Kim Jong-il and the ethnic Lenin of Pyongyang

December 20th, 2011

The focus of this blog tends to be on European culture and history, but the news of the death of Kim Jong-il is a good moment to turn briefly towards the tyrannical surrealism of North Korea.

The North Korean state is often described as communist or Stalinist, and it is true that it exhibits many of the identifying features of classic mid-twentieth-century soviet grimness. However, the American academic and writer B.R. Myers makes a convincing case, in his book The Cleanest Race, that the North Korean regime is best considered as an ethno-nationalist dynasty, heavily influenced by the methods and techniques of the Japanese fascists of World War II. Any resemblance to communism (real or imagined) is essentially vestigial, and is used to paper over the cracks of something very different, and utterly unique.

Myers gave an outline of his thinking in a lecture (also called ‘The Cleanest Race’) which he delivered at the World Affairs Council of Northern California in February 2010. The talk was broadcast on the American C-SPAN television network, and the full hour-long lecture is available online. The first ten minutes are embedded below.

Myers’s thesis, essentially, is that the North Korean regime justifies shutting out the outside world through relentless domestic propaganda, which has a racist, quasi-fascist tone and emphasis. The regime also happens to use Stalinist methods to organise society and government – partly through historical accident, and partly because it has a certain brutal effectiveness. There are still occasional ritualised evocations of the name and ideals of communism, but this is window-dressing, which doesn’t always sit well with the propaganda of racial purity and superiority — after all, communism came from Europe, not Korea.

Some evidence of this window-dressing cropped up last year from a somewhat unexpected quarter. In September 2010, the Guardian sent two staff, Dan Chung and Tania Branigan, to Pyongyang to report from North Korea’s largest-ever military parade. Dan Chung later posted a slow-motion video to his Vimeo page of part of the parade.

A brief glimpse is given, at around 19 seconds in, of a huge painting of Lenin. A closer look, however, makes it clear that this is no ordinary portrait — Lenin has magically become ethnically Korean.

Pyongyang Lenin

It’s a glimpse into an Orwellian logic. Lenin, officially still a hero of the North Korean state, is actually a problem for the regime, because he was not Korean, and therefore does not fit with the propaganda. The fix? Simple: edit the public images of Lenin, to imply that he was Korean, and otherwise ignore him.

As the world waits to see what will happen in the post-Kim-Jong-il era, it can only be hoped that the day is coming soon when this kind of harsh absurdity is truly left in the ash heap of history.

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