Understanding North Korea

Analyzing social engineering through domestic propaganda & official mythology
Written and Photographed by Nile Bowie

Editor’s note by Nile Bowie: After years of fascination, I had the opportunity to spend eight days in North Korea in September 2011. At the moment, it is only possible to visit North Korea through a highly organized government-sanctioned tour. Perhaps the most incredible thing about my time there was the genuine authenticity of the emotions displayed in ordinary people towards their leaders, who are viewed with the utmost piety. The degree to which the Korean people are motivated and inspired by the State’s official media and mythology is unparalleled in contrast to any other country. I wrote this article in an attempt to define their worldview as I have come to understand it, because it remains one of the world’s least understood (and most fascinating) societies.

Nile Bowie
December 28, 2011

These portraits of the Great Leader, Kim il Sung and
the Dear Leader, Kim Jung il are required to
be hung in the home of every Korean by law.
The recent political transition in North Korea has once again focused the world’s attention towards the least accessible society on earth. Its epitaphic spectacle of mourning for the Father Leader, the Great General Kim Jung il, has invited a torrent of conjecture and analysis from the peering spectators of the outside world. While the majority of experts speak of issues such as the possibility of a failed succession, followed by a military coup d’état or a “Pyongyang Spring”, it becomes apparent that so few outlets take the domestic North Korean worldview into account. While all parties exchange wild rhetoric, Washington’s insistent stance on denuclearization is a clear demonstration of its incoherency in diffusing tension, reaching a common resolution with Pyongyang and most importantly, understanding how the regime views itself.

While the country is referred to as the twenty first century’s last bastion of Stalinism, the internal propaganda to which the domestic population is exposed suggests an antipodal ideology intrinsically irreconcilable with the worldview of Karl Marx and Vladimir Lenin. Under the surface of immense concrete monuments espousing Communism and the rambling doctrine of Juche Thought, North Korea’s domestic propaganda suggests that its identity is derived from a staunchly race-based brand of nationalism, at times channeling a rhetoric of ethnic superiority, similar to that claimed by the Nazis. While the propaganda designated to foreign scrutiny dryly champion’ principles of self-reliance in vague humanistic themes, as found within the Juche doctrine, the least accessible propaganda intended for internal consumption is a uniquely Korean brand of racist orthodoxy.

Image: “The Korean people are too pure-blooded and therefore too virtuous, to survive in this evil world without a great parental leader.”The servicemen depicted on this Korean banknote share identical physical characteristics; great pride is taken in the homogenous & mono-ethnic features of the Korean race.

While some dismiss the hysterical outpour of sorrow displayed at the mourning ceremonies of Kim il Sung and Kim Jung il as “dramatized acting”, the intimacy of the people’s emotional attachment to their exalted Parent Leaders is genuine and unparalleled in it’s fanaticism, even in contrast to the fervor displayed in other devoutly religious cultures. Great pride is derived from the unique homogeneity of the Korean race and with that, a heightened sense of innately inborn ethics and lofty virtues. The characteristic virginal innocence of the Korean people is stressed incessantly in its propaganda, necessitating the guidance of an unchallenged parental overseer to protect the race. The internal apparatus of Korean pedagogy is unique in its portrayal of the ruling Kim as a hermaphroditic entity espousing both maternal concern and paternalistic authority. In Korea’s brand of unique Theocratic National Socialism, Kim il Sung is the nation’s Phallic Mother.

“Mono-ethnicity is something that our nation and no other on earth can pride itself on. There is no suppressing the nation’s shame and anger at the talk of ‘a multi-ethnic, multi-racial society’, which would dilute even the bloodline of our people.”

For centuries prior to the peninsula’s division, Korean civilization was firmly grounded in the staunch Confucian ideology of China, a worldview that espouses total compliance to the fatherly authority figure within royal dynasties and individual families. The Korean Peninsula has been historically referred to as “The Hermit Kingdom” because of its self-imposed isolation from mainland China in the seventeenth century, as a means to safeguard it’s internal Confucianism (Koreans saw themselves as superior Confucian practitioners when equated to the Chinese themselves). For centuries, the xenophobic kingdoms of the Korean Peninsula upheld a repressive brand a Confucianism that oversaw virtually no intramural innovation, while the accounts of many historians indicate diminutive loyalty paid towards the concept of a distinct Korean race or nation-state.

