Book review: The Cleanest Race (2010) by B. R. Myers
The Cleanest Race (2010) is a must read for those trying to understand northern Korea. Ultimately, the book aims to influence US policy toward northern Korea in order to further imperialist ends. In that sense, it is a book by the enemy for the enemy. Even so, the book represents a real, very rigorous attempt to get to the bottom of how northern Korean society thinks. The book is cutting-edge thinking from the CIA wing of US imperialism, from liberal imperialism. For Leading Lights and anti-imperialists, the book is worth reading because it is important to know thy enemies and to know thy friends. The enemy is not all thumbs. The book is an example of contemporary literary and cultural analysis in service to imperialist policy makers. Even if the outlook of the book is fundamentally imperialist, even if it is organized around a set of imperialist questions, the book, in many respects, demonstrates an understanding of northern Korean ideology that is far more advanced than those orthodox “Marxist-Leninists” who defend northern Korea as their own. The book confirms the Leading Light’s position on northern Korea: Though it should be defended from imperialist attack, northern Korea is not a communist-led society, it is not socialist. Northern Korea’s regime is a monarchy that serves one segment of the national bourgeoisie. Power there passes from father (or parent — more on this later) to son. The Cleanest Race shows that, even though it is a monarchy, the regime has some unique and surprising features that do not easily fit with preconceived notions. The book seeks to refute the cliches that northern Korea is “the last Stalinist state” or that it is a Confucian, patriarchal despotism. According to the author, northern Korea is unlike the Soviet regimes of Eastern Europe. Instead the book claims that northern Korea’s ideology is a racial one much more akin to the fascist states of World War 2. Although the author may overstate his case on some points, the book itself is an important piece of a puzzle. It increases our understanding of how northern Koreans see the world and how some of their more enlightened, liberal adversaries are coming to understand them.
Imperialists don’t get it, neither do orthodox “Marxist-Leninists”…
In the tradition of liberal imperialism, the author dispels the crudest lies about the northern state. The author makes the point that the regime is, despite crude Western propaganda, a genuinely popular one. The sensationalist accounts promoted by the southern Korean regime, of dissidents who hire themselves out to the Western propaganda apparatus, and other reactionaries, are dismissed by the author. The author admits that the regime is a plainly popular one; it had mass support even in the crisis years of the famine. Even so, external realities are slowly pushing the regime closer toward a legitimacy crisis:
“What is more, this ideology has generally enjoyed the support of the North Korean people through good times and bad. Even today, with a rival state thriving next door, the regime is able to maintain public stability without a ubiquitous police presence or a fortified northern border. Sensationalist American accounts of the ‘underground railroad’ helping North Korean ‘refugees’ make it through China to the free world gloss over the fact that about half of these economic migrants—for that is what most of them are —voluntarily return to their homeland. The rest remain fervent admirers of Kim Il Sung if not of his son. Though we must never forget the men, women and children languishing in Yodŏk and other prison camps, we cannot keep carrying on as if the dictatorship did not enjoy a significant degree of mass support. How significant? Enough to make the regime desperate to hold on to it. I intend to argue, however, that this support cannot be sustained for long, because what the masses are taught—especially in regard to South Korean public opinion—is coming increasingly into conflict with what they know to be true. It is the regime’s awareness of a pending legitimacy crisis, not a fear of attack from without, which makes it behave ever more provocatively on the world stage.”
The author describes migrants from northern Korea:
“Even among the few North Koreans who have left the country and stayed out, a heartfelt admiration for the Great Leader is mainstream. (I personally know migrants who still cannot talk of him without tearing up.”
In place of cliches, the book asks imperialist policy makers to take a new look at their subject matter. The author observes that the Western world is not interested in ideology. True enough. Americans know as much about Islamism after 9/11 than they did before it. Even with the 9/11 attacks, policy makers believe that the end of history is at hand and that the age of the big idea is over. Western liberalism is, so the story goes, the highest form of society. The ideology, the personality cult, in the view of many, could be nothing but a cynical tool used by the northern regime to create obedience. Northern Korean leaders could not actually believe such nonsense. The idea that ideology does not matter, that the northern Korean ideology is patently absurd, is a big obstacle in understanding the regime. Liberals believe that ideology must be epiphenomenal. Nothing so absurd as northern Korean ideology could influence its state’s decisions on the world stage. A similar criticism could be made of those “on the left” who advocate on behalf of the northern Korean regime. While the Pyongyang watchers put too little emphasis on ideology, the collection of Korean Friendship circles, internet Juche-ists, friendly leftist scholars, and others put too much emphasis on the regime’s official statements of ideology, its statements about the so-called “Juche Idea” and its statements crafted for an external readership. Just as the imperialists get it wrong when it comes to northern Korean ideology, so do many of those who elevate the obtuse speeches or works of Kim Il-Sung as the leading ideology of the regime. Just as those who dismiss the role of ideology will never understand the logic of the regime either will those who take the regime’s proclamations about “Juche” at their word. Juche, according to the author, is, at best, window dressing. To understand the regime and society it is necessary to dig deeper:
“Unfortunately a lack of relevant expertise has never prevented observers from mischaracterizing North Korean ideology to the general public. They call the regime ‘hard-line communist’ or ‘Stalinist,’ despite its explicit racial theorizing, its strident acclamation of Koreans as the world’s ‘cleanest’ or ‘purest’ race. They describe it as a Confucian patriarchy, despite its maternal authority figures, or as a country obsessed with self-reliance, though it has depended on outside aid for over sixty years. By far the most common mistake, however, has been the projection of Western or South Korean values and common sense onto the North Koreans. For example: Having been bombed flat by the Americans in the 1950s, the DPRK must be fearful for its security, ergo it must want the normalization of relations with Washington…. In this book, therefore, I aim to explain North Korea’s dominant ideology or worldview—I use the words interchangeably—and to show how far removed it is from communism, Confucianism and the show-window doctrine of Juche Thought. Far from complex, it can be summarized in a single sentence: The Korean people are too pure blooded, and therefore too virtuous, to survive in this evil world without a great parental leader. More must be added perhaps, if only to explain that ‘therefore’ to an American reader, but not much more of importance. I need hardly point out that if such a race-based worldview is to be situated on our conventional left-right spectrum, it makes more sense to posit it on the extreme right than on the far left. Indeed, the similarity to the worldview of fascist Japan is striking. I do not, however, intend to label North Korea as fascist, a term too vague to be much use. It is enough for me to make clear that the country has always been, at the very least, ideologically closer to America’s adversaries in World War II than to communist China and Eastern Europe. This truth alone, if properly grasped, will not only help the West to understand the loyalty shown to the DPRK by its chronically impoverished citizens, but also to understand why the West’s policy of pursuing late Cold War-type solutions to the nuclear problem is doomed to fail.”
