Just another day on the 38th parallel. Soldiers, separated by North and South, populate the ubiquitously militarized and thus erroneously named Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), the only area where one can glare into his enemy’s eyes. One side, however, must stare downward – even the toughest faces the North can boast stand at least three inches shorter than their adversaries across the fence.
Since Korea’s brutal colonization under Imperial Japan and the eventual partition of the Korean peninsula, North Korea and South Korea have taken starkly divergent paths, socially, politically, and economically. It is critical to provide a brief history of Japanese imperialism in Korea before discussing how North Korea’s propaganda and recent actions indicate that the state is not, counter to popular understanding, a Marxist-Leninist patriarchy. Although their agitprop often targets Japan, North Korea is undoubtedly an ethno-nationalist, “Parent Leader” state, much like the Emperor-centric Imperial Japan that Korea once suffered under. This is demonstrated not only by the kamikaze-esque propaganda disseminated throughout North Korea, the cult of personality surrounding the Kim family, or its unflagging appeals to racial purity, but also through the Hermit Kingdom’s ardent militarism and xenophobia.[i]
The 1930s would see Japan, which had gained colonial control over Korea following the 1895 Sino-Japanese War and the 1905 Russo-Japanese War, renounce democracy, instead choosing militaristic imperialism as a means to expel the West and rule as the leader of an “Asia for Asians.” The Japanese implemented exceptionally repressive tactics in Korea, advocating naisen ittai (Japan and Korea as one body), effectively replacing the idea of “Japan and the colonies” with a Greater Japan. Koreans were mandated to speak Japanese, Korean names were changed into Japanese ones, and Koreans were forced to pray at Shinto shrines. They were compelled to subscribe to kokutai (national entity), and as the war effort began a strict conscription policy was enforced, with Koreans encouraged to fight and die for Emperor Hirohito, a grim foreshadowing to the kamikaze tactics employed by Japanese soldiers toward the end of the war. At this time, Japan was an ethno-nationalist state, stressing the need of their child-like subjects – Korea as “greater Japan” included – to be cared for by the parental figure of Hirohito, who embodied Japanese racial purity as the god-like “Sun of the Nation”. They were expected to happily surrender their lives to defend their parent – himself a maternal symbol, a reflection of their collective innocence.[ii]
North Korea’s cult of personality, focused on the late Kim Il-sung —who had cut his revolutionary teeth fighting Japanese rule in the mountainous borderlands with China— and now around his late son and grandson, exhibits many similarities to that of Imperial Japan. After the eventual partition of Korea, notwithstanding talk of punishing Japanese collaborators, it was actually a small group of Korean intellectuals educated in Imperial Japan who initiated the North’s propaganda program, installing radios in every village and constructing the education system. They inculcated the idea of Koreans as the purest of all races. Mount Paektu, falsely declared the place of Kim Jong-Il’s birth, attained holy status, just as Mount Fuji had under Imperial Japan.
However, unlike the Japanese, North Koreans do not see their racial purity as a mandate for imperial conquest, but instead see themselves as child-like victims whose inherent virtue is constantly under the threat of contamination by the rest of the world. Thus, they too require a matriarch; hence Kim Il-sung’s androgynous title of “Parent Leader,” and the Workers’ Party of Korea proclaiming itself the “Mother Party” as an extension of his motherly care. Maternal authority was extended to Kim Jong-il until his death; one propaganda poster during his rule read, “Long live General Kim, the Sun of Unification” and to Kim Jong-un today. Unlike Nazism, propaganda outlets like the Korean Central News Agency claim no superiority over other races; the intrinsic virtuosity and innocence of every Korean is only enhanced by the fact that they possess no distinct shrewdness or strength but are instead vulnerable. As an excerpt from the country’s national poem “Mother” affirms: “Ah, Korean Workers’ Party / At whose breast only / My life begins and ends; / …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!”[iii]
