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North Korea: Beyond Charismatic Politics (Asia/Pacific/Perspectives)

3.7 out of 5 stars 3 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0742556799
ISBN-10: 0742556794
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Editorial Reviews


Kwon and Chung provide invaluable insight into the role and means of charismatic politics in North Korea. They effectively argue that the regime has used elements of a theater state and family state to build and sustain its legitimacy through arduous political and economic times. The use of the arts to convey and celebrate civic virtues and to associate these virtues with Kim Il Sung, then Kim Jong Il, and now Kim Jung Un is a recurring theme. The homage paid to Kim Il Sung's wife, Kim Jong Suk, is seen as an effort of the regime to present the succession process as natural and necessary. The authors link Kim Il Jong's military-first policy to efforts to cloak himself with his father's charisma and the banner of the continuing revolutionary struggle against imperialism. While the authors acknowledge the regime's success to date, they question how much longer this family state can be sustained by actions of a theater state. They appear to imply that it may be necessary to follow China's course in the 1980s for the regime to survive. This work is highly recommended for scholars of North Korean politics and substantial graduate school collections on Northeast Asia. Summing Up: Highly recommended. (CHOICE)

At the dawn of Kim Jong Un's reign, professors Kwon and Chung deliver a penetrating . . . argument for how North Korea remains adamantly isolated and surprisingly stable. Beginning their analysis in 1994 with the Great National Bereavement triggered by the death of Kim Il Sung, the authors backtrack to evaluate the means by which the Great Leader created the personality cult that has persisted through the reign of his late son, Kim Jong Il, and grandson, Kim Jong Un. Massive parades displaying military might, frequent publicity trips made by the successive leaders throughout the country, and enormous (and numerous) public artworks depicting the lineage ensured 'a transition of power based on hereditary charisma' and son'gun, North Korea's governing political and social ideology that prioritizes the military before all other segments of society. While the book was completed before Kim Jong Un's formal ascension in December 2011, Kwon and Chung offer valuable insights into the evolution of a philosophy and nation determined to look inward and carry on in the 21st century as a neo-Confucian state built on the concepts of loyalty to a perceived sovereign (ch'ung) and filial piety (hyo). Given the message broadcast to spectators and the rest of the world at a recent festival—'Do not hope for any change in me!'—North Korea seems poised to stay the course whatever the costs. (Publishers Weekly)

Kwon and Chung undertake a carefully constructed study of the evolution of North Korea since Kim Il Sung’s rise to power. What is now distinct about the North Korean state that the 'Great Leader' founded is not its dictatorship, the power of the military, or the political system set in place. Rather, it’s that North Korea is the only nation-state with a 'charismatic revolutionary leader' at its apex that not only survived the Cold War but created a dynasty, now passed to the third generation, unlike its Soviet and Chinese counterparts. With many references to Clifford Geertz’s studies of symbolic anthropology, the authors explore how North Korea succeeded—in this respect—where other postcolonial dictatorships have failed. They find an intensifying use of symbols, especially expressed in art and architecture, a kind of 'theater state' that has risen to counter the absence of the apparent genuine heroism and charisma present at North Korea’s founding. VERDICT . . . [S]hould be of interest to all serious North Korea watchers. (Library Journal)

It is customary to refer to North Korea as the 'hermit kingdom' and then recount various Orwellian horrors in what is undeniably an uber-totalitarian state. Yet, as this original, engrossing, but deeply unsettling study illustrates, North Korea, in a very perverse sense, 'works.' That is, beginning with the founding of the North Korean state by Kim Il Sung, the regime has maintained itself and managed dynastic succession, avoiding the internal turmoil and violence that have occurred in other Communist states. Of course, the regime has survived with the use of massive political repression and control. But Kwon and Chung assert that the 'success' of the regime is due to more than the usual totalitarian thuggery. The successor of Kim Il Sung, his son Kim Jong Il, created a 'theatre state,' using a skillful manipulation of art, mass media, and political cadres to foster an aura of benevolent, paternalistic charisma. . . . This is a timely work, since the recent death of Kim Jong Il will test the stability of the regime. (Booklist)

North Korea: Beyond Charismatic Politics is a ‘whole’ book—thoroughly researched, lucidly argued, comprehensively scoped, and fluent in its interdisciplinary synthesis. One would be hard-pressed to find another work more recommendable as a single-book scholarly introduction to North Korea. (Critical Asian Studies)

This is an exceptional study that opens the curtain on the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (North Korea). (Journal of The Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies)

The first book to bring a truly sophisticated cultural analysis to the understanding of authority and ideology in North Korea, this is a ground-breaking, fascinating, and masterful work of scholarship. Kwon and Chung’s study changes our perception not only of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea but of charismatic politics in the twentieth century. (Charles K. Armstrong, Columbia University)