Just as “Marxism-Leninism” and Confucianism are neither northern Korea’s real ideology, Juche or “self-reliance” isn’t. Despite proclamations of the regime to the contrary, despite much pomp, Juche is not its real ideology. Juche is described correctly as a “sham” doctrine by the author. The works of Juche, the writings of Kim Il-Sung, are convoluted, repetitive, and banal. Despite official praise of the works to the skies, the works are filled with little that is original. And what is true in the works are banalities repeated in better style by many others throughout history:
“The official worldview is not set out coherently in the leaders’ writings. These are more often praised than read. So-called Juche Thought functions at most as an imposing row of book-spines, a prop in the personality cult. (A good way to embarrass one’s minders in the DPRK is to ask them to explain it.) Unlike Soviet citizens under Stalin, or Chinese under Mao, North Koreans learn more about their leaders than from them.”
The propagandists of the regime are very good at their jobs, the clumsy thoughts and prose found in the works of Juche are not meant to be read seriously. They are to be admired from afar, proof that Kim Il-Sung is a great thinker, just like Mao. This is by design. In addition, the Northern Korean Central News Agency’s English-language press releases do not represent the worldview of the regime either. According to the author, domestic propaganda aimed at northern Koreans differs significantly from the image that is projected worldwide:
“Too many observers wrongly assume that the (North) Korean Central News Agency’s English-language releases reflect the same sort of propaganda that the home audience gets. In fact there are significant differences. For example, where the DPRK presents itself to the outside world as a misunderstood country seeking integration into the international community, it presents itself to its own citizens (as I will show later) as a rogue state that breaks agreements with impunity, dictates conditions to groveling U.N. officials, and keeps its enemies in constant fear of ballistic retribution. Generally speaking the following rule of thumb applies: the less accessible a propaganda outlet is to the outside world, the blunter and more belligerent it will be in its expression of the racist orthodoxy.”
According to the author, there is a big disconnect between what the regime projects and its deeper ideology. In order to understand the regime and its ideology, it is necessary to go beyond the clumsy banalities found in the works of Kim Il-Sung and the official press releases meant for the outside world. It is necessary to look at the propaganda diet that northern Koreans are actually fed. It is necessary to look at the history of those ideas in northern Korea. This is the key to understanding northern Korea, according to the author.
Imperial Japanese origins of northern Korean ideology
According to the author, Korea has a long history of xenophobia. Even so, Korean nationalism is more recent. Koreans historically saw themselves as part of the edge of the great Chinese cultural realm. This state of affairs existed for many centuries. This began to change when, in 1905, the Japanese established a protectorate over the peninsula. Annexation followed in 1910. Patriotic opposition grew toward the Japanese conquest until on March 1, 1919 in Seoul, Korean nationalists read a declaration of independence. A nation-wide Korean uprising was followed by a brutal crackdown by the Japanese. The mess caused the Japanese to reevaluate their strategy. The Japanese decided to change their game plan to avoid further rebellions. Rather than fight Korean nationalism, they would now try to cultivate it. They would promote Korean nationalism within the context of Korean-Japanese unity. The new message was: Koreans should be proud to be Korean, as Koreans are part of the greater Japanese people. The Japanese now promoted Korean-language media outlets. The Korean-language media spread the message of Korean-Japanese unity. Korean intellectuals and celebrities promoted the Japanese message that “Interior [Japan] and Korea as one body.” The Japanese co-opted Korean patriotism by asserting that Koreans and Japanese shared the same ancient racial progenitor. The peoples were part of the same ancient family, the same ancient bloodline. As early as the 1920s, the Korean upper and middle classes and celebrities were speaking Japanese fluently. Marriages between Koreans and their Japanese colonizers were socially accepted, such a marriage was “perhaps even a mark of distinction.”
“But even while these writers glorified the emperor, they urged their countrymen to cherish their Koreanness. In romance novels frail Japanese women fell in love with strong Korean men, much as they still do in South Korean films and dramas. Illustrations in newspapers and magazines showed girls in traditional hanbok costume waving the Japanese flag, and Confucian gentlemen in horsehair hats standing proudly by their newly recruited sons. The regime stimulated pride in ‘peninsular’ history for imperial ends, encouraging Koreans to reclaim their ancient territory by settling in Manchuria. One writer invoked the elite hwarang soldiers of the Silla dynasty to whip up fighting spirit. Another called on young men to ‘demonstrate the loyalty of a Japanese citizen and the spirit of a son of Korea’ by volunteering to fight in the ‘holy war’ against the Yankees. As the historian Cho Kwan-ja has remarked, these collaborators regarded themselves as ‘pro-Japanese [Korean] nationalists.’”
At first, the author informs, there were some nationalist efforts to resist the Japanese co-opt of Korean nationalism. Nationalist writers revived interest in the legend of Tan’gun, the mostly forgotten progenitor of the uniquely Korean people described in works dating from 1284. Tan’gun established a Korean bloodline distinct from that of the Japanese in the eyes of the nationalists. One writer pointed to Mount Paektu, a volcanic mountain on the Chinese border, as Tan’gun’s birthplace. Even though the nationalists were trying to oppose Japan, this Korean ideology was a carbon copy of the Japanese one. Tan’gun replaced the ancient Japanese emperors. Mount Paektu replaced Mount Fiji. By the 1930s, however, the ideological resistance to the Japanese had mostly crumbled among the nationalists. When dissidents were rounded up in the early 1930s, most did an about face. Whether they had been communists, nationalists or libertarians, the author states, most began to support the pro-Japanese order. Even though the middle and upper classes, intellectuals and celebrities, supported the Japanese war as part of the same Korean-Japanese racial team, little of this propaganda reached the illiterate lower classes. As World War 2 progressed, the burden fell heaviest on the poor as Japanese demands for soldiers, workers, prostitutes, etc. increased. Even near the end of the war, Korean papers wrote: “If our destiny is thwarted in this war… it would be a tragedy for all mankind.. We must win.”
The US dropped two atomic weapon in the summer of 1945. Hundreds of thousands of Japanese civilians died in this warcrime. The Japanese empire stood defeated. The Soviets occupied the northern part of Korea. The Soviets set out to create a Soviet-friendly people’s democracy similar to the states of Eastern Europe that had been liberated by the Red Army. However, unlike other places, according to the author, little effort was made at decolonization of hearts and minds by the Soviet or American authorities. The persecution of collaborators, the author informs, was greatly exaggerated by later accounts:
“Contrary to South Korean left-wing myth, which the American historian Bruce Cumings has done much to nurture, almost all intellectuals who moved to Pyongyang after liberation had collaborated with the Japanese to some degree. Several who had done so with special enthusiasm, like the novelist Kim Sa-ryang, had been virtually run out of Seoul. The North was more and not less hospitable to such collaborators. As a history book published in the DPRK in 1981 puts it, ‘the Great Leader Kim Il Sung refuted the mistaken tendency to doubt or ostracize people just because they … had worked for Japanese institutions in the past.’ Kim’s own brother, it is worth remembering, had interpreted for Japanese troops in China.”
