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週四, 30 九月 2010 17:46

Spiritual tradition, presentation and power in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea

In the secretive state of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), a look into the past reveals some explanations for the present state of things.

Snooping around for information on the DPRK isn't really rocket science, but you have to read between the lines. With the Dear Leader, Kim Jong-il, in bad shape, both international and domestic media have been quick to cover recent shifts in power and the promotions of his son, Kim Jong-un. Taking into consideration the amount of energy that was invested in building up Kim Jong-il’s reputation as a gifted, nurturing and obvious choice for his father’s successor, it’s unnerving to think that the state has neglected to strike up an equivalent propaganda campaign for his son in DPRK media, nor has his inherent genius been lauded to the point of conviction. Considering the high levels of ideological indoctrination in the DPRK, the state seems to be neglecting necessary prerequisites for a legitimate leadership.

The state ideology, Juche, is often simplistically translated by one-time analysts as ‘self-reliance’. Others have mislabeled it a state religion. Based on these perceptions, the fear of instability is warranted. But despite the lack of fanfare surrounding Kim Jong-un, the true mechanism of power is likely to remain unchanged.

The state claims that Juche is based upon concepts developed by Kim Il-sung during his time spent as a guerilla in Manchuria. However, Juche wasn’t standard vocabulary until the early-to-mid 1960s when Soviet relations with their North Korean brethren cooled and Kim Il-sung was obliged to seek friends in the Third World. These ideas were then later refined by Kim Jong-il who published his contribution, ‘On the Juche Idea’, in 1982. There is a significant amount of debate surrounding whether or not the works of the Kims are original; nevertheless, these ideas touch on a number of socio-political subjects, with arguments based in ad hoc interpretations of history. The dichotomy that analysts often neglect to observe is between what was originally written as a guide to Juche, and how media coverage of the leadership and publications of their ideas have since conveyed the purpose of the State. On the books, Juche is political and devoid of overtly religious statements, but its presentation and the tone of the media support claims that North Koreans are living in a politically religious state.

When Mussolini was intent on spreading the idea that the state should be number one in people’s hearts, his propaganda machine began producing stories that borrowed from preexisting Italian concepts of spirituality. Coverage of soldiers in the field employed similar vocabulary as that used to describe Christian martyrs and crusaders. The Soviets replaced icons in Orthodox ceremonies with pictures of Marx, Lenin and Stalin. In the DPRK, Juche and its institutions draw on a number of ideas based in religions that existed on the Korean Peninsula prior to its murky inception in the late 1940s.

Academic work by Kim Jong-il and press coverage in the media often utilize teleology; references to ‘the completion of the revolution and construction’ at some undisclosed point in the future is related to the Cheondogyoist (The Religion of the Heavenly Way) concepts of Gaebyeok, a term that, simply put, refers to the bonding of heaven and earth that will occur when all people understand Cheondogyo, an indigenous Korean New Religious Movement.

Kim Jong-il’s legitimacy as a ruler is reinforced by Confucian concepts of morality. The media builds up the Leader’s credentials, presenting the case that he (Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il in their respective eras of rule) is unquestionably the leader of choice. There is apparently no one more suitable for the role than the leaders themselves; there is logically no need for pluralism. The state also legitimizes the Kims’ cults of personality by utilizing culturally familiar concepts of the family-state to show that the leader is a paternal leader who loves the people.

The choice of words that is associated with the leadership in numerous articles harbours rather obvious connections to Christianity. Articles in the Rodong Sinmun (the mouthpiece of the Korean Worker’s Party) often refer to the Generals as “saints”: “(Kim Jong-il) is indeed the great saint of revolution who gives ineffable affection to those once he met and blooms their life.”[1] Unblushingly, the father receives an even higher status, “Kim Il-sung is the most outstanding thinker and theoretician produced by the 20th century and the master of leadership who performed such exploits as winning one victory after another and a great revolutionary saint in the 20th century possessed of extraordinary personality and charisma that fascinated all the people.”[2] In the Korean version of the text, seongin, or saint, is not exactly the same prefix given to Christian saints in the Bible seongdo. However, other major religions of Korea do not use the word seongin when addressing enlightened individuals in their texts. Cheondogyo reserves the title of Daesinsa and Sinsa for its historically influential leaders. Buddhist acolytes are referred to as sami.

