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Each year on April 15th, North Koreans pay homage to the founder of their nation, Kim il-Sung – the most revered figure in the North Korean psyche. Despite the tense state of affairs on the Korean peninsula and war-like rhetoric emanating from the North, the mood in the country is one of patriotic celebration as citizens of Pyongyang take part in communal dancing and other festivities to remember their departed leader. Kim il-Sung was a guerilla fighter who fought for Korean independence against the Japanese, who occupied the peninsula prior to the Korean War. He was installed into power by the Soviet Union, which bankrolled the North’s post-war reconstruction efforts and shaped its economic policy. After a turbulent history of being under the thumb of larger regional powers, Kim il-Sung is credited with freeing Korea from the yoke of colonialism, even earning him sympathy from some of the elderly generations living in the South. North Korea’s reverence for Kim il-Sung appears wholly Stalinistic to the Western eye, but there are complex reasons why the North Korean ruling family continues to be venerated unquestionably, part of which deals with North Korea’s race-based brand of nationalism that few analysts take into account.
Imperial Japan ruled the Korean peninsula for thirty-five years beginning in 1910, and historians claim that Koreans of the time had little patriotic or nationalistic sensibilities and paid no loyalty toward the concept of a distinct Korean race or nation-state. The Japanese asserted that their Korean subjects shared a common bloodline and were products of the same racial stock in an attempt to imbue Koreans with a strong sense of national pride, suggesting the common ancestry of a superior Yamato race. Following the independence of the DPRK, its leaders channeled the same brand of race-centric nationalism. Domestic propaganda channeled rhetoric of racial superiority different from that of the Aryan mythology of Nazi Germany; mythmakers in Pyongyang focused on the unique homogeneity of the Korean race and with that, the idea that its people are born blemish-free, with a heightened sense of virtuousness and ethics. The characteristic virginal innocence of the Korean people is stressed incessantly in North Korean propaganda, obliging the guidance of an unchallenged parental overseer to protect the race – that’s where the Kim family comes in.
Both Kim il-Sung and his son Kim Jong-il, who ruled North Korea from 1994 to 2011, are credited with super-human feats that North Korean school children learn about from the cradle. The domestic portrayal of Kim il-Sung and Kim Jong-il is that of a firm parental entity who espouses both maternal concern and paternalistic authority. The personality cult around the Kim family is itself is built into the story of racial superiority, mythicizing Kim il Sung into a messianic entity destined to lead the Korean people to independence through a self-reliance philosophy known as the Juche idea. The Juche ideology channels vague humanistic undertones while trumpeting autonomy and self-reliance. Analysts argue that the Juche idea and the volumes of books allegedly written by the leaders on a broad series of Juche-based social sciences is essentially window dressing designed more for foreign consumption. Foreign visitors are lectured about Juche thought and kept away from the central ideology, which is that of a militant race-based ultra-nationalism.
Defectors also claim that there is a stronger effort on indoctrinating the masses internally with the official fantasy biographies of the leaders to further their messianic character, rather than a serious application of teachings such as Juche thought. In North Korea, the leader is never seen exerting authority onto his people; he is instead depicted as caring for injured children in hospitals and nurturing soldiers on the front lines. State media has once described Kim Jong-il as “the loving parent who holds and nurtures all Korean children at his breast.” The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea may have a communist exterior, however it bares little resemblance to a Marxist-Leninist state in its commitment to improve material living standards; economics are nowhere near a central priority in contrast to the importance placed on the military. Domestic propaganda encourages its subjects to remain in their natural state of intellectual juvenescence and innocence, under the watch of the great parent. Kim il-Sung, given the title of “Parent Leader” in state media, was portrayed as a nurturing maternal figure, fussing over the food his soldiers consumed and making sure they had warm clothing.
Much like the mysticism around Japan’s Mount Fuji during the time of the Imperial Japanese occupation, Korea’s highest peak, Mount Paektu, was designated a sacred place and given a central role in official mythology. Kim Jong-il’s birth supposedly took place on the peaks of Mt. Paektu beneath twin rainbows in a log cabin during the armed struggle against the Japanese occupiers. His biography reads, “Wishing him to be the lodestar that would brighten the future of Korea, they hailed him as the Bright Star of Mount Paektu.” Images of fresh snowfall and snow-capped peaks of Mount Paektu are conjured to exemplify the pristine quality of Korean racial stock, and state media often refers to the DPRK as the “Mount Paektu Nation” and Kim Jong-un as the “Brilliant Commander of Mount Paektu.” Pyongyang is often depicted under snow, symbolizing the purity of the race, described by state media as “a city steeped in the five thousand year old, jade-like spirit of the race, imbued with proudly lonely life-breath of the world’s cleanest, most civilized people – free of the slightest blemish.”
Nearly all of the North’s domestic propaganda maintains a derogatory depiction of foreigners, especially of Americans, who are unanimously viewed as products of polluted racial stock. Six decades of ethno-centric propaganda has reinforced the North’s xenophobia and unwillingness to interact with the outside world. In his book ‘The Cleanest Race,’ DPRK expert B.R. Meyers cites a conversation between North and South Korean personnel discussing the increasing presence of foreigners in the South, to which the North Korean general replied, “Not even one drop of ink must be allowed.” Domestic propaganda reinforces the trauma and devastation experienced during the Korean war, when nearly a third of the North Korean population were killed in US led aerial bombardments, flattening seventy eight cities and showering over fourteen million gallons of napalm on densely populated areas over a three year period, killing more civilian causalities than the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Credible threats to the DPRK’s national security have allowed the ruling family to consolidate power, while legitimizing the ‘Songun Policy’ or military-first policy.