Collaborators were mostly welcomed back into the post-war fold. The author informs that the post-war regimes needed them. After all, the Soviet effort to build a people’s democracy in the north was hindered by the lack of a left-leaning population, especially a left-leaning intelligencia. Prior to the Soviet occupation, the north of the country was a haven of conservatives and Christians. The Soviets moved quickly to install the Workers’ Party into leadership, transferring ownership of the media outlets in 1945. The Soviets sought to establish the legitimacy of their order in the peninsula at a mass rally on October 14, 1945:
“Among the Koreans who took the podium that day was Kim Il Sung, a Pyongyang-born thirty-three-year-old who had attained the rank of captain in the Red Army. Although Kim had sat out the Pacific War in the USSR, he had earlier fought against the Japanese as a commander in Mao Zedong’s army, acquiring brief renown in 1937 for an attack on an imperial outpost just south of the Yalu River. For better or worse Kim was the closest thing to a resistance fighter the Koreans had. He is said to have wanted a military career, but the Soviets, finding no more appropriate person to work with, persuaded him to assume leadership of the new state. Yet Kim was by far the least educated of all the leaders in the socialist world. His spotty schooling had ended at seventeen, and although he had spent a year at an infantry officer school in the USSR, it is unlikely that he understood enough Russian to grasp anything theoretical. None of his writings evinces an understanding of Marx. Equally ignorant of communist ideology were the guerilla comrades who comprised the core of Kim’s power base. Andrei Lankov, a prominent Korea researcher, has written that ‘with the exception of the Soviet Koreans, no top cadres had undergone training in … Marxism- Leninism.’ It is no wonder that instead of guiding the cultural scene in ideological matters the party allowed itself to be guided by it.”
It would not be until 1948 that the Workers’ Party received its own crash course in Marxism-Leninism. In the meantime, artists, writers, and intellectuals, many of whom had been collaborators, were expected generate support among the masses for the new regime. The cultural elite fell back into what it knew. Their work bore similarities with the racial outlook that existed when the Japanese occupied the country, albeit with some important differences:
“Having been ushered by the Japanese into the world’s purest race, the Koreans in 1945 simply kicked the Japanese out of it. The legend of the ancient racial progenitor Tan’gun, which Korean nationalists had failed to popularize during the 1920s, came almost overnight to be regarded as historical truth. Japanese symbols were transposed into Korean ones. Mount Paektu, hitherto known only as the peninsula’s highest peak, suddenly attained a Fuji-like, sacral status as the presumed place of Tan’gun’s birth. Much of the Japanese version of Korean history—from its blanket condemnation of Chinese influence to its canards about murderous Yankee missionaries—was carried over whole.”
Unlike other racial ideologies, the northern Korean racial purity and moral superiority did not necessarily translate into superiority in other areas:
“No physical superiority over other races is claimed. Propaganda freely acknowledges, for example, that Americans are much taller. Nor is superior intelligence asserted with any real conviction, though Kim Jong Il has described Koreans as ‘sensible’ and ‘prudent,’ and propaganda acclaims the will power they show in the face of adversity. To be uniquely virtuous in an evil world but not uniquely cunning or strong is to be as vulnerable as a child, and indeed, history books convey the image of a perennial child-nation on the world stage, wanting only to be left in peace yet subjected to endless abuse and contamination from outsiders. Films and novels routinely show invaders mistreating Korean children.”
Greater racial and moral purity does not translate into greater material wealth. As the information wall between the North and South has weakened, the author states that it is common knowledge in northern Korea that southerners are wealthier in material terms. According to the author, the northern regime does not derive its legitimacy from the level of consumption it provides. The author informs that the drastic drop in consumption following the collapse of the Soviet Union and the famine of the 1990s did not drastically affect the stability of the regime as some Pyongyang watchers anticipated. With a rival regime in the south able to provide its population with greater consumption, the northern regime, less able to provide, will, according to the author, fall back on its racial ideology to justify its existence and its claims to military prowess. Getting aid from the West was only a side benefit to displays of northern military strength in recent years. The more important reason for the displays was to prop up the regime’s legitimacy at home.
The Korean racial ideology from which the regime derives its legitimacy is very different than the racialism of the Japanese occupation. Gone is the tone of a regime bent on conquest and the subjugation of others. Although there is a kind of wish-fulfillment depicted in posters of northern Korean soldiers and missiles obliterating the US.
“This racialism is utterly irreconcilable with Marx and Lenin; not for nothing was the DPRK almost as isolated from the rest of the East Bloc as it still is from the West. But while drawing a clear line between North Korean ideology and communism, we should not overlook that which distinguishes the former from Japanese and (even more so) German fascism. The Text has never proposed the invasion of so much as an inch of non-Korean territory, let alone the permanent subjugation of foreign peoples. This is not to say that it does not propose military action against the US either as a pre- emptive strike or as revenge for past crimes. (I have already mentioned the wish-fulfilling posters of the US Capitol being blown to pieces.) But this is not the same as wanting to re-shape the world. Where the Nazis considered the Aryans physically and intellectually superior to all other races, and the Japanese regarded their moral superiority as having protected them throughout history, the Koreans believe that their childlike purity renders them so vulnerable to the outside world that they need a Parent Leader to survive. Such a worldview naturally precludes dreams of a colonizing or imperialist nature.”
The author states that purity of the Korean blood does not, according to the ideology, allow the northern Koreans to be world conquerers as the Japanese imagined themselves to be. Rather, their pure blood has historically made them victims until the arrival of the Leader and his protective embrace. According to the author, the propagandists portray Koreans as innocent and childlike in a world of monsters. Their purity was a weakness in the hostile sea of the less pure. There racial virtue had made them too pure for the world until the Leader’s arrival:
“The new racial self-image manifested itself clearly in stories of Soviet-Korean friendship written and published in the late 1940s. Writers depicted ailing men and women being carried to hospitals on the backs of Russian nurses and female doctors. Lest anyone miss the symbolism, the heroines were explicitly compared to mothers, the locals to children… The genre was evidently meant to flatter the Soviets with the implication of faithful subservience, and at the same time to plead for motherly protection of a race too pure to survive on its own. These tales should not, however, be misread as asserting the moral equality (let alone superiority) of the Russian people… so it is that only the child race is inherently virtuous; foreigners can at best do the occasional good deed.”
The author continues:
“Like the blood-based Japanese nationalism of the colonial era, the new Korean nationalism went hand in hand with the slavish imitation of foreign models and an often contemptuous indifference to indigenous traditions. In his speechifying Kim declared servile tribute to the USSR’s ‘superior’ culture. Literary critics tossed around Soviet catchwords—“typicality,” and so on—in an effort to cut down their rivals on the cultural scene. University students scrambled to learn Russian, the new linguistic ticket to social status.”
