Here at mjane we’re pretty sure that North Korea is going to be in the news quite a bit in 2015. Since Kim Jong Un came to power following the death of his father, Kim Jong Il, in 2011 there’s been a relative opening-up of the DPRK regarding black-market cultural imports and communication, accompanied by brutal executions and bizarre diplomatic moves.
There’s been some interesting behavior this fall - with Kim Jong Un still relatively new to the game, signs are pointing to there being some sort of shift in the dynamics of power towards the top of the North Korean political structure. The BBC reported that on October 4th Hwang Pyong-so led a three-am delegation to Seoul, in order to discuss furthering talks. Mr. Hwang is photographed in military uniform, with broad smiles on his face and arms open wide. Typically, military uniforms in North Korea are worn at state occasions of the highest magnitude - most of the time, this pans out to mean “when photographed standing next to the Leader.” I’ve been DPRK-watching since 2004, and I think I’ve seen a photo of a smiling North Korean three times at the most. All of the photos were of defectors living in Seoul. Mr. Hwang allowed himself to be photographed smiling while wearing uniform, in the presence of a South Korean on terms that make them look like equals. This is pretty wild!
The thing about North Korea is that understanding what motivates the individual and collective choices made on all levels of society is very, very difficult for a mind molded to value liberty above all. Kim Il Sung, first leader of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, gave birth in the late 1950’s to the concept of ‘Juche’ (pronounced Joo-cheh). Juche doesn’t really have a direct translation - it’s an amalgamation of several Marxist and nationalist concepts. Juche values the people as a collective, a whole who’s value far outweighs the sum of the parts. Wrapped up in this idea is the concept that the State provides for the whole - as the state is the people, and the people are the state, they can only possibly serve one another’s interests, or be considered enemies. The state cannot be an enemy, though, because the third component of Juche is the value given to the lineage of leadership. Kim Il Sung and his government convinced the people wholly and completely that Kim Il Sung, and his son, and his son’s son’s, and so on, were essentially blessed by heaven with the ability to lead. From their leadership would flow Korea’s glory - for the entire peninsula, eventually - and from Korea’s glory would flow a new period of peace and productivity for the world.
Let’s expand on each of these points a bit.
1. It’s all about the people as a whole - collectivism is a weird concept for people raised outside of Communism to really internalize. Basically, “no private property” doesn’t mean “no cars,” necessarily. It means that anyone who DOES have a car has a car from the State - technically, the car (and every car) belong to everybody. Now, only people who are given permission can actually <i>use</i> one of the people’s cars can actually do so - that’s not really relevant, though, when we talk about Juche. Juche connects North Koreans - and a North korean would probably say “All Koreans” - to one another completely. If any one fails, he is failing himself and the whole. Success is shared success. There is, essentially, no individual in Juche. Connections are also historical - under Juche, if a family member in the current generation defects to South Korea, they put everyone in their family alive and unborn at risk of imprisonment for what is basically the crime of being related to a dissenter. This idea also applies to accolades, as well - though they happen less frequently, an entire village might get a reward if one of it’s students wins a national prize, for example.
2. The State Provides - If collectivism can equate the people with the state, as multiple parties all engaged in furthering the greater good, the notion that “the state provides” puts power dynamics back in to the picture. Think of it like this - it’s one big happy family, and that family has parents. It has a father, too…
3. It’s all about the Kim Dynasty - I’m not really much of one for “historical determinism”. I think notions that a people’s ability to embrace democrazy is related AT ALL to their history is a bit of a cop-out - the problems are usually other nation’s foreign policy interests. That said - the North Koreans, for whatever reason, absolutely and without question largely love the Kim family, and hold them above all others as leading and “guiding lights” for the Democratic People’s Republic Of Korea. Footage of Kim family state funerals shows people - some of whom appear to literally be starving - absolutely losing it, in mass public gatherings. I’m talking clothes-rending, caterwauling, crying and crawling, from old men and women, soldiers in uniform, women dressed for work, children, everyone.