“Long live the Democratic People’s Republic Of Korea!”
The unwavering proudness of the Korean ethnic distinction, displayed today in both nations, was cultivated in part under the decree of Japanese fascism during their brutal thirty-five year occupation of the peninsula beginning in 1910. As certain regimes of that period justified their supremacy through the prepotencies of racial pseudo science, which exhorted a claim of predominance due to their hereditary characteristics and epistatic genealogy, the Japanese asserted that their Korean subjects shared a common bloodline and were products of the same racial stock. These racial proclamations sought to imbue its Korean subjects with a strong sense of national pride, suggesting the common ancestry of a race, morally superior to all others. Following the independence of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, the internal propaganda apparatus further mythicized their inherent claims to racial superiority and exploited the Korean people’s traditional tendency to conform.

"Thousands of years ago, on a beautiful peninsula in the center of East Asia, there emerged one of mankind’s first distinct races, the Korean race. While still evolving from the early Korean to the modern Korean man, the Koreans settled the whole peninsula and much of northeast Asia. All they lacked was a strong leader. At last, in the third millennium BE, a great emperor named Tan’gun united Koreans into a state named Choson, taking Pyongyang as it’s capital. Koreans were thus the first Asians to achieve nationhood, a crucial first stage of civilization.

Though Old Choson shared the peninsula with other, smaller kingdoms, the Koreans were always one people with the same blood, language, culture and lofty morals. In the year 918 they were united once more. Alas, foreign aggressors, resentful of Korea’s autonomy and greedy for it’s natural riches, refused to leave the peace-loving people alone. Only by repeatedly driving back invading forces – from Chinese tribes to Japanese Samurai to American war ships – was the Korean race able to preserve its unique integrity up to the present day.

From the start Koreans were marked by a strong sense of virtue and justice, and their exemplary manners earned then country renown as “The Land of Politeness in the East.” No less famous were their clothes, which were as white as the snow-capped peaks of Mount Paektu. Kind-hearted and well featured, Koreans lived in harmonious villages, respecting the people above them and loving those beneath them. Unfortunately, the effete ruling classes, having fallen under the sway of Confucianism, Buddhism and other pernicious foreign ideologies, proved no match for the imperialists’ schemes, and in 1905 Korea became a Japanese colony.

Burning with righteous anger, the masses rose up on March 1, 1919 to demand national independence. The demonstration was brutally suppressed. Fortunately a great leader had already been born who would guide the nation to its proper place on the world stage…"

Images of fresh snowfall and the snow-capped peaks of
Mount Paektu are conjured to exemplify
the pristine quality of Korean racial stock.
Much emphasis is placed on the purity of the race, its homogeneity and its virtuous accomplishments, including defending the motherland against reviled foreign invasion. Unlike modern South Korea, which still remains strongly influenced by Confucian values, the official line in the North rebukes these social systems, branding them as trappings of an over refined ruling class. The personality cult itself is built into the story of racial origins, mythicizing Kim il Sung into a messianic entity, destined to lead to Korean people to independence through Korean Socialism and self reliance. Like the mysticism around Japan’s Mount Fuji during the time of the Japanese occupation, Korea’s highest peak, Mount Paektu, was designated a sacred place and given a central role in official mythology. Kim Jong il’s birth supposedly took place on the peaks of Mt. Paektu beneath twin rainbows in a log cabin during the armed struggle against the Japanese occupiers. His biography reads, "Wishing him to be the lodestar that would brighten the future of Korea, they hailed him as the Bright Star of Mount Paektu."

“The snowstorm rendered Pyongyang – this city steeped in the five thousand year old, jade-like spirit of the race, imbued with proudly lonely life-breath of the world’s cleanest, most civilized people – free of the slightest blemish… covering everything in a thick white veil of purity.”

“The Revolutionary Spirit of Mount Paektu.”
The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea may have a communist exterior, however it bares little resemblance to a Marxist-Leninist state in its commitment to improve material living standards; economics are nowhere near a central priority. Its emphasis is on maintaining an ideological state focused on personifying Korean virtues, as embodied in the state’s ruling family. Unlike the communist models of the past, which strove to educate the masses to empower the working classes, the Korean model encourages quite the opposite. Alternatively, the Korean model encourages its subjects to remain in their natural state of intellectual juvenescence and innocence, under the watch of the Great Parent. Official media would often refer to Kim il Sung under the androgynous title of Parent Leader (아버지수령 aboijee seulyong), as his portrayal depicted him as a nurturing maternal figure, fussing over the food his soldiers consumed and making sure they had warm clothing. Internally, there is a stronger effort on indoctrinating the masses with the official fantasy biographies of the Leaders (furthering their messianic character), than there is a serious application of the leaders teachings, such as Juche Thought.