To appease the Soviets, the regime would project Soviet-style “Marxism-Leninism” as needed. And, after the fall of the Soviet Union, the regime has dropped mention of “Marxism-Leninism” for the most part if not entirely. Neither the works of Marx or Lenin are allowed to be read without special permission. Similarly, the author states, Juche is just another face projected, often, for external consumption. The actual ideology that governs the regime’s domestic propaganda machine is a racial one that has little to do with real Marxism. If the author is correct, then Pyongyang watchers and Korea’s self-styled orthodox “Marxist-Leninist” friends are both wrong. If the author is right, then — surprise, surprise — then the ones who have the best understanding of the regime in its own terms are the weird circles of internet fascists, third positions, nationalists, and video game enthusiasts. This is not to say northern Korea is fascist, it isn’t. It is a bourgeois-nationalist state in the Third World that has come into conflict with imperialism, especially US imperialism. It is a society that has suffered terribly under the jackboot of the United States. The author makes a compelling case that imperial Japan’s fascist ideology has been transformed, modified in many ways, in Korean hands into a tool that, at least at times, has served to resist American, Western, and Soviet fascism and imperialism albeit in limited ways. Whereas the Japanese regime a century ago used the dualism of racial purity versus impurity, cleanliness versus filth, toward imperial ends, northern Korea does so to thwart the efforts of northern Korea’s imperialist enemies.
A tale of two Great Marshals…
Kim Il-Sung, according to the author, took on many of the characteristics of the Japanese emperor. Just as Hirohito was depicted in white clothing, symbolizing racial purity, so is Kim Il-Sung. Just as Hirohito was depicted against a backdrop of white mountains and pure snow, so is Kim Il-Sung. Just as Hirohito is depicted on a white horse, so too is Kim Il-Sung. Later, Kim Jong-Il would be depicted in many similar ways. Even Pyongyang itself is a white city filled with white plazas and marble. Kim Il-Sung was dubbed “the Great Marshal,” the exact title used by Korean collaborators to designate Hirohito in the war years.
Kim Il-Sung’s biography was rewritten. Instead of living in the Soviet Union, he was now depicted as spending the Pacific War years fighting from a secret base on Mount Paektu, the birthplace of Tan’gun, mythological progenitor of the Korean race. Contrary to popular belief, Koreans had not always venerated the peak. The author states that veneration of Mount Paektu began in the 1940s in the north and decades later in southern Korea. Kim Jong-Il’s biography, as heir to the Great Leader, would be re-written also. He was now born, like Tan’gun, on Mount Paektu though he was really born in the Soviet Union. Later, the regime would claim to have excavated the tomb of Tan’gun outside Pyongyang, furthering establishing a link to the ancient racial progenitor. “As one propagandist recently put it, Kim Il Sung is ‘the symbol of the homeland.’”
The author informs that the cult in northern Korea differs significantly from Marxist cults. It has far more in common with fascist cults of personality. Stalin and Mao were both depicted as teachers. Marxist authority was, at least to a large degree, depicted as derived from their mastery of revolutionary science. The cult of the Kims, by contrast, derives from their embodiment of ethnic virtues: Kim “is the most naïve, spontaneous, loving, and pure Korean—the most Korean Korean—who ever lived.”
According to the author, the regime’s propagandists, in accord with the racial view, stress that the Leader’s virtues are inborn rather than acquired. They do this by stressing his impeccable lineage. Kim Il-Sung’s grandfather is said to have led a famous attack on a US warship in 1866. His father Kim Hyŏng-Jik is portrayed as a resistance fighter, even if enthusiasm for him is somewhat lacking. The invented link to the legendary Tan’gun, his birthplace on Mount Paektu, and resting place at Pyongyang are also significant. The young portrayals of the Leader’s virtue also underscore that his traits are innate and, ultimately, racial. This lineage is also carried by Kim Jong-Il and, now, Kim Jong-un.
“A wall poster photographed in September 2009 bears the lyrics of the song under a legend congratulating the masses on being blessed not just with the General, but with ‘the young General Kim Jong Un’ as well. The latter, whose title is written with a different Korean word for general (taejang) than the one applied to his father (changgun), is described as carrying on both the ‘bloodline of Man’gyŏngdae,’ i.e. of Kim Il Sung’s birthplace, and ‘the bloodline of Mount Paektu,’ i.e. the birthplace of Kim Jong Il. This roundabout way of indicating his parentage seems to reflect the regime’s sense of awkwardness in celebrating someone whose very existence was kept secret for so long. The song itself, with its puerile onomatopoeic refrain, adds nothing to our knowledge of the young man.”
The Leaders, beginning with Kim Il-Sung, are presented as ideal types, according to the author, of a child race. This runs into problems with depicting the Leader as, well, uh, as a leader:
“One may well ask how a leader can pose as the embodiment of naivety on the one hand and a brilliant strategist and revolutionary on the other. In the 1940s and 1950s writers made ludicrous efforts to explain away this contradiction, claiming, among other things, that Kim’s best ideas came to him in his sleep. The propaganda apparatus soon realized it would be better simply to divert public attention elsewhere. While the leader’s genius and invincibility on the battlefield are accorded all due praise, only his ethnic virtues— his naivety, his purity, his spontaneity and solicitude—are constantly shown in action.”
This is also why, according to the author, the regime cannot be considered a patriarchal Confucian one. Even though the Korean race is portrayed as a child too innocent for the world, the Leader is portrayed not so much as a father figure, but as a motherly figure in many instances. According to the author, the motherly wins out over the fatherly qualities in northern Korean ideology, especially when depicting the Leader.
Motherland, Mother Party, Mother, child race
The author argues that the cult of the Leader, so central to the regime, is not a cult of the father, but a cult of the parent where the maternal is emphasized more then the paternal. For domestic consumption, “Motherland” is preferred over “Fatherland.” Kim Jong-Il himself stated: “The homeland is everyone’s mother … [from whose] bosom all true life and happiness springs.” A mythological Mother Korea, informs the author, plays an important role in the ideology. It was on this peninsula that, thousands of years ago, one of the first distinct races, the Koreans emerged. Tan’gun later arrived to create the Korea nation with Pyongyang as his capital. Over the hundreds of years since, Korea had been subjected to invading forces, Chinese, Japanese, American. Even so, northern Korean purity survives intact, according to the state mythology. It is only when a great leader emerges that the innocence and purity of the race becomes a source of strength in this narrative. Since the arrival of the Kim dynasty, northern Koreans can be free to indulge their childlike instincts. They can be Korean in peace.
Similarly, the Workers’ Party of Korea is referred to in maternal terms. The Rodong sinmun newspaper explained the metaphor in 2003:
“The Great Ruler Comrade Kim Jong Il has remarked, ‘Building the party into a mother party means that just as a mother deeply loves her children and cares warmly for them, so must the party take responsibility for the fate of the people, looking after them even in the smallest matters, and become a true guide and protector of the masses.’”
The following is an excerpt from “Mother” (Ǒmŏni), one of the country’s best-known poems:
“Ah, Korean Workers’ Party
At whose breast only
My life begins and ends;
Be I buried in the ground or strewn to the wind
I remain your son, and again return to your breast!
