Armed and Ludicrous

What are we looking at when we look at North Korea?

Text by Amia Srinivasan

Illustrations by Sohrab Golsorkhi-Ainslie

The images of North Korea seen by the outside world tend to be mocked for their crude authoritarian fakery. According to the standard view, such propaganda tells us little about what is actually going on in the DPRK. But philosopher Amia Srinivasan, a Prize Fellow at All Souls, Oxford who writes on epistemology and ethics, argues against dismissing the Kim dynasty’s kitsch.

Five tiny doll-faced children plucking five full-sized guitars in eerie unison. A dazzling mosaic made up of 30,000 coloured cards held up by 30,000 choreographed schoolchildren. A towering bronze statue with neat rows of bowing subjects at its base. A scowling baby-faced leader in a canvas jacket, square-rimmed glasses and a crew-cut perm. A newscaster, wracked with sobs, announcing the leader’s death. His pudgy son, courtside with Dennis Rodman, laughing and thumping the barrier. A YouTube video of the US Capitol in flames, rendered in rudimentary CGI, the voiceover a triumphal screech.

The semiotics of North Korea aren’t merely kitsch – they border on camp. They seem to play knowingly with our distinctions between real and unreal, serious and comic, authentic and artificial. It’s hard to imagine what other country could be a more suitable subject of Vice’s ongoing hipster diplomacy, or who else’s despotic leader could be the butt of jokes in 30 Rock, Team America: World Police and a slew of internet memes (most famously on the Tumblr “Kim Jong-il Looking at Things”). And yet, for all its cabaret absurdity, the DPRK’s “rogue” status – particularly the nuclear aspirations it is busily trying to realise – means that working out what’s real and what isn’t takes on a geopolitical significance.

The unknowability of North Korea is a fixture in commentary on international politics: it is the world’s “most secretive state”, the “hermit kingdom”, “isolated” beyond diplomatic or epistemic penetration. The clichés imply a lack of information or data. But that isn’t the problem. Though heavily policed, North Korea’s borders are porous enough that thousands of defectors are able to leave each year and tell their stories of poverty, repression and concentration camps. In 2008, a joint venture between the Egyptian telecommunications company Orascom and the state-owned Korea Post and Telecommunications Corporation brought mobile phones to the country; Orascom reported in 2012 that there were more than a million North Korean users. And though it’s officially impossible to make foreign calls, phones near the border can pick up South Korea’s signal, allowing the exchange of news across the 38th parallel. YouTube is full of documentaries of North Korea, official and covert, showing the same rotation of images from supervised trips: visits to the showcase city of Pyongyang with extravagant feasts in empty halls; lights flickering on in buildings just as visitors drive by; smiling minders rehearsing anti-American diatribes; desolate country landscapes dotted with factories and drab hovels; “spontaneous” visits to happy and well-fed farming families. We see plenty of North Korea, we just don’t know how to interpret what we see: how to piece together the images we have into a coherent picture.

When did North Korea become so illegible? There was a time when westerners could view it as just another Soviet satellite, no more difficult to understand than anywhere else behind the Iron Curtain. It was formed at the end of the Second World War when the Korean peninsula, under Japanese imperial occupation since 1910, was divided along the 38th parallel in a deal brokered by the UN. The Americans occupied the south, the Soviets the north. Each side installed their preferred leader. The Americans picked Syngman Rhee, a political exile who had been living in the US for the previous three decades. They flew him in on General MacArthur’s private plane. The Soviets too wanted someone untainted by a history of Japanese collaboration, someone they could mould into a plausible nationalist leader. They settled on Kim Il-sung. Kim hadn’t actually been in the Pacific War – though according to official North Korean mythology, he won it almost single-handedly from a secret mountain base – but he had fought against the Japanese as a captain in Mao’s army a decade earlier. It was decided that he would do.

The Soviets cobbled together a Workers’ Party for Kim to lead, and brought the printing presses, publishing houses and radio stations under its control; the first state radio broadcast was of a mass rally in Pyongyang in celebration of the Soviet saviours. Collective farms were set up, and a political bureaucracy modelled on Stalin’s. A personality cult developed around Kim Il-sung, who was conveniently tall and handsome. There were candy-coloured posters of him with children or soldiers, bronze statues, a university in his name. Meanwhile, the South was under American military occupation. After three years, UN-monitored elections in 1948 led to the establishment of the Republic of Korea under Rhee. In angry response, Kim established the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea and the Soviets withdrew.

Two years later, Kim led a Soviet-financed attempt at forced reunification, starting with a surprise attack over the border. The Korean War, between the North, with its Soviet and Chinese patrons, and the South, with its American occupier-allies, ended in an armistice agreement – but no peace treaty – in 1953. The border between North and South remains where it was; the Korean “demilitarised zone” is the most heavily militarised border in the world. The iconography of the border, in fact, is its own subject. On the southern side of the Joint Security Area, South Korean and American soldiers face forward in a row, towards North Korea. The North Korean soldiers opposite are arranged not in a row but a triangle, as in a Mexican stand-off, in case any one of them tries to defect. When the South Korean soldiers open the door to the joint conference room, they link their arms in a daisy chain so no one gets pulled over to the North.