It becomes more likely that the Juche doctrine’s existence, in addition to Kim il Sung’s reputation as a playwright, is used to justify his intellectual credentialism, much like Chairman Mao, a noted poet and creator of Mao Zedong Thought. Kim is feted as a boundless academic under the authorship of Juche law, allowing his government to expediently indite policy, irrespective of criticism. Additionally, while the Juche ideology trumpets autonomy and self-reliance (something that was never economically realized in the history of the nation, as the majority of it’s infrastructural development was funded by the Soviet Union), it provides a convenient facade to outside spectators away from the central ideology of xenophobic race-based nationalism. The ruling Kim is never seen exerting authority or divulging insight to his people, rather stories of him caring for injured children in hospitals and nurturing soldiers on the front lines are far more prevalent, defining “the Great General as the loving parent who holds and nurtures all Korean children at his breast”.

As further evidence of purging the North of cultural ideologies such as Confucianism (still a huge foundation of importance in South Korea), the acclimation of the Korean Worker’s Party as the ‘Mother’ Party lends further credence to this vastly different social climate due to the impossibility of reconciling a maternal authority figure within the male-centric bounds of Confucianism. While Confucius necessitated meticulous self-cultivation through study and condemned race-oriented claims to superiority, the Kim cult encourages its subjects to maintain a perpetual state of childhood in the Parent Leader’s embrace, while remaining naturally virtuous. The maternal appeal is evident in the popular poetry and literature of the country:

"Ah, Korean Workers’ PartyAt whose breast onlyMy life begins and ends;Be I buried in the ground or strewn to the windI remain your son, and again return to your breast!Entrusting my body to your affectionate gaze,Your loving outstretched hand,I will forever cry out in the voice of a child,Mother! I can’t live without Mother!"

“When provoking a war of aggression, we will
hit back, beginning with the US!”
Nearly all of Korea’s internal propaganda maintains a derogatory depiction of foreigners, especially of Americans, who are unanimously viewed as depraved vampires of polluted racial stock. Such animosity exists partly due to the degree of devastation experienced during the Korean war, when nearly a third of the North Korean population were killed in US led aerial bombardments, flattening seventy eight cities and showering over fourteen million gallons of napalm on densely populated areas over a three year period. While these events have faded from the historical consciousness of most, far more civilian causalities existed in North Korea in contrast to the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Americans are also blamed for the initial division of the peninsula and for preventing it’s reunification, all true to some extent. While these historical events would create deep seeded trauma and xenophobia in any nation, the added influence of a blood-based nationalism created a climate where even allied Chinese troops were regarded with hostility.

Although under a thick climate of excessive race-based nationalism, there was little hesitation in adopting foreign administrative models deemed progressive to the leadership. Just as South Koreans today view the United States as developmentally superior while being morally inferior, the same relationship existed between the Soviet Union and North Korea. While Kim il Sung paid tribute to the Soviet Union’s “superior culture” in his speeches, foreign literature translated into Korean was sparsely available and the performance of Soviet plays were outright prohibited, instead domestic propaganda focused on the virtues of the Korean race and the purity of it’s bloodline. The accounts of diplomats residing in Korea at the time observed how the education system was not oriented to the study of Marxism-Leninism and how the successes of the nation were attributed to the Korean workers and leadership, omitting the huge role of foreigners in the creation of the state itself. Korean women who romantically affiliated themselves with foreign aid workers or diplomats from the Communist Bloc were accused of betraying their race.

The war crimes committed by American soldiers in the Korean war and the subsequent struggle of the Korean people is constantly channelled in domestic propaganda.

As the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea exists today in a virtual time pocket, one of the world’s wealthiest and most developed economies exists just south of the Demilitarized Zone in the Republic of Korea. The contrast couldn’t be any harder to fathom. There was once a time after the Korean War where the North was developmentally superior to the South, decades of Northern propaganda depicted the South as an emaciated Yankee Colony where American soldiers reign freely, killing Korean children for pleasure. While the South Korea public regards the US military presence in their country (and the legitimate cases of rape and unprovoked murder committed by US soldiers) with the highest distain, the South has become one of the world’s flourishing hubs of modernity and economic development.

Kim Jung il is depicted as the
center of public praise in Seoul.
While knowledge of the South’s economic success became well known among citizens of the North, the propaganda apparatus began to openly admit that the Southerners enjoy a higher standard of living, due to Kim Jong il’s military-first policy which allegedly prevented American forces from fomenting additional war on the peninsula. Despite their wealth, North Koreans are taught that their brethren in the South are humiliated living under the yoke of American imperialism and unanimously seek the warm embrace of the Great Leader’s bosom. North Korean leadership has expressed its repugnance towards the South’s unwavering consumerism and the youth’s adoption of decadent foreign trends such as American hip-hop and immoral foreign fashions. As nearly all other formerly State-planned economies have incrementally adopted a market-based system with relaxed controls on foreign entertainment. Doing so for North Korea would have detrimental consequences for its race-based nationalism, which seeks to preserve innate Korean purity. Any adoption of foreign pop culture is viewed as a pollutant to the virtuous consciousness of the people.

