidents indulge in the “Mount Rushmore syndrome” making an obvious effort to achieve greatness. Normally soft-spoken and apparently modest Biden is making his own bid for immortality."
Apr 9th 2021
EXTRACT: "New ways of thinking about the role of government are as important as new priorities. Many commentators have framed Biden’s infrastructure plan as a return to big government. But the package is spread over eight years, will raise public spending by only one percentage point of GDP, and is projected to pay for itself eventually. A boost in public investment in infrastructure, the green transition, and job creation is long overdue."
Apr 7th 2021
EXTRACT: " One can, and perhaps should, take the optimistic view that moral panics in the US blow over; reason will once again prevail. It could be that the Biden era will take the sting out of Trumpism, and the tolerance for which American intellectual life has often been admired will be reinvigorated. This might even happen while the noxious effects of American influence still rage in other countries. For the sake of America and the world, one can only hope it happens soon.  "
Mar 28th 2021
EXTRACT: "By refusing (despite having some good reasons) to end electoral gerrymandering, Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Jr., has directly enabled the paralyzing hyper-partisanship that reached its nadir during Donald Trump’s presidency. By striking down all limits on corporate spending on political campaigns in the infamous 2010 Citizens United decision, he has helped to entrench dark money in US politics. And by gutting the 1965 Voting Rights Act in Shelby County v. Holder, Roberts has facilitated the racist voter-suppression tactics now being pursued in many Republican-controlled states."
Mar 24th 2021
EXTRACT: "the UK’s tough choices accumulate, and the problems lurking around the corner look menacing. Britain will have to make the best of Brexit. But it will be a long, hard struggle, all the more so with an evasive fabulist in charge."
Mar 15th 2021
EXTRACT: "Over the years, the approach of most American policymakers toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been Israel-centric with near total disregard for the suffering endured by the Palestinian people. The architects of policy in successive US administrations have discussed the conflict as if the fate of only one party (Israel) really mattered. Israelis were treated as full human beings with hopes and fears, while Palestinians were reduced to a problem that needed to be solved so that Israelis could live in peace and security.  ..... It is not just that Israelis and Palestinians haven’t been viewed with an equal measure of concern. It’s worse than that. It appears that Palestinians were judged as less ​human than Israelis, and were, therefore, not entitled to make demands to have their rights recognized and protected."
Mar 8th 2021
EXTRACTS: "XThere’s a global shortage in semiconductors, and it’s becoming increasingly serious." ...... "The automotive sector has been worst affected by the drought, in an era where microchips now form the backbone of most cars. Ford is predicting a 20% slump in production and Tesla shut down its model 3 assembly line for two weeks. In the UK, Honda was forced to temporarily shut its plant as well." ..... " As much as 70% of the world’s semiconductors are manufactured by just two companies, Taiwan Semiconductor (TSMC) and Samsung."
Mar 5th 2021
EXTRACT: "Back in 1992, Lawrence H. Summers, then the chief economist at the World Bank, and I warned that pushing the US Federal Reserve’s annual inflation target down from 4% to 2% risked causing big problems. Not only was the 4% target not producing any discontent, but a 2% target would increase the risk of the Fed’s interest-rate policy hitting the zero lower bound. Our objections went unheeded. Fed Chair Alan Greenspan reduced the inflation target to 2%, and we have been paying for it ever since. I have long thought that many of our economic problems would go away if we could rejigger asset markets in such a way as to make a 5% federal funds rate consistent with full employment in the late stage of a business cycle."
Mar 2nd 2021
EXTRACT: "Under these conditions, the Fed is probably worried that markets will instantly crash if it takes away the punch bowl. And with the increase in public and private debt preventing the eventual monetary normalization, the likelihood of stagflation in the medium term – and a hard landing for asset markets and economies – continues to increase."