Terminology aside, the state is also intent on linking political thought with morality. The moral obligations of the people are strictly defined along political lines. The goods and evils of society are absolute. People are obliged to follow based on prefabricated concepts of morality rather than law. North Koreans are lead to believe that internal and external enemies threaten their revolutionary progress. Because of the perceived gravity of the situation, the question of morality and ethics in the DPRK is passionately polarized. The people are constantly reminded of the unquestionable goods associated with their leadership and traditional Korean culture. On the other hand, through state-run media, they are informed daily of the ever-present dangers associated with the sycophantic worship of foreign powers and the ever-present threat of imperialistic interventions. Examples of model citizenry are held in the highest esteem and historical references often reiterate the characteristics of model citizens.


Lyrics change, but the song remains the same.

classSince 1994, Juche has become less and less commonplace in the media, even though the state’s style and presentation has remained consistent. In need of military support following the death of his father and waves of natural disasters that wreaked havoc upon the population, Kim Jong-il was obliged to introduce Seongun Cheongchi, or military-first politics. It has come to dominate the slogan banners around Pyongyang although the occasional reference to Juche still manages to makes its way into the limelight.

Slogans and policies reflect the shift from the old guard of the Korean Workers Party to the military. In addition to this, the rift between the party and the military seems to be growing.

This shift away from the Party concerns China's top dogs. See the May 8th article covering Hu Jintao's speech at the DPRK/ PRC banquet during Kim's most recent visit ( Hu repeatedly mentions the partnership of the Parties as the root for success and growth of the two countries. China's invitation to Kim in the midst of an investigation into an act of war was a clear signal that he was China's man and they would not support internal or external moves to change that.

In the tug of war for the balance of power, North Korea's military has, however, claimed its own victories. Pak Nam-gi, the financial director of the Workers' Party Korea Central Committee and a close adviser or Kim Jong-il was sacked in January and subsequently executed for his alleged responsibility in the currency reform bungle that wiped out family savings and brought public anger to a boiling point. In North Korean media he was often mentioned as an accompanying member of numerous facility tours by the Dear Leader. Yet there are other names that often come up, and they are nearly always mentioned first:

'Kim Jong-il inspects cattle farm of KPA unit' Nov 20, 2009

'...Central Committee of the He was accompanied by KPA [Korean People's Army] Generals Hyon Chol Hae, Ri Myong Su and other commanding officers of the army, Secretary of the WPK Kim Ki Nam and Department Directors of the WPK Central Committee Pak Nam Gi, Kim Kyong Hui and Jang Song Thaek.'

The Generals, Hyon Chol Hae, Ri Myong Su, are always present (at least in writing) on inspection tours of local KPA garrisons or facilities, they are often with him in non-KPA-related inspections, and they have been with him (minus Pak Nam Gi) in Kim's most recent tour. To name a few:

Kim Jong Il Inspects Hamhung Chemical Industry Univ. -- May 21, 2010
Kim Jong Il Inspects Taehongdan County -- May 19, 2010
Kim Jong Il Watches Football Match -- Nov 03, 2008
Kim Jong Il Appreciates Performance Given by State Symphony Orchestra -- Nov 27, 2006

Kim Jong-un might be the face for the new regime, but the real decisions will be made by the two men pinned to the gills with medals standing on either side of him. If they outlive the Dear Leader, from what little information we will be able to gather on them, Hyon Chol Hae and Ri Myong Su are two potential regents to watch.

The State will continue to utilize spiritual concepts to prop up the leadership. Although somewhat uncreative and excessively repetitive, propaganda in the DPRK works as a well-oiled machine. Its word choice and methodology stem back to pre-DPRK times and will employ the same strategy to prop up the leadership in the future. To the disappointment of both China and pundits predicting the imminent collapse of the DPRK following the death of Kim Jong-il, the state will putter along as it always has. Although the people will still be reading about the New Leader’s ability to instruct farmers how to grow more crops or, say, his gifted talent in foreign literature, Seongun Chongchi will continue to dominate the ideological arena and the military will continue to enjoy an internal position of strength in relation to the Party and the Kim Family.

[1] Seung Jae-sun and Pak Nam-jin, “Uri inmineun hyeongmyeongjeok insaenggwaneul chejilhwahan uidaehan inmin ida,” Rodong Sinmun, Dec 2, 1997.

[2] “Sun’s Day Observed,” Rodong Sinmun, April 15, 2001, KCNA online database:





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