The best study we have of the ideology and founding myths and realities of the North Korean state—or 'family state,' as the authors call it. Drawing upon a wide range of anthropological and sociological theory, the authors situate North Korea as both a typical postcolonial nation and a remarkable and highly self-conscious case of willed national exceptionalism. Most exceptional is its leadership system, now entering its third generation, which the authors see as a modern, if unusual, example of charismatic politics, rather than a revival of Korea’s long history of neo-Confucian monarchy. The authors both explain the strength of this leadership’s survival capacities in a postcommunist world and question whether its moral and ethical failures do not demand, in essence, a new and radically different North Korean revolution. (Bruce Cumings, University of Chicago; author of The Origins of the Korean War)

About the Author

Heonik Kwon is professorial senior research fellow at Trinity College, University of Cambridge, and previously taught social anthropology at the London School of Economics. Author of several prize-winning books, including Ghosts of War in Vietnam and The Other Cold War, he currently directs the international project “Beyond the Korean War,” which investigates the history and memory of the Korean War in local and global contexts. Byung-Ho Chung is professor of cultural anthropology and director of the Institute for Globalization and Multicultural Studies at Hanyang University, South Korea. He has visited North Korea as well as China’s borders with North Korea on numerous occasions for humanitarian purposes. He also has conducted research into issues and concerns relating to the educational and social integration of North Korean refugees in South Korea.

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Product Details

  • Series: Asia/Pacific/Perspectives
  • Hardcover: 232 pages
  • Publisher: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers (March 9, 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0742556794
  • ISBN-13: 978-0742556799
  • Product Dimensions: 6.3 x 0.9 x 9.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (3 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,194,723 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
This is the best new book about North Korea for 2012, and one of the most important yet written. Kwon and Chung peer beyond cliches to explore the cultural and political fabric of North Korea, appropriating and expanding the analytical framework of anthropologist Clifford Geertz's "Theatre State," in which ritual, myth and narrative are manufactured and deployed to extend the natural lifespan of charismatic authority. The endurance of the DPRK, against incredible odds (collapse of the Soviet Union, liberalization of China, death of Kim Il Sung, Famine, and the hostility of enemy states) owes much to the successful creation of this theatre state, binding the population into an imagined community of partisans in one family, instantiated in social ritual and public spectacle. Whether this system will endure its latest transition of power is uncertain, and Kwon and Chung conclude with some thoughts about the future. I loved 'The Cleanest Race,' another recent book that approached the DPRK from a cultural and anthropological perspective. Kwon and Chung's book is more detailed, and may be a challenge for casual readers. But for those with a deep interest in Korea, or in the nature of charismatic political power, this is the superior work, and should be read by every student of the North.
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Format: Hardcover
Kwon Heonik’s study of North Korea is by far the most perceptive intuitive an insightful book on North Korea available, and draws from a deep pool of sources to analyse the reclusive kingdom. Kwon looks at the cult of the Kim leadership, using Marx, Engels, Confucius, Durkheim, and Weber, Stalin and the Korean resistance fighters in Manchuria as frameworks and prisms.

He looks at North Korea as a ‘theatre state’ that moulds its citizens’ lives by framing all historical narratives within a restrictive hierarchical ‘history’, a world view which has been preordained and pre-scripted by the Kim leadership as a means of control.

Kwon never falls into the sensationalist, scaremongering style of writing so common amongst critics of North Korea. But he does tell the reader the sad facts about a state that poses as representing ‘true revolutionary socialism’, whilst in reality, its leaders rely on phony historical narratives and charismatic politics that insult the intelligence of their citizens, but cannot even fulfill the first obligation of a state – that of feeding its own people.

If you want to understand North Korea, don’t bother with the other books – Kwon’s book is the best out there.

For those of you intent on understanding both North and South Korea, I’d strongly recommend Shin Gi-wook, Bruce Cumings and Choi Jang Jip, and for those of you wishing to understand the relationship between Korea and Japan, Ken Kawashima and Hildi Kang’s work is essential.
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Format: Hardcover
I have read many books about the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, those that were printed in the west from both anti-DPRK authors and as well as DPRK sympathizers, by authors who don't resort to anti-DPRK sensationalism, and books which I had purchased in the DPRK itself. A book about the DPRK is almost always an entertaining read, even if I had to give the book a failing review. North Korea: Beyond Charismatic Politics by Heonik Kwon and Byung-Ho Chung failed to make a "friend of North Korea" such as myself the least bit interested in the country. I have never read a book about the DPRK that was as boring as this one. At 219 pages it was however a lot longer than it might at first seem. The library where I work received it in July of last year yet I put off reading it for months because the typeface was so small. Pages of solid bricks of text in tiny print without a paragraph in sight didn't make the book look appealing, although some of the chapter headings certainly did ("The Great National Bereavement, 1994", about the mass wailing that overtook the nation after the sudden death of Great Leader Kim Il Sung, "The Graves of Revolutionary Martyrs", "Gifts to the Leader").

Kwon and Chung analyze the politics behind the Kim dynasty since the creation of the DPRK. They talk about the power of the Kims' charisma, and how national propaganda has had to reinvent itself in order to keep the charismatic element relevant.
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