Entrusting my body to your affectionate gaze,
Your loving outstretched hand,
I will forever cry out in the voice of a child,
Mother! I can’t live without Mother!”
Just as there is the Motherland, and the Mother Party, there is the Mother herself, as leader. In depictions of his guerrilla days, the young Kim Il-Sung is not pictured in combat. Instead, his motherly qualities are emphasized. Kim Il-Sung is depicted as plump. He usually “appears between battles, fussing cheerfully over his soldiers’ food and well being.” Even his wife, Kim Chong-Suk is depicted in a more martial role in her position as bodyguard. He, unlike Lenin, Stalin and Mao, does not personify the triumph of intellect and will over the instincts. Kim Il-Sung did not need to pose as an ascetic or intellectual. Motherly qualities have been even more emphasized in the depictions of Kim Jong-Il. The Leader’s designation is pointedly androgynous. He is mostly referred to by the hermaphroditic designation “parent,” as in “Parent Leader” (ŏbŏi suryŏng). Even so, his maternal qualities are always at the fore, according to the author. His maternal side is praised far more often. Kim Jong-Il himself has long said that the key to his father’s success was his motherly qualities, which had manifested “even in his teenage years.”
This motherly side is often depicted in how Kim Il-Sung approaches problems:
“Indeed, the Leader’s published remarks are always trite: ‘Rainbow trout is a good fish, tasty and nutritious.’ Foreigners who mock these platitudes fail to realize that the content of Kim’s guidance is not as important as the time and effort he takes to administer it. (In many pictures of these visits, he is merely listening with a smile.) After all, to impart consciousness and discipline to the child race would be to make it less pure and childlike, which must never happen. Nor could Kim pose as an educator or disciplinarian without seeming an imperfect embodiment of Koreanness. In short stories, the emotional climax comes after Kim’s breezy solution of the problem, usually in a scene in which he fusses over someone in the adoring throng who looks cold or tired. It is this loving attentiveness on the part of the world’s busiest man that moves the characters to tears, and is meant to make the reader cry too. Even when Kim is referred to as Father Leader (abŏji suryŏng), therefore, there is nothing Confucian or patriarchal about him. In a short story called “Father,” for example, he neither exercises authority nor imparts wisdom, but rushes an injured child to hospital. The official encyclopedia praises the story in maternal terms, describing “the Great General as the loving parent who holds and nurtures all Korean children at his breast.”
His motherly breast is a recurring theme in northern Korean art and literature. Depictions in art often exaggerate the size of his chest to make him, physically, more woman-like. Northern Korean soldiers and children are depicted burying their faces in his breast. His face too is depicted soft, pale, and woman-like. “In one illustration he is tucking children into bed. The title of another, “The Parent Leader General Kim Il Sung Holding the Children of Mt. Ma’an to his Breast,” speaks for itself.” The first verse of a northern Korean children’s song:
“The Leader came all the way to the sentry post
And held us affectionately to his bosom
So happy about the warm love he bestowed on us
We buried our faces in his bosom
Ah! He is our parent! Ah! A son in his embrace Is happy always, everywhere!”
Depictions of the masses as forever infantile alongside depictions of the Leader as an intuitive caregiver has little in common with the official ideologies and state-promoted myths that existed in true communist-led regimes. Although the care-giver aspect may exist to various degrees in Marxist cults, the masses are regard as the true heroes and leaders, not as children. The reality of northern Korea’s ideology is also very different than what is professed, in a very poor style, by the sham ideology of Juche.
The author speculates that this may protect the regime:
“This has much to do with the far greater psychological appeal of nationalism itself, but Kim Il Sung’s peculiarly androgynous or hermaphroditic image also seems to exert a far more emotional attraction than any of the unambiguously paternal leaders of Eastern Europe were able to… This may explain why Jesus and Buddha are far more feminine and maternal figures in the popular imagination than in the original scriptures of Christianity and Buddhism. The North Koreans’ race theory gives them extra reason to want a leader who is both mother enough to indulge their unique childlikeness and father enough to protect them from the evil world… Interestingly enough, the absence of a patriarchal authority figure may also have helped the regime preserve stability by depriving people of a target to rebel against. C. Fred Alford has written, ‘In ‘society without the father’ … everything just is, nature-like in its givenness, so that it does not even occur to one to rebel, just as one does not rebel against the mist.’ Perhaps it is no wonder that the propaganda apparatus decided to make the country’s next leader even more of a mother than Kim Il Sung had been.”
In a patriarchal world, it may be more difficult for the masses to direct their displeasure at an androgynous or even motherly leader than a fatherly one. In such a world, it is harder to think of a mother as an adversary, especially a worthy adversary. There may be a tendency to write off the problems of the regime as beyond mother’s control. Mom cannot be blamed after all. The “que sera sera”-style comments of Kim Jong-Il only reinforce the author’s point.
The Cultural Revolution in China
People all over the world were looking toward China for inspiration. A quarter of humanity was standing up to embark on a radical social course to try to eliminate all oppression, end all exploitation, end all class, to reach communism. The Cultural Revolution was a storm. Chinese students began criticizing Kim Il-Sung as a revisionist just across the border. The northern regime sought to protect itself. Propagandists in northern Korea further inflated the cult to out pace Mao’s. Northern Korea sought to insulate itself from any potential storms inspired by China. Mao, of course, had a much more genuinely impressive resume than Kim Il-Sung:
“The personality cult also played a vital role in garnering support for the regime. With the young Kim Jong Il at its helm, the propaganda apparatus made sure that the cult kept pace with its Chinese counterpart. Mao’s renown as a poet, for example, inspired the DPRK’s cultural apparatus to ‘revive’ revolutionary plays, hitherto unmentioned, which Kim Il Sung had allegedly written during his youth. It was also ‘remembered’ that in the 1930s the General had taken his partisans on an Arduous March every bit as heroic as Mao’s Long March. And if Mao had routed the Japanese without foreign help, then by golly, so had Kim. This last claim necessitated the withdrawal of countless reference works and school books that had paid fawning tribute to the Soviet Red Army.”
It was in this context that the sham of Juche was born. One of Kim Il-Sung’s advisers, a self-styled philosopher named Kwang Chang-yop, persuaded the leader to entrust him the task of creating a philosophy. In September, 1972, Juche was revealed to Japanese journalists:
“Establishing the subject/juche means approaching revolution and construction with the attitude of a revolution and construction with the attitude of a master. Because the masses are the master of revolution and construction, they must assume a master’s attitude in regard to revolution and construction. A master’s attitude is expressed in an independent position and a creative position. Revolution and construction are endeavors for the sake of the masses, and endeavors that the masses themselves must carry out. Therefore, in reshaping nature and society an independent position and a creative position are called for.”