After the war, North Korea became the most remote outpost of the eastern bloc, hostile to Soviet interference, though still dependent on its economic aid. Kim Il-sung was no intellectual, but he vied for academic prestige with Mao nevertheless, ordering his propagandists to write vaguely Marxist texts in his name, from which the state’s official ideology – juche (“self-reliance”) – emerged. When Moscow complained about North Korea’s method of agricultural collectivisation, Kim carried on regardless. Soviet plays were no longer performed in Pyongyang. The official record denied that the Soviets had had any role in the war; all victories against the “American bastards” were home-grown. Whatever spirit of international proletarian struggle there might have been before quickly waned; eastern Europeans and Cubans reported suffering xenophobic attacks on visits to the increasingly paranoid DPRK.

Kim’s personality cult grew. Every home in North Korea had only two pictures on its wall – one of Kim Il-sung, the Great Leader, and another of his (inconveniently unattractive) son and heir Kim Jong-il, the eventual Dear Leader. Random inspections by local authorities would ensure that the pictures were properly dusted. When Kim Il-sung died in 1994, the nation was plunged into extravagant mourning: crowds of adults and children gathered around all 34,000 of his statues, prostrating themselves and wailing. State TV projected countless images of the outpouring, creating a mirrored spectacle of grief: mourners watching themselves mourn. (The same ritual was repeated two years ago after the death of Kim Jong-il.)

The death of the Great Leader and his replacement by Kim Jong-il coincided with economic crisis. Though the country enjoyed a decent quality of life in the decades immediately following the Korean War (stable growth, free housing and medical care, increased gender equality), the collapse of its patron the Soviet Union in 1991, along with severe floods, plunged North Korea into darkness and hunger. From this era a new set of images emerged, many from defectors in search of food across the border with north-east China: corpses piled up in train stations; emaciated children; hospitals without medicine; prison camps for people found trying to escape; public executions of those caught stripping defunct factories; cannibalism; the shadow capitalism of black markets and prostitution. The propaganda posters of this era are of the younger Kim’s visits to inspect the army: they signal the new ultra-militarist character of the state and offer a tacit justification for why the population was being allowed to starve. Estimates of the number who died in the famine range between 600,000 and four million. North Koreans are today on average six inches shorter than their Southern relatives.

To most in the West, North Korea in the late 1990s – the era of the famine – looked like a Stalinist state in decline (when applied to North Korea, “Stalinist” tends to indicate both a top-down authoritarian communism and what used jingoistically to be called “Asiatic” despotism). Western commentators believed the Kim regime would collapse under the economic strain and North Korea would be absorbed into the liberal, US-backed state to the south. Although it never happened – North Korea eventually overcame the worst of the famine and tightened its internal security – the West still tends to read North Korea in these terms: as a failed state, led by self-interested despots (now the third Kim, Kim Jong-un), whose only goal is to preserve their power. On this view, much of the seemingly hysterical devotion to the Kims is ersatz, a product of the fear maintained by pervasive surveillance and the cruelly effective policy of punishing individuals by sending whole families to the gulag. Thanks to Google Earth, you can now see the yellow outline of the prison camps in the country’s desolate mountain region to the north-east, where an estimated 400,000 men, women and children are held.

Yet even defectors can get misty-eyed when talking about the homes they left: not just their families and friends, but the selfless leaders they betrayed. Defection is by no means easy – anyone planning to leave will need to raise enough money to bribe the North Korean guards; you’ll have to dodge both North Korean and Chinese police and, if you’re a woman, Chinese pimps as well – but even so, the rates are surprisingly low. In her book Nothing to Envy, based on extensive interviews with North Korean defectors, Barbara Demick traces a common trajectory: starvation and desperation, flight, resettlement in the South, eventual disappointment. Demick’s defectors are happy with the upgrade in their material comfort, but they evince a spiritual lack. The central story in Demick’s book is of two young North Korean lovers, a quiet girl from a modest family and an intellectual boy destined for Party membership. After years of chaste longing, mediated through letters and long walks, they are separated by the girl’s family’s defection. Hearing news of her departure, the boy, now a man, also flees for the South. When they meet again, the romance is gone. He complains she is no longer beautiful. She can no longer see what all the fuss was about and wishes he would stop texting.

The only really sanguine defector Demick interviews is Mrs Song, a grandmother once fiercely loyal to the Kim regime. Having been kidnapped and taken over the border by her defector daughter, Mrs Song first lived in China and spent her time watching TV. She became addicted to a South Korean soap opera, and decided to join her daughter in the South. She travelled to Seoul on a fake passport, was re-educated and settled in her own apartment, and began to accumulate the material trappings she’d never had: a rice cooker, flattering clothes and finally plastic surgery to give her eyelids the much-desired Caucasian crease. Not quite an image of emancipation.

