The mother of all dictatorships

To understand North Korea, look not to Confucius or the Soviet Union, but to fascist 1930s Japan

The Economist, Banyan/February 25, 2010

The face that North Korea presents to the world is widely held to be unreal. Kim Jong Il once told Madeleine Albright, Bill Clinton's secretary of state, that the bombast in honour of himself and his late, great father, Kim Il Sung, was so much nonsense. Bruce Cumings, an historian, wonders what Mr Kim can be thinking, "standing there in his pear-shaped polyester pantsuit, pointy-toed elevator shoes, oversize sunglasses of malevolent tint, an arrogant curl to his feminine lip…and a perpetual bad-hair day? He is thinking, get me out of here."

The notion that North Korea does not always believe what it is doing colours even diplomacy, which may soon start up again after months of tantrums on the part of the North. The aim is to get North Korea to give up its nuclear programmes as a prelude to normalising relations on the Korean peninsula. Many policymakers in America believe-against the evidence-that Mr Kim can be persuaded to do a deal. Some think that behind his antagonism lurks a desire for accommodation-and even an alliance.

A new book, by Brian Myers at South Korea's Dongseo University, shows just how wishful such thinking is. Dismissing what the North Korean regime tells the outside world, the author looks instead at North Korea's domestic propaganda, the Kim family cult and the country's official myths. From these he pieces together what North Koreans are supposed to believe. He concludes that Mr Kim's power is based not just on surveillance and repression. Nor can its survival be ascribed simply to the effective brainwashing of the population. Rather, the personality cult proceeds from powerful myths about race and history.

Ideas of racial purity lie at the heart of North Koreans' self-image. Since the regime's founding, they have been taught to think that they are a unique race, incapable of evil. Virtue, in turn, has made Koreans as vulnerable as children. Korea's history, the regime insists, is the history of a child-race abused by adults-Chinese, Japanese and American. Pure, spontaneous and naive, Koreans need a caring, protective leader. The upshot is the Kims' peculiar cult, of state-sponsored infantilism.

You see no chin-thrusting depictions of father or son on the monumental streets of Pyongyang. In art as in life, both Kims are effeminate and podgy. Warnings against fleeing to China are conveyed as directed at a squirrel who wanders too far. In paintings, Kim Il Sung tucks children into bed. The nation lies at the "breast" of Kim Jong Il and his party. As commander-in-chief of the armed forces, Mr Kim is even called "Mother General".

There is a precedent for this weirdly hermaphroditic parent figure: Emperor Hirohito in fascist, imperial Japan. Then Hirohito was depicted as the heart of a pure nation, which was ready to die for him because emperor and people were one. When Japan ruled Korea from 1905-45, racist ideologues said that the two countries shared the same bloodline. They were both members of the winning racial team.

After the second world war, Mr Myers recounts, Kim Il Sung kicked the Japanese off the team and pinched all their ideas. Former propagandists for the Japanese were set to work manufacturing North Korean myths. Mount Paektu was endowed with Fuji-like sacred status. Kim was painted atop a white charger, like one Hirohito used to ride. And, like Hirohito until Japan's surrender, Kim Jong Il, like his father before him, was not heard speaking by his people in public broadcasts. To an extent, such fascism has worked. Many North Koreans see the mass robotic gymnastics of the Arirang games (which bore Kim Jong Il rigid) not as a grim Stalinist display but as a celebration of pure blood and homogeneity.

The counterpart to a childish state at home is a hostile world outside. For this Japan and, especially, imperialist America are essential. Mr Myers conveys well the intensity of race-hatred directed at America. Americans are chillingly scorned as miscegenated "bastards", in contrast to pure-blooded Koreans. Again, myths are recycled from militarist Japan. Christian missionaries are said to inject innocent Korean children with fatal bacilli. The author valuably describes how propagandists depict diplomatic overtures by South Korea and America as quaking capitulations. Aid becomes tribute, so aid-bags stamped with the stars-and-stripes are tolerated when turned into use as holdalls. All this has a bearing as the diplomatic merry-go-round cranks up again.

End games

Mr Myers wonders why Mr Kim would ever give up confrontation with America when his legitimacy rests upon it. After a deadly famine in the mid-1990s and, in recent weeks, a bungled currency confiscation, he has no interest in claiming to stand for material prosperity. Anyway, South Korea wins that competition hands-down. Rather, nuclear crises since 1994-and the detonation of a first nuclear device in 2006-allow him to present himself as the nation's defender against aggression. In 2009 the country's "military-first" policy, making the armed forces the nation's highest priority, was even enshrined in the constitution. Fascism is Mr Kim's last refuge. Giving up nuclear weapons would spell the end. So he negotiates with America not to end tensions, but to manage them: neither all-out war nor all-out peace.

What would bring the regime down, then? Thanks to the advancing creep of knowledge, North Koreans know that the South is richer by far. But the propaganda state has found a way around that. South Koreans may be rich, but they are desperately unhappy because they are under the thumb of the despised Yankees. Harder to deal with, by far, would be to find out that South Koreans are content in their republic.

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