The author comments:
“Only when talking of Juche Thought does the regime express itself in this peculiar style, which is far too repetitive and dull not to be so by design. It recalls a college student trying both to stretch a term paper to a respectable length and to discourage anyone from reading it through. Far more concise and stirring language is used to espouse the true ruling ideology of paranoid nationalism. Though Juche Thought is enshrined in the constitution as one of the country’s guiding principles, the regime has never shown any indication of subscribing to its universal-humanist bromides: ‘man is the master of all things,’ ‘people are born with creativity and autonomy,’ etc. I do not mean to imply that if an ideology is not lived up to, it is ipso facto a sham. (Judged by that standard, no ideology will ‘scape whipping.) But Juche is not even professed in earnest, and no wonder; its central notion of the masses’ mastery of their fate runs counter to the sacrosanct notion of a uniquely vulnerable child race in the Leader’s protective care. Koreans must thank him, after all, even for what they earn by their own labor.”
The author continues:
“The pseudo-doctrine of Juche continues to serve its purpose all the same. It enables the regime to lionize Kim Il Sung as a great thinker, provides an impressive label for whatever policies it considers expedient, and prevents dissidents from judging policy on the government’s own ostensible terms. Just as importantly, it decoys outsiders away from the true dominant ideology. Instead of an implacably xenophobic, race-based worldview derived largely from fascist Japanese myth, the world sees a reassuringly dull state-nationalism conceived by post-colonial Koreans, rooted in humanist nationalism conceived by post-colonial Koreans, rooted in humanist principles, and evincing an understandable if unfortunate preoccupation with autonomy and self-reliance.”
Mao was a genuine man of the people. Mao was a genuine intellect. It was said of Mao that, while not a technical thinker, he is a deep thinker. People all over the world who seek a revolutionary, new world, read Mao’s works, looking to the questions and approaches found in them. By contrast, Juche was not designed to be read, but designed to convince — by way of book spines and verbosity — the childlike population of the regime (and naive onlookers) that its leader was as great as Mao. In part, this is the origin of the sham of Juche.
In orientalist style, enemies and friends alike stand stupefied before Juche:
“But how could foreign scholars read the English-language versions of the official Juche discourse without realizing how empty it is? One answer is that by the time those texts started appearing in the 1970s, North Korea’s allegiance to the mysterious doctrine was already accepted overseas as fact. Another answer is that the very incoherence, dullness and evasiveness of Juche convey to the postmodern Western reader an impressive difficulty. Now this, he thinks, is what an ideology should look like, as opposed to the race-based nationalism espoused in the DPRK’s schoolbooks, films and paintings, which is too crude and direct to be taken seriously. Even scholars aware of the triteness of the Juche discourse assume there has to be more to it than meets the eye. The historian Bruce Cumings, in apologetic desperation, concludes that it is ‘inaccessible to the non-Korean.’ As if North Koreans were not as baffled by it as everyone else! The regime’s decision not to publish a comprehensive Juche treatise under Kim Il Sung’s name turns out to have been a stroke of genius. Whatever one reads, one is always left thinking the profound stuff must be somewhere else.”
The emperor has no clothes.
Despite superficial similarities, the Maoist outlook in China was very different than that of the northern Korean regime. Both regimes put on extravagant displays that involved masses of people. Both regimes elevated personality cults. While both emphasize collectivism, the collectivism are of two very different varieties. Even in those years where the personality cult was the greatest in China, the collectivism was never a kind of narrow, racial nationalism witnessed in northern Korea. The Chinese leadership made an effort to show China’s ethnic diversity. Mao and the Chinese leadership took a humble stance toward their foreign guests. Mao would extend his hand to the smallest of communist parties in the world. Just as Black-leader Robert F. Williams was honored by standing alongside with Mao and Lin Biao from Tiananmen, the Chinese leaders were also honored to have met the emissary of North American revolution. The Chinese press was very worldly, always emphasizing the importance of struggles all over the world. By contrast, the northern Korean regime often portrays foreigners as coming to pay tribute to the Leader. The Maoist personality cult was much more in the Marxist tradition of leader as teacher. Mao himself once remarked that he only wanted to be remembered as a teacher. The goal of communists is to raise the people up, to elevate the best in them, to help them become capable of leading. Eliminating the division of labor between leadership and led is an important part of reaching classless society. By contrast, the northern Korean cult is there to protect the purity and innocence of a child race. The Marxist personality cult seeks to empower the masses to make them masters of their own destiny, the northern Korean cult, says the author, seeks to preserve their ethnic identity as an innocent, child race. The author comments:
“Believing that ‘the people is an eternal child,’ as the French revolutionary Saint-Just famously remarked, Lenin saw the communist party’s raison d’être in forcing it to grow up. The Soviet party posed as an educating father, as did the dictator who so famously talked of the need to “re-engineer” the human soul. A leading American scholar of Stalinist culture has shown that the so- called spontaneity-consciousness dialectic forms the master plot of socialist realist fiction. Nikolai Ostrovsky’s How the Steel Was Tempered (Kak zakalyalas’ stal’, 1936), for example, tells how a party cadre, armed with the teachings of Lenin and Stalin, educates a headstrong youth into a politically conscious ‘positive hero.’
In contrast, the DPRK’s propaganda is notably averse to scenes of intellectual discipline. Because Koreans are born pure and selfless, they can and should heed their instincts. Often they are shown breaking out of intellectual constraints in a mad spree of violence against the foreign or land-owning enemy. Cadres are expected to nurture, not teach, and bookworms are negative characters. In short: where Stalinism put the intellect over the instincts, North Korean culture does the opposite. When a sympathetic British documentary about life in the DPRK entitled A State of Mind (2004) was shown in Pyongyang, the authorities changed the title to ‘Maŭm ŭi nara’” or The Country of Heart.”
Rather than seeking to overcome the contradiction, the division of labor, between between leader and led, northern Korea propaganda codifies the importance of the leader over the masses. Even at the highest point of Mao’s cult, there was the promotion of the theories of Maoism that spoke of overcoming traditional divisions between intellectual and manual labor, between cadre and masses, between leader and led. Even at the height of the cult in China, the Maoists sought to remain in touch with the masses through calls for “big debates” and “mass line.”
“The following excerpt, which is strikingly reminiscent of the imagery of Japanese wartime propaganda, puts the cult of the ‘military-first’ leader in a nutshell.
Held together not by a mere bond between a leader and his warriors but by the family tie between a mother and her children, who share the same blood and breath, Korea will prosper forever. Let the imperialist enemies come at us with their nuclear weapons, for there is no power on earth that can defeat our strength and love and the power of our belief, which thanks to the blood bond between mother and child create a fortress of bond between mother and child create a fortress of single-heartedness. Our Great Mother, General Kim Jong Il”
“An enormous sign held up in a recent parade, footage of which was shown on the television news in 2009 whenever ‘The Song of General Kim Jong Il’ was played, bore the slogan, ‘We Cannot Live Away From His Breast.’
