North Korea: Beyond Charismatic Politics (Asia/Pacific/Perspectives) Illustrated Edition
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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
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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.
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. This was of particularly grave concern to the regime at the time of the famine that devastated the entire country in the mid-nineties:
"The centralization of power, because of its primary reliance on political cultural means and the mobilization of the population to this activity, came with an increasing negligence and ineptitude on the part of the state in the sphere of economic sustenance and growth. The cumulative effects of this failure in all spheres of state life other than the sphere of cultural production were made brutally clear by the tragic crisis of the mid-1990s, which devastated the single most important foundation of any modern state: the economic and moral integrity of its civil society."
Beyond Charismatic Politics was belaboured with repetitious phrases embedded in lugubriously long sentences. I have to confess that I loathed reading this book where I couldn't wait to finish it. Sentences quoted above and below, wherein the authors discuss the political expedience of rewriting history, were typical:
"The succession from Kim Il Sung to Kim Jong Il was 'the communist world's first hereditary transfer of power' and began as early as the start of the 1970s. Contemporary North Korean accounts extend the origin of this process further to the outset of the 1960s and even as far back as the time of the Korean War (1950-1953). These claims represent the powerful efforts in North Korea, as in other socialist polities, to appropriate and rewrite history in the service of a specific political goal. These historical revisions are intended not merely to bring greater honor and dignity to the country's iconic leader but also to appropriate the authority and majesty of the leader's persona to facilitate a desired future--particularly, the continuity of the political order free from the risk of a rupture in the political life of the charismatic authority. In this respect, the evolution of North Korea's statehood has been an epic struggle against the impermanent nature of charismatic authority and against the mortality of this authority, to which all other charismatic personas of the twentieth century eventually succumbed."
I acknowledge that Beyond Charismatic Politics was an academic read more for a student of political situations and conditions, versus for a student of Korean history, which might explain why I was so turned off by all the politicobabble. Even so, I have read many such books about North Korea before which never made me feel like throwing it at the wall. Any book about North Korea is of course going to be full of political theory and analysis of the Kim regime. I would like to read a thoughtful review from a scholar of political science who favoured the book so I might appreciate if from a different perspective.
The chapter entitled "Gifts to the Leader" discusses the diplomatic act of presenting gifts to the Great Leader and Eternal President Kim Il Sung and the Dear Leader Comrade General Kim Jong Il. Leaders and diplomats from around the world, as well as delegations from international socialist institutions, and even private citizens the whole world over have presented the Kims with elaborate gifts. There must be a place to store them all, and the International Friendship Exhibition Hall was built to display thousands of these items in a dazzling and luxurious representation of international esteem for the Kim administration. I visited this exhibition hall and walked down its kilometre-long corridors as my tour group saw room after room after room of often garish and ostentatious examples of folk art. No wonder the Kims didn't want to put such kitsch in their own homes. There is one such piece that has acquired mythical status among North Korea watchers. I had heard about it before I left for my trip yet had never seen a picture of it. My roommate during the trip warned our group about what we were going to see in the exhibition hall, this one kitschy item in particular, and that as hard as it might be we had to keep a straight face or run the risk of offending the authorities. One must not laugh in the International Friendship Exhibition Hall:
"The gifts to Kim Il Sung include a bulletproof automobile from Joseph Stalin; a large handicraft depicting a roaring tiger from Mao Zedong, sent in November 1953 in celebration of Kim Il Sung's victory in the Korean War (these items are 'tributes' to Kim Il Sung made by Comrades Mao and Stalin, according to the labels next to the gifts); and a gigantic porcelain vase offered in 1978 by the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party specially for the opening of the Hall of Gifts. Most of the gifts are displayed according to their geographical region of origin. Gifts from Latin America include a silver machete and a machine gun from Nicaragua, decorative plates from Ecuador and a Peruvian university, an oil painting of an Andean market from Guiana, and a briefcase made of crocodile skin from Fidel Castro. A stuffed, standing crocodile holding a plate of wine glasses, a gift from the Sandinista leadership, is a favorite for many visitors to this section."
I appreciated the trip down North Korean memory lane when the authors talked about the cult of gifts in the International Friendship Exhibition Hall in this one chapter, but I cannot recommend North Korea: Beyond Charismatic Politics to anyone but post-graduate scholars of North Korean politics.