Until the death of Kim Jong Il in December 2011, the big question affecting nearly every aspect of North Korean affairs—domestic or international—was who would be his successor. Now that this issue has been resolved by the selection and promotion of Kim Jong Un, the focus has shifted to the nature and sustainability of the new leadership. The four mega-events in April 2012 were supposed to provide insights: a Worker’s Party Conference, a session of the Supreme People’s Assembly, a missile/rocket/satellite launch, and the long-prepared celebrations of Eternal President Kim Il Sung’s centenary birthday. We could indeed observe dramatic changes, particularly in the DPRK’s ideology—a field that Kim Jong Il in 1995 described as the key frontier in the defense of socialism (Korean style).
This article is based on my personal observations during a visit to North Korea from April 10-16, 2012, as well as official DPRK material, and addresses the question: Are recent ideological changes just a regular progression in a linear, continuous development, or do they mark a major disruption?
New Developments in Ideology
It did not take long to notice the first of these seemingly dramatic changes when I arrived at the Sunan Airport in Pyongyang. I am not talking about the new terminal(s) or the masses of foreigners who flooded into the hopelessly overwhelmed country. Rather, it was the badges worn by North Koreans that caught my attention. These badges portraying a smiling Kim Il Sung have long been a subject of curiosity and, at times, ridicule by foreigners. Questions about their shape and size (do specific badges indicate importance?), rules for wearing (do they even put them on their swimsuits?), and availability (they can’t be bought, they can only be bestowed upon you) have been the subject of many tourist conversations, in particular over beer in the evening. But for someone like me who has been to North Korea frequently since 1991, I hardly notice the badges anymore. Neither do the North Koreans. For decades, the badges have been a part of the system’s iconography, just like the various Kim Il Sung statues in Pyongyang and across the country.
Figure 1: North Korea’s New Leader Badge
And now this: an unusually large badge with not just one, but two faces! Father Kim Il Sung and son Kim Jong Il, happily united against the background of a dynamically flying red flag. This theme—father and son replacing what used to be reserved for Kim Il Sung only—repeated itself on numerous occasions throughout my journey. Among the most widely noticed examples were the two statues on Mansudae Hill in Pyongyang, unveiled in a grand ceremony on April 13.
Figure 2: Mansudae Hill in 2010 (left) and 2012 (right)
In principle, this is nothing new. For years, Kimilsungia and Kimjongilia have been shown together. Even during my first visit in 1991, the images of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il hung next to each other in every house and apartment. On numerous murals across the country, the two leaders have been seen, though often in the form below, with Kim Il Sung in a more senior position. In the past years, Kim Jong Il’s image was progressively upgraded, and he was often displayed as being on par with his father. But a few key realms, like statues and badges, were left untouched.
Figure 3: Propaganda Artwork in Pyongyang
In April 2012, I noted two new trends. The posthumous upgrading of Kim Jong Il’s position was to be expected; but what seems to be a subsequent downgrading of Kim Il Sung raises major questions.
Merger or Replacement?
In 2008, I wrote that Kim Jong Il would be made an “Eternal” leader after his death. In April 2012, he indeed received the titles of Eternal Secretary General of the Party and of Eternal Chairman of the National Defense Committee. This can be easily understood from the perspective of North Korea’s leader-centered ideology. Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il are now being merged into one entity from which legitimacy is derived. Christianity and Islam have each done something very similar, and it has worked. Enshrining the two leaders could provide a lasting ideological basis for a new North Korea forever with a worldlier, if not collective leadership. The latter seems to be in the making, with individuals like Choe Ryong Hae figuring prominently and self-confidently in the DPRK media.
We have noted before that Kim Jong Il did not let himself be promoted as intensely as his father had done during his lifetime. He knew that his father’s legacy was a powerful and reliable source of legitimacy; replacing him would harm this towering image. But after his death in December 2011, we observed a sudden reversal of that strategy. Kim Jong Un needed to generate his own legitimacy, and this included more intense promotion of his father.
However, to my great surprise, my impression is that this display of filial piety is happening at the expense of Kim Il Sung. It is too early to be absolutely certain; we have seen trial and error politics in North Korea before. The new badges provide some interesting insights into the related confusion that seems to be prevalent among the people of North Korea.
There are now four basic versions of the badge: 1) the old one with just Kim Il Sung; 2) the new one with Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il together; 3) an old one with Kim Il Sung worn with a new one with Kim Jong Il; and 4) a new one with Kim Jong Il, without any image of Kim Il Sung (see figure 4). The latter were issued after December 19, 2011, and offer the most striking insight into the ranking of the two deceased leaders. In terms of scenario 3 (pictured lower right), wearing a Kim Jong Il badge in addition to one of Kim Il Sung has no surprising message, but not wearing a Kim Il Sung badge at all (lower left), that would have been unthinkable until now. Have both leaders already been successfully merged together so that they are regarded as one entity rather than as two separate figures? I find this hard to believe.