Leftist commentators, and sympathisers in the South, argue that North Korea’s military aggression and paranoia is a rational, or at least understandable, response to American imperialism: the killing of nearly a quarter of the North Korean population by American carpet bombing and napalm in the Korean War; the installation of a puppet government along with (until 1991) nuclear weapons in the South; the frequent shows of American military might along the border; the continued unwillingness to grant North Korea diplomatic legitimacy. The anger North Koreans feel, sympathisers say, is historical and specific, the direct result of continuing American interference in the region. What they want is what every nation wants: self-determination, independence, respect. This seems to be the view favoured by Dennis Rodman, now the de facto American expert on Kim Jong-un, having spent more time with the 29-year-old leader than anyone else. “I love him,” Rodman declared on ABC News after returning from his trip with the Harlem Globetrotters. “The guy’s awesome.” When pressed on the young Kim’s nuclear threats, Rodman said: “He want Obama to do one thing. He want Obama to call him . . . He told me that. He said: ‘If you can, Dennis, I don’t want to do war’.” Cynics argue that more than a call, he wants cash. The North Korean regime may decry the American military presence on its border, but it depends on – and indeed demands – US-backed economic aid. Its citizens know this: for bags, North Koreans use rice sacks with US flags stencilled on them.

So what are we looking at when we look at North Korea? The literary critic B.R. Myers, author of The Cleanest Race: How North Koreans See Themselves and Why it Matters, argues that the images we see – produced mainly by foreign visitors to Pyongyang and North Korea’s own English-language news service – form a highly curated mosaic of obfuscatory nonsense. The real stuff, Myers says, is in the images North Koreans produce of and for themselves, the country’s internal propaganda. There we see a bearlike Kim Il-sung and his chubbier son, smiling indulgently as rosy-cheeked children clamber over them in classrooms, snowy fields and Fragonardian gardens. In a more sombre image, Kim Jong-il stands below a bronze statue of his father wearing a look of motherly concern, a crowd of prostrate mourners reaching out to him, the faces of crying children buried in his chest. The nation’s favourite film, The Flower Girl (1972), features a white-clad virginal heroine who weeps her way through one family crisis after another at the hands of Japanese imperialists, until she pledges to join the revolutionary struggle under Kim Il-sung.

The semiotics of all this, Myers claims, couldn’t be clearer. Koreans are a morally pure child-race whose innocence leaves them vulnerable to attack in a malicious world: first by the Japanese, then the Americans. Only under the protection of a loving leader – not a Confucian father, but what Freud called the “phallic mother”, a fantastical maternal figure endowed with masculine potency – can the Korean people thrive. Even the official ideology of self-reliance is a sham; rather than wanting economic independence, Koreans deserve, by virtue of their moral superiority, to be supported by the rest of the world. Myers sees North Korea as a fascist state built on an ideology of collective victimhood and racial superiority – a state that longs not for international recognition, but for a holy war (songjun) that will bring all Koreans under the care of a virtuous parent.

His views are controversial among experts, but whatever their flaws, Myers may take us further than other analysts in explaining why the images coming out of North Korea appear so bizarre. Political kitsch is easy to recognise and interpret. We are familiar with images of choreographed obedience and sublimation of the self: the opening ceremony of the 2008 Beijing Olympics was stunning, but not bewildering. And we long ago learned how to read the gaudy colours and maudlin sentimentality of socialist realism. But the image repertoire of North Korea seems to extend beyond kitsch, beyond the vulgar instrumentalisation of art for didactic ends, into a realm of queer performance that frustrates its interpretation as sincere, or for that matter as satire. This is especially true when it comes to depictions of the current Kim and his late father. They are pudgy, coddled, effete. Their military-cum-jogging outfits and sunglasses are in ostentatiously bad taste, and every day is a bad hair day. They are anti-authority figures. Can we really be expected to take seriously the screamed threats of these huffy little men? Shouldn’t we instead declare them fabulous?

If Myers is right, then this seemingly camp aesthetic is, in one sense, just that. The Kims are performing not masculine authority, but maternal self-sacrifice. They are soccer moms with nuclear arsenals. (It’s possible that Tina Fey has understood the gender-bending performance of North Korean leadership better than anyone else: in 30 Rock, both Kim Jong-il and Kim Jong-un were played by Korean-American comedienne Margaret Cho.) The West’s failure to reconcile its contradictory visions of the country – and the bemused mockery North Korea comes in for – stems from an assumption that what we see just can’t be what we are getting. What would it mean, though, to take the apparent camp more seriously? Rather than search for hidden meanings, we could attend more carefully to what is there, on the surface. § 

  • Armed and Ludicrous