“Through all manner of falsehoods and trickery, the imperialists and reactionaries are paralyzing the healthy thinking of the masses while spreading among them bourgeois-reactionary ideas and rotten bourgeois customs. What will happen if we succumb to and fail to block these customs of living that the bastards are disseminating? In a word, we become… incapable of adhering to socialism. Most importantly, we become unable to defend to our death the leadership of the revolution.” – Kim Jong il

The cost of travel is subsidized for villagers from the
countryside who must annually pilgrimage
to Kim il Sung’s mausoleum in Pyongyang.
Despite the staunch central authority enjoyed by the leading Kim (and potentially the ruling hierarchy in their ability to influence policy, especially under Kim Jong Un), the North attempts to convey its commitment to democracy (at least to it’s own people). Unsurprisingly, the concept of democracy is interpreted differently in North Korea. Due to the leaders irreplaceable qualifications and the unanimity of the people’s desire to hold him in the highest esteem, his rule constitutes the absolute fulfillment of democratic principles. One may be confused as to how any country, which touts Marxism-Leninism as a central ideology, can be associated with theocracy. Karl Marx himself was famous for his view of religion being a characteristic of oppressed creatures, citing “Religion is the opium of the people.” Amidst this supposedly atheist society, Kim il Sung’s mausoleum shares every possible characteristic associable with a sacred place of worship. For North Koreans, the final resting place of Kim il Sung (and now, Kim Jong il) is viewed at the virtual Mecca of their ideology. The aura within this colossal structure of marble and granite is unmistakably pious, the perfect resting place for the posthumous deities responsible for leading the perfect race.

The events following North Korea’s first political transition subsequent to the death of Kim il Sung in 1994 were surely the nation’s most unstable period. Kim Jung il was portrayed in much the same way as his father, however substantial economic difficulties ensued due to the recent fall of the DPRK’s biggest creditor, the Soviet Union. Severe flooding, a lack of arable land and a breakdown of the countries food distribution system led to a period referred to as The Arduous March, resulting in nearly one million deaths from hunger-related causes during the worst period of the famine, from 1995 to 1997. As the economy collapsed, social discipline and internal security began to breakdown outside of Pyongyang. Refugees have allegedly reported seeing streets littered with famished corpses of the starving, soldiers robbing civilians in search of food and widespread cannibalism. Kim Jung il managed to maintain his legitimacy in this period by condemning the US-led economic blockade against Korea, citing it as the dominant cause of the famine and depravity. While it is no exaggeration that sanctions are an act of war and have yielded debilitating results in various countries around the world, there are widespread reports of Kim Jong il’s disproportionate use of the countries budget to import gourmet foods for himself and the upper echelons of his government during this period. Much of the food aid received from abroad was redistributed directly to the military.

“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, Korea will prosper forever. Let the imperialist enemies come at us with their nuclear weapons, for there is no power on earth that can defeat our strength and love and the power of our belief, which thanks to the blood bond between mother and child create a fortress of single-heartedness. Our great Mother, General Kim Jong il!”

While it has been reported that under the rhetoric, the North Korean leadership seeks peaceful relations with the United States (allegedly even advocating the establishment of an American Embassy in Pyongyang), the policy of the United States Government is one pushing unwavering denuclearization of the North’s nuclear artillery. Washington’s insistent stance on disarmament tends to eclipse any concentration on other issues vital to building stability and more importantly, it advertises their inability to understand how the regime views itself. Kim Jong il oversaw the shift from his father’s policy of equal focus on both economic development and military prowess, to the highly touted Songun rule or, military-first policy, under which his legitimacy is derived solely from reaching the status of a nuclear state. The propaganda apparatus had done much to equate this accomplishment as the pride of the nation, depicting it as integral to the national defense of the country and the race. When taking this into account, Washington’s efforts to convince the DPRK to forfeit it’s main source of pride, legitimacy and defense to it’s blood-enemy in exchange for only thin assurances of prosperity and opportunity seem entirely futile.

“In 2006 the Dear General successfully saw the acquisition of a nuclear deterrent that would protect the Korean race forever. Truly, the son had proven himself worthy of his great father.”