This is no empty rhetoric; the masses are reminded with increasing frequency that because the nation cannot survive without the leader who constitutes both its heart and its head, they must be ready to die to defend him. As if the logic were not in itself reminiscent of fascist Japan, the regime makes increasingly bold use of the very same terms—such as “resolve to die” (kyŏlsa) and “human bombs” (yukt’an)—that were so common in imperial Japanese and colonial Korean propaganda during the Pacific War. In the summer of 2009 the evening news periodically played a stirring anthem entitled “We Will Give Our Lives to Defend the Head of the Revolution.” The text runs, “Ten million will become as guns and bombs … to give one’s life for the General is a soldier’s greatest honor.”
The people are there for the leader, not the other way around. Such sentiments are more inline with Hirohito’s cult than Mao’s or Stalin’s or Lenin’s.
The Cultural Revolution was unleashed in China in order to further propel society toward communism. According to Mao, antagonistic contradictions continue to exist throughout the socialist period. Therefore, it is necessary to continually make revolution. Otherwise society slides back toward capitalism. Communist art of the Maoist era sought to depict these life-and-death struggles within society in very exaggerated, vivid ways. The art and outlook in northern Korea is fundamentally different than the communist view. Although northern Korean art depicts conflict with the outside world, especially the US, it downplays conflict within northern Korea. Although some minor conflicts are portrayed in northern Korean art, they are not seen as antagonistic ones.
“While the party does not explicitly deny the existence of conflict inside the republic, it contends that conflict is not ‘typical’ of North Korean life and therefore unworthy of depiction. There are few of the harsh clashes between rural and urban values, older and younger generations, chauvinist husbands and progressive wives, etc, that were so common in Soviet propaganda.”
Communists aim at communism. The northern Korean regime does not. The northern regime depicts itself as having already reached a harmonious state where class is dissolved into racial unity.
Depiction of foreigners
The racial ideology is revealed in the regime’s depiction of foreigners. There is little effort to depict proletarian internationalism in Korean propaganda. During the Korean War, Americans as a whole are condemned. Little effort is made to distinguish between the US government and its citizens as both the Soviet Union and China did, rightly or wrongly. There is little effort to draw the kind of distinctions the Soviets did when they, rightly or wrongly, distinguished between the Nazi state and the average German. No effort was made to distinguish between the US state and women and children, for example. Even if the demarcation between friends and enemies regarding the First World may be slightly more correct than that of First Worldists who failed to recognize the bourgeois nature of First World peoples as a whole, the northern Korean demarcation is made for all the wrong reasons. In this sense, it can be compared to some Islamists that point their spear at the West as a whole. During the Korean War, some northern writers celebrated abuses heaped on captured prisoners of war. The Caucasian features were depicted in racist, exaggerated ways in the northern Korean press. One author asserted that such features reflected an inner “idiotization.” They are also portrayed as stinky and unkempt. Americans are sometimes depicted with Caucasian and African features to get across the point that the American bloodline is polluted.
“While the Text strongly implies that all foreigners are inferior, and occasionally criticizes the Jews’ influence on world affairs, it subjects only the Japanese and Americans to routine vituperation. As might be expected, the ‘Japs’ (oenom) feature mainly in accounts of the colonial era. In contrast to Soviet depictions of the Germans in World War II, the Text does not distinguish between colonial-era Japanese according to class; all are inherently rapacious. It follows that they have no right to humane treatment. In this scene from a classic novel of the 1950s, one of Kim Il Sung’s guerrillas exacts retribution on an unarmed prisoner.”
“Like the ‘Japs,’ the Yankees are condemned as an inherently evil race that can never change, a race with which Koreans must forever be on hostile terms. Readers should therefore not be misled by the Marxist jargon so common in the KCNA’s English-language rhetoric. In propaganda meant only for the domestic audience, the terms ‘US imperialism’ (mije) and ‘America’ (miguk) are used interchangeably, and Americans referred to routinely as ‘nom’ or bastards. In a recent picture printed in the monthly art magazine, a child with a toy machine gun stands before a battered snowman. The caption reads, ‘The American bastard I killed.’ The DPRK’s dictionaries and schoolbooks encourage citizens to speak of Yankees as having ‘muzzles,’ ‘snouts’ and ‘paws’; as ‘croaking’ instead of ‘dying,’ and so on.”
Racial animalization of other peoples has a long history. Historically, the imperialists have been experts at it. Some might argue that such racist and nationalist hate is justified or acceptable given the history of imperialist aggression against Korea. To a limited extent this would be true, hating the enemy is better than capitulating to him. However, such a tone that plays to the lowest instincts of the masses is hardly compatible with trying to reach communism in the longterm. While hate can be the beginning of liberation, it cannot be the end. Such small-minded racism and nationalism when put toward the anti-imperialist struggle quickly reveals its limits. Such a racial outlook not only makes racial enemies of the imperialists, but all outsiders. The regime’s allies and other oppressed peoples become racial enemies too. Even during the Korean War, northern Koreans regarded their Chinese allies with hostility. This disdain for friendly foreigners is depicted in the culture, according to the author:
“Typical of the disdain shown even to the friendliest foreigners is a panoramic painting of a procession of exultant visitors to 1989’s Pyongyang World Youth Games. Whatever direction they happen to be looking in, their faces are all partly obscured by a sinister shadow. A fat Caucasian woman wears a low-cut blouse, while a few African women sport what appear to be halter-tops: even in today’s DPRK such clothing is considered indecent. Here and there, unsavory-looking men show long sideburns and denim, more signs of Western decadence. The only well-groomed and attractive person in view, and the only one whose face is evenly lit, is the Korean guide—a girl, naturally—who leads the way in traditional dress. There are no Koreans in the procession proper; the pure race must be kept apart. On the rare occasions in the Text when foreigners and locals meet, the former employ highly respectful, sometimes obsequious Korean, while the latter respond informally as if to subordinates. Real fraternity between the pure and the impure is impossible; the DPRK’s so-called Friendship Museum contains only gifts given by foreigners— ‘offered up,’ as the Text always puts it— to the Leaders.”
This was reported by diplomats too:
“East European diplomats had, however, already begun reporting home about the xenophobia in Pyongyang. Some were cursed and pelted with rocks by children on the street. Koreans who had married Europeans were pressured to divorce or banished from the capital. (Internally the East German embassy compared these practices to Nazi Germany.) One Soviet wife of a Korean citizen was beaten unconscious by provincial police when she attempted to travel to Pyongyang. In 1965, the Cuban ambassador to the DPRK, a black man, was squiring his wife and some Cuban doctors around the city when locals surrounded their car, pounding it and shouting racial epithets. Police called to the scene had to beat the mob back with truncheons. ‘The level of training of the masses is extremely low,’ a high-ranking official later told the shaken diplomat. ‘They cannot distinguish between friends and foes.’ This was precisely the mindset that the regime sought to instill.”
As late as 2006, a northern Korean general criticized the southern regime for welcoming an American football star, only one of whose parents had been Korean. The southern delegate had mentioned that people in his half of the peninsula were now marrying those from other countries. The northern general responded: “Our nation has always considered its pure lineage to be of great importance… I am concerned that our singularity will disappear.” When the southerner rebutted him that such miscegenation was merely a “drop of ink in the Han River,” the northern general stated that “since ancient times our land has been one of abundant natural beauty. Not even one drop of ink must be allowed.”