North Korea’s most unstable period came after the death of Kim il-Sung in 1994, as economic difficulties deepened following the fall of the Soviet Union and severe environmental conditions that resulted in a period of the famine from 1995 to 1997, killing nearly one million people. As the economy collapsed, social discipline and internal security began to breakdown outside of Pyongyang. Defectors reported seeing streets littered with famished corpses of the starving. Instances of soldiers robbing civilians in search of food and cases of cannibalism in rural areas were prevalent. Kim Jung-il maintained in this period that the US-led economic blockade against Korea was the dominant cause of the famine and economic stagnation. Kim Jong-il realized that having the backing of military generals was crucial to maintaining his power and authority, so as to quell the possibility of an ambitious general staging a military coup. The introduction of ‘Songun Policy’ gave members of the army preferential treatment with respect to receiving food rations, in addition to granting more authority to hardline generals. Much of the food aid received from abroad was redistributed directly to the military.
Kim Jong-il, having overseen the most arduous and economically stagnate period of North Korean history, sought to legitimize his rule through the procurement of nuclear weapons. “In 2006 the Dear General successfully saw the acquisition of a nuclear deterrent that would protect the Korean race forever. Truly, the son had proven himself worthy of his great father,” as described by state media. The state propaganda apparatus had done much to equate this accomplishment as the pride of the nation, depicting it as integral to the national defense of the country and the race. Understanding the role of the DPRK’s nuclear weapons is crucial for policymakers in the US and South Korea, who have placed the North’s denuclearization as a prerequisite for dialogue. North Korea cannot be expected to commit political suicide, nor can it be made to forfeit its main source of pride, legitimacy and defense in exchange for only thin assurances of security and prosperity from the US.
The North Korean regime is complicated, and its doctrine of race-based militant ultra-nationalism bares more resemblance to National Socialism than to Communism. The DPRK is a product of brutal occupation, subsequent isolation, and decades of failed rapprochement policies on the part of South Korea and the US. It will take decades of interaction with the outside world to undo the social conditioning that North Koreans have lived under for six decades, something that can only be accomplished with delicate diplomacy and the incremental normalization of inter-Korean relations. Kim Jong-un has revolutionary credentials, and eventually the old guard of generals and advisors that surround him will pass, and he will exert total control over the nation and its direction. At its current pace of military development, the North will have the technology to act on its many threats in the coming years. If the current crisis tells the world anything, its that the approach of the US and South Korea is not conducive to peace, and further calls for the North to denuclearize will not yield results any different from what the world has already seen. While Kim Jong-un’s actions in the present scenario are grounded in building his domestic appeal, the underlying message is that North Korea is a nuclear state, and it wishes to be recognized as one for the purposes of defense and national security.
The policies of conservative President Lee Myung-bak deeply strained inter-Korean relations, and incumbent President Park Geun-hye has picked up where he left off. Although it would be described as unrealistic by South Korea’s conservative establishment, the only possible method for rapprochement that could actually work would come in the form of South Korea distancing itself from the United States. Given the unique paranoia and xenophobia of North Korea’s regime and how they’ve managed the country in near-isolation since its independence, the only hope of changing the regime’s behavior is accepting it in its current form, increasing inter-Korean cooperation in areas of trade and tourism through the construction of special industrial zones in the North. The Sunshine Policy years spearheaded by South Korean President Kim Dae-jung showed that inter-Korean relations faired far better under a policy of openness and economic exchange over the conservative approach of the South Korean right.
Sanctions, demands of denuclearization, and backing the North into a corner will only yield the same familiar results – an ugly stalemate that throws the Korea peninsula into a serious security crisis every so often. South Korea has a better chance of convincing the North to denuclearize only after trust and normalized relations are established, and that can only happen if the South is willing to scale back its military partnership with the US and acknowledge Pyongyang’s right to defend itself. Although Seoul would be viewed as giving into Pyongyang’s threats, a revival of the Sunshine policy is the only way to mend relations between the two Koreas. Regardless of Pyongyang’s nuclear policy, the establishment of inter-Korean industrial zones and economic spaces will herald greater opportunity for civilians from both Koreas to come into contact, allowing opportunities for North Koreans to be exposed to outsiders and to become familiarized with modern industrial technologies and work methods.
North Korea’s approach in the current scenario is widely viewed as irrational, and it has behaved in a way that undermines its legitimate security concerns. The only way to deradicalize the North’s xenophobic ethno-militarism is through economic exchange and the normalization of relations, and that can only happen if the South incrementally scales back its military exercises and recognizes the North as a nuclear state. There is no reason for tension on the Korean peninsula today, and if new policy directions were taken by the administration in Seoul, such instability would not have to occur. Being part of the same race, a neutral-Seoul could have much greater influence over Pyongyang than China ever could, and the normalization of relations would yield mutually beneficial economic growth that would stabilize the North and reduce the long-term insecurities that Kim Jong-un would face – inter-Korean cooperation is in the interests of all countries in the region. The current standoff on the Korean peninsula is much like a fork in the road of inter-Korean relations; pride should be pushed aside because its either sunshine or war.
Nile Bowie is an independent political analyst and photographer based in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org