Mar 1st 2021
EXTRACT: "Massive fiscal and monetary stimulus programs in the United States and other advanced economies are fueling a raging debate about whether higher inflation could be just around the corner. Ten-year US Treasury yields and mortgage rates are already climbing in anticipation that the US Federal Reserve – the de facto global central bank – will be forced to hike rates, potentially bursting asset-price bubbles around the world. But while markets are probably overstating short-term inflation risks for 2021, they do not yet fully appreciate the longer-term dangers."
Feb 28th 2021
EXTRACT: "To be sure, calls to “build back better” from the pandemic imply some awareness of the need for systemic change. But the transformation we need extends beyond constructing modern infrastructure or unlocking private investment in any one country. We need to re-orient – indeed, re-invent – global politics, so that countries can cooperate far more effectively in creating a better world."
Feb 23rd 2021
EXTRACT: "So, notwithstanding the predictable release of pent-up demand for consumer durables, face-to-face services show clear evidence – in terms of both consumer demand and employment – of permanent scarring. Consequently, with the snapback of pent-up demand for durables nearing its point of exhaustion, the recovery of the post-pandemic US economy is likely to fall well short of vaccine development’s “warp speed.” "
Feb 20th 2021
EXTRACT: "Human rights abuses under Erdogan are beyond the pale of inhumanity and moral decadence. The list of Erdogan’s violations and cruelty is too long to numerate. The detention and horrifying torture of thousands of innocent people for months and at times for years, without being charged, is hard to fathom. Many prisoners are left languishing in dark cells, often in solitary confinement. The detention of tens of thousands of men and hundreds of women, many with their children, especially following the 2016 failed coup, has become common. It is calculated to inflict horrendous pain and suffering to bring the prisoners to the breaking point, so that they confess to crimes they have never committed."
Feb 20th 2021
Courtyard of the Amsterdam Stock Exchange, circa 1670, (Job Adriaenszoon Berckheyde).
Feb 12th 2021
EXTRACT: "Global regulators will no doubt be concerned about a potential volatility spillover from digital asset prices into traditional capital markets. They may not permit what could quickly amount to effective proxy approval by the back door for companies holding large proportions of a volatile asset on their balance sheets."
Feb 11th 2021
EXTRACT: "Since Russians began protesting opposition leader Alexei Navalny’s imprisonment, the security forces have apparently had carte blanche to arrest demonstrators – and they have done so by the thousands. If Russians so much as honk their car horns in solidarity with the protesters, they risk personal repercussions. The official response to the protests goes beyond the Kremlin’s past repression. It is war."
Feb 6th 2021
EXTRACT: ".......like Biden, Roosevelt was certainly no revolutionary. His task was to save American capitalism. He was a repairer, a fixer. The New Deal was achieved not because of Roosevelt’s genius or heroism, but because enough people trusted him to act in good faith. That is precisely what people are expecting from Biden, too. He must save US democracy from the ravages of a political crisis. To do so, he must reestablish trust in the system. He has promised to make his country less polarized, and to restore civility and truth to political discourse. In this endeavor, his lack of charisma may turn out to be his greatest strength. For all that he lacks in grandeur, he makes up for by exuding an air of decency."
Feb 2nd 2021
EXTRACT: "Europe must not lose sight of the long game, which inevitably will center on China, not Russia or relations with post-Brexit Britain. China is already establishing a presence in Iran, and demonstrating that it has the capital, know-how, and technology to project power and influence beyond its borders. Should it succeed in turning the Belt and Road Initiative into a line of geopolitical stepping-stones, it might soon emerge at Europe’s southeastern border in a form that no one in the EU foresaw."
Jan 29th 2021
EXTRACT: "One sign of this change is that, unlike all recent Democratic administrations, Biden’s hasn’t paid obeisance to Wall Street by giving bankers top jobs. The new Secretary of the Treasury, Janet Yellen, is a former Federal Reserve chair and academic who has made it clear that she understands the country’s pressing social needs. Moreover, Biden consulted Warren on her economic views, and has named a former Warren adviser as Yellen’s deputy. Yellen’s appointment demonstrates that Biden shares the insight that enabled Trump’s rise: that too many Americans feel that they cannot get a fair share. "