The Songun Military First emblem has become a prominent
propaganda motif under Kim Jung il, “Let us loyally
venerate the party’s military-first leadership!”
The recent actions of NATO in Libya (a former nuclear state which complied to disarmament) has only cemented the resolve in Pyongyang, a DPRK spokesmen commented, "It has been shown to the corners of the earth that Libya's giving up its nuclear arms was used as an invasion tactic to disarm the country by sugarcoating it with words like 'the guaranteeing of security' and the 'bettering of relations.' Having one’s own strength is the only way to keep the peace. The way of the Songun (military-first ideology) that we have chosen is proper in a thousand ways, and our self-defense forces act as a precious restraint that blocks war.” It is unfeasible to expect a country that has so strongly advocated it’s own belief system and intellectual isolation from the outside world to voluntarily eliminate its nuclear stockpiles, while it’s biggest adversary (historically responsible for the deaths of a third of the North Korean population), boasting the world’s highest military budget, reigns unhindered in the region.

“Kim Jong Il, great master of politics and illustrious commander born of Heaven, honorably defended the socialist gains, noble heritage bequeathed by the President, by dint of Songun politics despite the collapse of the world socialist system, the demise of the President which was the greatest loss to the nation, the vicious offensive of the imperialist allied forces to stifle the DPRK and severe natural disasters. He turned the DPRK into an invincible political and ideological power in which single-minded unity has been achieved and made it emerge a nuclear weapons state and an invincible military power, which no enemy can ever provoke.”

A painting on the North Korean side of the DMZ reads:
“Our children will inherit a unified peninsula!”
The reunification of the Korean Peninsula is something that the North claims to desperately yearn towards, propaganda promoting eventual reunification is displayed all over the country in an obstinate vigor. Increasingly, the younger generations in South Korea have begun to regard the concept of reunification with indifference and disregard (much to the dismay of the North). Although the circumstances were drastically different, the only comparable reunification scenario in Germany saw citizens in the socialist German Democratic Republic earning a third of what their West German counterparts earned; the income gap is forty times higher in the South than in the North. The contrast between the two Koreas is not only vastly divergent in its economic and infrastructural development, but more crucially, in its cultural awareness and social consciousness. North Koreans remain one of the least exposed populaces in the world, completely restricted from Internet access and foreign travel (domestic travel is heavily restricted as well); their version of the world is purely an illustration of the worldview decreed to them by their state. In contrast, South Korea is one of the world’s most wired countries, boasting the world’s fastest Internet connection speed; it is a leading producer of smart phones, luxury goods, fashion and commercial pop music. The idea of reunifying these two countries would be akin to building a bridge between two different time periods, so perhaps the outside world should place more emphasis on encouraging economic stimulus in the North, so that it can perhaps develop into a more manageable state. At this stage, reunification can be considered a non-statement because each country views its eventual integration completely in its own vision and ideological concept, irrespective of the views of the people on the opposing side.

“We should highly value comrade Kim Jong Un’s military-first leadership and should preserve our socialist system and achievements of our revolutions through bolstering our defense power in every way, Kim Jong Il passed away to our sorrow before seeing the victory in the drive for building a thriving nation, his great desire, but we are under respected Kim Jong Un identical to him. Kim Jong Un's leadership provides a sure guarantee for successfully carrying forward the revolutionary cause of Juche through generations, the cause which was started by the President and led by Kim Jong Il to victory.”
The circumstances of the recent political succession in the North are quite different to that of Kim Jung il’s experience. Today, the DPRK is far more stable than it was during the period of the Arduous March, following the first political succession. Many analysts have made comments suggesting that high-level military officials within the regime would feel ashamed to recognize a 27-year-old as their Supreme Leader (a concept highly incompatible under Confucian practices). As the succession of Kim Jong Un appears to have smoothly shifted without censure, this lends further credence to the cultural purging of Confucianism in the North. Although the Dear Leader has perished, the regime remains unscathed. During this eleven-day mourning period, the North Korea propaganda apparatus has focused more on paying homage to the late Kim Jong il than it has on authoring an elaborate fantasy biography around his son. Unsurprisingly, there is an emphasis on Kim Jong Un being identical to his father, primarily in his military-first approach to governing. According to North Korea’s official news agency, the skies over the sacred Mount Paektu glowed red, while the ice on the volcanic Lake Chon cracked with a with a load roar just minutes prior to Kim’s recent death. While appearances may have changed, Pyongyang’s system is not ideologically shifting focus.
For more on North Korea’s recent succession: The Changing Face of Pyongyang by Nile Bowie. Many translations in this article have originally appeared in BR Meyer’s book, The Cleanest Race