The connections to its former colonial ruler do not stop there. North Korea espouses songun (“military-first”), funneling the majority of its resources to the cause of national defence. A 2010 study shows that North Korea has the world’s fourth largest military in terms of active personnel, and is also the most militarized state on the planet, with 49 soldiers for every 1,000 of its people. In many ways, this relates the warrior tradition of bushido that was a cornerstone of Imperial Japan’s military morale. Kim Jong-il was noted to have “love[d] warriors most of all,” and recent video of Kim Jong-un shows him partaking in target practice with North Korean soldiers. Japan also mobilized as a “self-defence state” in the 1930s, allocating most of its limited resources to its military, as North Korea does today with the scarce resources it can muster under severe economic sanctions. The Korean Central News Agency even regularly compares factory workers to warriors, with factories adorned with signs that read “battleground”. And, startlingly evocative of Imperial Japan, a 2009 song filled the airwaves with the lyrics, “Ten million will become as guns and bombs…to give one’s life for the General is a soldier’s greatest honour.” The conclusion is clear: all North Koreans are included in this warrior culture, and thereby carry with them the obligation to die, kamikaze-style, before they surrender to the “Yankee jackals” whose sole intention is the demise of their maternal guardian.[iv]
Though, perhaps the best example of North Korea’s ethnic nationalism is seen through their depictions of foreigners. In May 2006, North and South Korean generals engaged in negotiations to adjust their maritime border. Upon hearing a South Korean general mention that farmers from the South were frequently marrying foreigners, a North Korean general sputtered, “Our nation has always considered its pure lineage to be of great importance.” After the South Korean general assured that this was only a “drop of ink in the Han River,” his Northern counterpart replied, “…Not even one drop of ink must be allowed.” Several weeks before, the Workers’ Party flagship paper explicitly condemned interracial commingling: “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…the bloodline of our people.” This xenophobia is further evidenced by North Korean policy: forced abortions performed on repatriated women allegedly impregnated by Chinese men are well documented, as are the North Korean textbooks that not only teach subtraction by exterminating Americans, but refer to grotesquely deformed “Yankees” with “muzzles,” “snouts,” and “paws.” Hirohito’s Japan produced very similar propaganda to describe the Allies in wartime, warning of the inferior, Christian monsters and Western foreigners who sought to kill Japanese children and schemed to taint their sacred lineage.[v]
North Korean analyst B.R. Myers explores these ideas in his book, The Cleanest Race: How North Koreans See Themselves – And Why It Matters, concluding that because of its ideological similarities to fascist Japan, diplomatic advances with North Korea are myopic and futile. As he contends:
America has so far negotiated with Pyongyang under the apparent conviction that the regime believes the opposite of what it tells its subjects. The louder the Text calls for a ‘blood reckoning’ with the Yankee enemy, the more firmly Washington believes that the DPRK wants better relations…The obvious retort to this wishful thinking is to ask how the DPRK could possibly justify its existence after giving up the confrontational anti-Americanism that constitutes its last remaining source of legitimacy…[vi]
He then alludes to South Korea’s decade-long aid program, known as the Sunshine Policy, and subsequent North Korean aggression as proof that appeasement is as fruitless as it was with Imperial Japan. If Myers’ conclusion is indeed true, there are a number of strategic responses, ranging from the hawkish approach of intimidation to one of “defensive procrastination,” wherein the West holds back, patiently waiting as enough North Koreans come to see South Korean prosperity and hesitancy toward reunification as a direct result of their Supreme Leader’s antagonism. But, amid speculations of future engagement, one fact is undeniable: North Korea’s ethno-nationalist propaganda machine is nothing like the Confucian-based communism it’s commonly purported to be, and instead not only resembles its ex-colonizer’s wartime ideology but far exceeds it, both in terms of its vitriol and its ability to manipulate a starving people. Yes, despite the height differential, North Korean solders, malnourished and gazing upward at their adversaries across the DMZ, tower above – triumphant as pure offspring of Mother Korea. Or so they have been nurtured to believe.[vii]
[i] B.R. Myers, The Cleanest Race: How North Koreans See Themselves – And Why It Matters (New York: Melville House Publishing, 2010), 15.
[ii] Conrad Schirokauer and Donald N. Clark, Modern East Asia: A Brief History (California: Thomson Learning, Inc., 2004), 256-266, 293; B.R. Myers, The Cleanest Race: How North Koreans See Themselves – And Why It Matters (New York: Melville House Publishing, 2010), 109
[iii] Ibid 32, 34-35, 48-49, 96, 52, 79-80
[iv] Ibid 65, 83-85, 124-125, 56
[v] Ibid 71-72, 136, 150
[vi] Ibid 163-166
[vii] Ibid 167