Only a few weeks earlier, similar views were echoed in the northern media:
“Mono-ethnicity [tanilsŏng] is something that our nation and no other on earth can pride itself on … There is no suppressing the nation’s shame and anger at the talk of ‘a multi-ethnic, multi-racial society’… which would dilute even the bloodline of our people.”
Along with the such racist depictions, homosexuality too is attacked as a distinctly American or Western perversion. Stories based on the capture of the USS Pueblo in 1968 contrast the purity of the Koreans to the depraved Americans. One retelling of story:
“One crew member, it is claimed, felt so disillusioned by the incestuous goings on in his family that he ‘began sleeping with whatever women came his way. Tiring of that, he became gay.’ The Text regards homosexuality as a characteristically American ‘perversion.’ Here one of the Pueblo’s crew pleads for the right to indulge it in captivity.
‘Captain, sir, homosexuality is how I fulfill myself as a person. Since it does no harm to your esteemed government or esteemed nation, it is unfair for Jonathan and me to be prevented from doing something that is part of our private life.’
[The North Korean soldier responds,] ‘This is the territory of our republic, where people enjoy lives befitting human beings. On this soil none of that sort of activity will be tolerated.’”
According to the author, one of the regime’s main anti-American books, The Jackals (1951), continues to be published to this day. Its story of American missionaries injecting Korean children with malicious germs has far more in common with fascist propaganda than propaganda of Marxist regimes. It seems less designed to raise the understanding of the masses about the real enemy, about power or class. Instead it seems closer to anti-Semitic tales about Jews who eat babies during the witching hour. The author remarks that the book, as popular as it is, has “one obvious root in nineteenth-century peasant rumor and another in fascist Japan’s anti-Christianity campaign.”
The book is an important piece of a larger puzzle
For a long time, efforts have been made by the northern regime to liberalize aspects of its economy. There have even been attempts at creating Special Economic Zones. The northern Korean website even boasts of the “lowest labor costs in Asia.” Chinese capitalists are heavily invested there.
“Nor did they consider their entrepreneurial activities to be at odds with the official ideology. ‘Making money is patriotic’ was said to be a popular if informal slogan. In short, the spread of capitalism did not appear to be eroding support for the regime.”
The author points out that exposure to more and more Western culture may not lead to a quick downfall of the regime as the imperialists hope. He makes the point that the fascist regimes of World War 2 that had based themselves on race incorporated many of the consumer goods, styles and fashions from more liberal societies. Whatever the future of the regime, the author makes the point that it will not commit suicide. To abandon its ideology and military means doing just that. The regime needs to maintain some reason for its existence vis-a-vis the South.
Leading Lights have long recognized that the northern Korean state is not socialist. It is not heading toward communism, it is not communist-led. The book implies that northern Korean was never socialist. Its Party and state were never communist-led, according to the author. Rather, from the beginning, the state was a regime of patriotic-national development that legitimated itself using the idea, language, cultural forms of a Korean-version of Japanese-fascist ideology. It is not as simple as all this. Of course there is more to the story. In order to prop themselves up, the regime wedded itself to its powerful socialist neighbors: the Soviet Union and China. When those neighbors went revisionist, northern Korea continued to maintain the relationships. As a result of the years of interaction with the socialist camp, no doubt, northern Korea adopted some of the models, some of the language, and ritual of their neighbors, even if it was often superficial. As the new century progresses, northern Korea mentions “socialism” less and less. Despite its talk about self-sufficiency, northern Korea makes unequal deals with its capitalist Chinese neighbors. Northern Korea long received aid from the Soviets until the demise of the Soviet Bloc. Northern Korea has strong-armed much aid out of the United States, becoming one of the top aid recipients at times. At the same time, northern Korea has continued to build up its military program, especially its nuclear and missile capabilities. The regime makes defiant shows to drum up domestic support, but also to keep the imperialists negotiating. The regime has come into numerous conflicts with the US over its military. Although the regime produces vivid propaganda posters, a favorite of the state’s internet groupies, video-game enthusiasts, and nostalgists, its anti-imperialist practice lags behind other states like Iran and Venezuela that are more engaged with the world. Northern Korea is not at the forefront in the construction of institutions like ALBA to challenge First World hegemony in the global market. Northern Korea is not fanning up regional Bolivarian or Islamist movements to weaken imperialism’s hold over its neighbors. There is no northern Korean-aligned Hezbollah or Hamas. Although northern Korea has reportedly sold its ballistic technology to other oppressed countries, the racial and xenophobic nature of the regime tends to run counter to such internationalist sentiments. In this sense, northern Korean, in its best moments, should be seen as junior, lesser partner in the united front. Northern Korea should be defended against imperialism, yet we do not do anyone any favors by removing our brains and pretending northern Korea is a good society or even “the last Stalinist state.” It isn’t. One doesn’t build convincing anti-interventionist solidarity by slobbering all over internet forums in praise of northern Korean leaders or by pretending Juche is some deep idea when it plainly isn’t. Pretending northern Korea is a workers’ paradise is absurd. The KFA can’t even convince its own tourists of this, it sure isn’t going to convince anyone else. Such cheerleading does not help the Korean people. (1)
Real solidarity involves building a credible anti-interventionist movement. It involves educating people around the history of US imperialism in Asia, and Korea. It means exposing real warcrimes and atrocities committed by Americans and other imperialists, not adopting the internal language of a monarchy that whips up anti-Americanism with ghoulish tales of Christian missionaries. Real solidarity means building anti-interventionist alliances with humanists, people of good conscience and other bourgeois liberals. Real solidarity means defending the regime in a way that does not lie to the global proletariat. Despite what the weird circles of self-styled internet Juche-ists, third positionists, fascists, nationalists, nostalgists, “Marxist-Leninists” and video game enthusiasts who latch onto northern Korea think, nobody, except Koreans, outside those circles will ever be inspired by the regime. And Koreans are inspired by it for many of the wrong reasons, as the author demonstrates. The global proletariat may lag, but it does not lag that much. You will not con your way to revolution on the back of the Kim dynasty or other crackpotism. Proletarian revolutions are not con games. Real revolutions are the result of proletarian social forces armed with the highest revolutionary science, organization, and leadership in command. The people’s movement may be in disarray, revisionism is widespread, but the situation is not to the point where northern Korea’s ideology will ever be confused with genuine liberation by the broad masses globally. In this time of confusion, it is absolutely necessary for real communists, Leading Lights, to come forward, to blaze a trail, to lead. It is imperative that people understand the real revolutionary science, organization, and leadership from the shams out there. Leading Lights do not tail. Fight for Leading Light science, organization, and leadership within in the united front. Uphold the broad united front against imperialism! Hold the Red Flag high!
To see a video lecture by the author visit here: http://www.c-spanvideo.org/program/292562-1