When I lived in South Korea as an ESL teacher in November 2010, a North Korean artillery barrage rained down upon the South Korean island of Yeonpyeong. The attack, which killed four, was met with response artillery and fighter jets from South Korean leadership. The ensuing hour-long conflict was the first of its kind since the 1953 armistice, and the latest of a series of flash-point threats to peace on the peninsula in the same year.
Predictably, different stories about North Korean motives circulated in Western media. The North Korean Foreign Ministry insisted that the act was one of “retaliation,” with reference to what they claimed were illegal South Korean military exercises in the Yellow Sea. Then president of South Korea Lee Myung-bak called the event nothing less than an unprovoked “invasion of South Korean territory.” Indeed, according to North Korean documents obtained by Chinese officials later on, there is evidence suggesting that the act of aggression may have been part of an effort to provide political capital for a new “Supreme Leader”: none other than current Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un, of recent fame.
But this is speculation, and Western speculation at that. Whatever else was true, North Korean military propaganda was clear about a preferred “solution” for Seoul: namely, that it be turned into “a sea of fire.” Few of my own memories are as movingly vivid as my elementary-aged students’ repeated inquiries as to exactly why they could not “come to America” with me, where the “California beaches” are.
Such experiences are obviously paltry compared to the collective memory of generations of Korean families – many of whom have been literally separated for more than 60 years. But they are enough to inspire a sense of awe at the Supreme Leader’s latest, eloquent words: “I heartwarmingly realize that North and South Korea are not just neighbours that live separately, but rather a family. . . . We are families who share the same bloodline, who must unite.”
What a difference (roughly) eight years makes.
Not even one drop
Westerners could be forgiven for missing the immensity of Kim Jong-un’s direct reference to a common Korean “bloodline” in his historic remarks. To Americans, especially, it may seem like a throwaway line – an archaic residue of the North’s lack of interaction with global capital for the last 74 years, perhaps.
It is not. In fact, as American scholar B.R. Myers has argued in his study of domestic North Korean propaganda, The Cleanest Race, the significance of “blood” and “family” for North Korean culture and society since its 1948 establishment under the leadership of Kim Il-sung is difficult to overstate. The totalitarian spirit of the “Kim dynasty” (Il-sung, Jong-il and now Jong-un) has almost nothing to do with its portrayal in Western media outlets. For us, totalitarian regimes are Hitlerian or Stalinist – brutal, masculine and mechanistic in their use of power. When we think of North Korea, we might think of “communist” leaders cynically “brainwashing” hapless masses to worship Dear Leader, no matter what the personal costs.
As Myers documents in his book, this is a misperception: “the [Kim] personality cult proceeds from myths about the race and its history that cannot but exert a strong appeal on the North Korean masses.” In other words, the Kim dynasty is “total,” in the full sense of the word. From the Kims themselves down to, say, the many thousands of immediate victims of the 1995-97 famine, a spirit of blood and kinship suffuses the self-proclaimed “Great Country, Strong and Prosperous.”
What is distinctive about this spirit blood and kinship? In Myers’ study of domestic (as opposed to international) propaganda, a striking story emerges: North Korea is a motherland, whose sacred bosom is constantly under threat from foreign enemies. As the [North] Korean Central News Agency put it in a 2003 brief about Kim Jong-il, “[We are] held together not by a mere bond between a leader and his warriors but by the family tie between a mother and her children, who share the same blood and breath.” Kim Jong-il himself remarked of his father, “Like a sensitive and meticulous mother the Leader took it upon himself to know people through and through . . . so it is only natural that everyone believed in the leader and followed him.” Indeed, in the 2009 “Song of General Kim Jong-il” played on television news, the refrain does not mince words: “We Cannot Live Away From His Breast.”
The Cleanest Race documents many more examples of this underappreciated phenomenon. North Koreans under the Kims seem to understand themselves as a pure and virtuous race – ultimately united in the bosom of a common mother. This is not cynical “brainwashing.” It is a totally unique, racially based solidarity in the face of a plethora of admittedly powerful, imperialist foes (the U.S. and a still colonial Japan – both of which feature heavily in DPRK imagination). The role of the Kims is to personify this resilient motherland, and her corresponding spirit of purity. As Major General Kim Yong-chul of the North Korean military is reported to have remarked, “Since time immemorial, our nation has been a land of abundant beauty. Not even one drop of ink must be allowed to fall into the Han River.”
Made and making
Theorists today disagree about how to conceptualize race. Even if no serious person accepts that traditional racial categories are “purely” biological, the meaning and extent of racial categories as “social constructs” is still enormously controversial. After all, if individual races are social constructs, what are the “materials” out of which they are constructed? Indeed, even if race is a complete and utter social construct, is it still “natural” to human development to see themselves as an extended family?
Wherever one lands on these questions, the case of North Korea seems to be a rather profound window into a perennial human situation: we are made, but we also make ourselves. This is just what it means to be historical creatures. It is far too soon to come to any conclusive judgment regarding whether or not Koreans will enjoy the fruits of this professed familial identity. It happens to be another perennial feature of human history that it resists accurate prediction. After all, Westerners do not have trouble worrying about ideologies of racial purity, regardless of how inclusive they are.
But we should still appreciate the radicality of Kim Jong-un’s recent words. They are already historical. Maybe the hopes of one Korean people will be too someday.
You just read something for free.
But it didn’t appear out of thin air. Writers, editors and designers at Christian Courier worked behind the scenes to bring hope-filled, faith-based journalism to you.
As an independent publication, we simply cannot produce award-winning, Christ-centred material without support from readers like you. And we are truly grateful for any amount you can give!
CC is a registered charity, which is good news for you! Every contribution ($10+) is tax-deductible.