Figure 4: Variations of the New Leader Badges
Note that the photos in figure 4 were taken during the same few days in April 2012—meaning these four versions currently coexist. Moreover, according to my own estimate, among the slogans seen in April both in Pyongyang and in the countryside all the way down to Kaesong, roughly 40% praised Kim Jong Il, 20% praised Kim Il Sung, 10% praised Kim Jong Un, and the rest referred to the Party or political goals such as production increases or self-defense. Kim Jong Il was clearly mentioned more frequently than his father; this was particularly remarkable as it happened during the festivities on the occasion of Kim Il Sung’s 100th birthday. On April 19, the state news agency KCNA quoted Kim Jong Un as stressing, “The WPK [Workers’ Party of Korea] is the party of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il. The guiding idea of the WPK is the great Kimilsungism-Kimjongilism.” What used to be Kim Il Sung’s country is now Kim-Il-Sung-and-Kim-Jong-Il’s country. That does not just sound awkward; it actually is. Merging the two leaders in a way that each of them is assigned a special task would be one thing; but merging them in a way that would weaken Kim Il Sung’s position is a much more far-reaching step.
Whether you interpret the above as a major disruption or just a minor cosmetic issue depends, of course, on your understanding of the North Korean system. If you see it as a monarchy or another ordinary form of dictatorship, then all that counts is a show of loyalty to the leader. A Kim Jong Il badge is as good as a Kim Il Sung badge, slogan, or image. They symbolize the system, not the man.
However, there is another interpretation. Having observed the remarkable resilience of the North Korean system despite: 1) severe economic hardships and obvious underperformance; 2) substantial external pressure and the ideological shock of the post-1990 collapse of socialism in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe; and 3) the shining example of successful reform and openness in China, one wonders how it has been possible for the regime to survive. Lack of information and a tough system of surveillance and repression are the standard answers but they do not seem to be sufficient. Similar features have existed elsewhere but were, in the end, unable to prevent implosion. I am not alone in arguing that what makes North Korea’s system so sustainable is its ideology: a clever combination of defensive ultra-nationalism, a simplified version of socialism, and some religious elements. Brian Myers would add racism to this list. Together, they form a belief system that could be classified as dispositional—that is, without the need to be actively proven again and again. Once accepted, it becomes unchallengeable. Institutional economists like Oliver Williamson talk about social embeddedness: rules on this level are taken as a given.
To be sure, such a status is difficult to achieve and therefore highly valuable. It takes a long time to be built and for its sustainability needs symbols and rituals that are replicated and performed again and again. Importantly, there is little room for flexibility: in order to turn a process into a ritual and an image into an icon, stability and consistency are key strategies.
Now imagine you go to church next Sunday and the crucifix with Jesus has been moved over to make room for an additional sculpture of, say, St. Peter. Your brain would probably understand; your heart would not. This is how, I think, Pyongyangites feel when they drive or walk by Mansudae Hill. For decades, the largest Kim Il Sung monument in their country was one of the landmarks of the DPRK. It had an almost holy status. This is where couples would take their wedding pictures, young pioneers would take their oaths, visitors from the countryside and foreign delegations would lay flowers and “pay a silent tribute,” as official guide-speak would have it. Now the central ritual place of the country has been modified—or tainted, I would say. The very statue of Kim Il Sung has been moved aside (and adjusted—glasses and a smile were added) like an old piece of furniture and supplemented by a statue of his son, who by no means has the same reputation as his father, the liberator from the Japanese oppression, the founder of the Party, the Army, and the country, and victorious fighter in the “Fatherland Liberation War against the US aggressors.”
So far, there are dozens of Kim Il Sung statues left in the city and throughout the country. Will these, too, be updated? The sheer amount of bronze needed for that endeavor aside, certain questions arise: Will the North Korean people truly embrace the new version of leadership ideology? Has North Korea’s ideology been improved and made more sustainable or has it been ruined? Could it be that Kim Jong Un, despite growing up in North Korea (by no means under the same conditions as everyday citizens), lacks an understanding of how his own system functions? Is his leadership style such that no advisor dares to point out what I regard as a dramatic mistake? Or is my interpretation of North Korea wrong and this is just another ordinary dictatorship?
Remarkably, no matter how you answer this question, the implications remain the same. If North Koreans do not care about the above noted changes to the icons of their ideology, then they are as pragmatic as their socialist brothers and sisters in Eastern Europe were. They pay lip service when asked to, and otherwise focus on getting on with their lives. This would mean that North Korea is not protected by a powerful ideology, but rather by a crumbling information monopoly and a huge repression apparatus. The ideological power of the regime would be very low already, and the state would only be held together by a mix of complacency and fear.
If, on the other hand, North Koreans do care about ideology, and if this is the reason why the system has remained so stable in the past two decades despite all challenges, then we might witness the end of that model right now. Who knows, perhaps sometime in the future, North Koreans might tell us that April 2012 was the time when they lost their belief and never found it again. The day has come closer when the leaders in Pyongyang must decide: muddle through and wait for an implosion a la Europe, or embrace reforms and transform their system as the Chinese did.