I remember the shocked look on my students’ faces fifteen years ago when I told them that we actually had no idea how decisions were made or leaders picked in North Korea, that it was more or less still a “black box.” I find it fascinating that we’re starting to get a better public picture of the internal processes of North Korea.
One of the reasons is the steady stream of refugees. In the Financial Times, Matthew Engel reports on a Korean enclave in the SW London suburb of New Malden. The relatively closed and self-reliant society is mostly middle-class, “bourgeois,” but among “the beginnings of an underclass” are North Koreans. I get the impression from the article that many of them are illegal immigrants, and their “underclass” status comes both from their lack of professional skills and their desire to remain outside of official notice.
Mitchell Lerner, at Ohio State University, believes that he’s found the key to understanding the Kim dynasty of North Korea: juche. And when “self-reliance” is slipping, domestically, they bluster internationally to bolster their credentials as strong and independent leaders. It’s counterintuitive: when they need help the most, they can’t get it. But their legitimacy as rulers is based on juche. He writes
In the political realm, it called for chaju (independence), in which North Korean leaders governed without constraint from outside pressure or internal challenge. Economically, juche called for charip (self-sustenance), which required a largely self-contained economy based on domestic workers using domestic resources to satisfy domestic needs. In international relations, juche advocated chawi (self-defense), a foreign policy based on complete equality and mutual respect between nations as well as the right of self-determination and independent policymaking.
Juche, simply, demanded the people subordinate themselves to the state, and the state in turn would advance their collective interests in accordance with the uniqueness and majesty of Korea, and always in pursuit of greater economic, political, and international independence.
By justifying the position of the suryong (single leader) and uniting the people behind him, juche successfully advanced Kim’s interests.
I’d call that a fairly textbook kind of fascism: emphasizing the independence of the nation, the subordination of the people to the nation, and the fuhrerprincip — the leader who embodies sovereignty. Even the reliance on the US as a hobgoblin echoes the “we have been denied our rightful place in the world” rhetoric of the early 20c fascist regimes. The only thing that distinguishes North Korea from them, really, is the longevity of the Kim dynasty. The Kim refered to in the above excerpt is Kim Il Sung, the founder of the DPRK; his son, Kim Jong Il, is one of the only examples I can think of of a successful fascist succession.
However, by closely associating the government’s legitimacy with its successful pursuit of juche, Kim had opened the door to potential disaster. When he triumphantly achieved juche, North Koreans would perpetuate and even embrace his rule. But if the pursuit was unsuccessful, the most fundamental justification for the regime would appear violated.
Legitimation of a government is always a double-edged sword. Some forms of legitimation have a sharper back edge than others: the Confucian Mandate of Heaven is like this, as well.
When considered within this framework, Kim’s tendency to behave more aggressively when he seemed to be at his weakest makes sense. Unable to deny economic and political instability that suggested his government was not acting in accordance with juche principles, Kim redoubled his efforts to demonstrate his strength and independence in the third juche realm, foreign policy.
He does a nice job fitting the periods of economic trouble with the eras of international tension. He also does a good job illustrating the claustrophobic environment — the limited, controlled media, the cradle-to-grave indoctrination, the purges, etc — which makes North Korea such a surreal place.
Update: Speaking of Surreal, Curzon has a post on Reverend Billy Graham’s relationship with North Korea, starting with his missionary ancestors. [via