North Korea: Beyond Charismatic Politics, an Interview with Byung-Ho Chung

The following is an interview of Byung-Ho Chung Professor at Hanyang University and President of the Korean Society for Cultural Anthropology, conducted by AAA Executive Director Ed Liebow.

EL: I recently came across your book, North Korea: Beyond Charismatic Politics. I was intrigued by the main argument about the durability of charismatic politics in North Korea due to its reliance on theatrics. As you might imagine, in the run-up to this week’s meeting between Kim Jong Un and Donald Trump, the US media have a simple-minded outlook that treats this encounter as though it were a sports match, with one side inevitably a “winner” and the other a “loser.” Your emphasis on theatrics, and the powerful modern “theater state” that sustains the North Korean leaders’ multi-generational authority, is a thought-provoking lens through which to observe Kim’s leadership.

In common parlance, the theater metaphor would involve conventions of compressed time, exaggerated gestures, recognizable character types, a script to follow, symbolic props, and so forth. What do you mean by labelling North Korea as a modern “theater state”?

BHC: Geertz argues that political power can be a question of display of power and “the ordering force of display, regard, and drama.” The partisan state of North Korea, directed and designed by Kim Jong Il, takes on some of the characteristics of what Geertz calls the theatre state. The charismatic power of North Korea was transmitted by heredity, for the first time in the communist countries, partly but evidently, due to its reliance on theatrics. Kim Jong Eun, the third generation successor in charismatic power, reenacts his grandfather Kim Il Sung with a tunic suit, high-cut hairstyle, stride, facial expressions, and speech manner at the age of 34 (28 when he came to power). From the start, he appeared like a heroic actor in an epic revolutionary theater, and is continuously playing the role in the contemporary political drama.

He has inherited not only the looks but also the political symbols and styles of the earlier charismatic leaders. He is modifying them as the situation requires. The methods of representation of power remains same. However, its contents and style have changed with the times. His father, Kim Jong Il choreographed mass spectacles, such as Arirang Festival, involving large number of immaculately trained citizen actors, amounting to more than one hundred thousand schoolchildren, women and soldiers annually. The spectacle delivers formative moral and political slogans to the domestic population and key diplomatic messages to the international community. The son, Kim Jong Eun changed it to a popular concert with pop music and idol performances. He also introduces ski resorts, amusement parks, western style restaurants, department stores, high rises and neon signs — the symbols of western consumer culture.

It is very symbolic that Kim Jong Eun is re-enacting his grandfather Kim Il Sung rather than his father Kim Jong Il in appearance and style. The heir to Kim Jong Il, who chose to defend the system with Military-First policy in the face of severe famine, decided to look after Kim Il Sung, who was once called, “a messiah rather than a dictator,” by the Cambridge economist Joan Robinson for North Korea’s social economic development during the 1950s after the Korean War. Kim Jong Eun identifies himself with the charismatic leader of economic prosperity rather than nuclear might. Depending on how the international community, especially the United States, responds to his changes, he will restructure his role. We could be watching Kim Jong Eun, a lean young leader in suits speaking fluent English in the international community in the near future.

EL: What is the role of nuclear weapons technology in the North Korean theater state?

BHC: The gun is the symbol of the legitimacy of power in North Korea. According the founding legend of North Korean state, two pistols that Kim Il Sung inherited from his father, turned into thousands of guns of Partisans that liberated Korean people from the Japanese Empire. The guns again turned into countless arms of People’s Army which defended the nation from the American Imperialists. Kim Jong Il’s missiles and nuclear bombs are again the symbol of the gun that defended the ‘Juche (self-reliance)’ system in the middle of the collapse of international socialism. Kim Jong Eun, the heir, developed the nuclear bombs into hydrogen bomb, and missiles to ICBMs. The world was shocked and North Koreans were wildly excited. The leader made the whole world watch their display of power, and made the world, especially the US, regard them seriously.  From their perspective, North Korea-US summit is not the sign of surrender but success of self-made military might.

Many countries in the world have an ability to make nuclear weapons. What is special about North Korea is that they actually did. Ironically, it is because of the international blocade and pressure that a poor country like North Korea has made such destructive smart weapons. In a prolonged state of national crisis, all their resources and talents were concentrated into the project. Thus, Bruce Cummings called the North Korean nuclear bomb as “Bush’s Bomb” who labeled and isolated North Korea as one of the Axes of Evil.

Guns, missiles, and nuclear bombs are the national identity of the theater state North Korea. They are the core symbols and tools of the political power. Will they give it up? Will they survive without it? A drama becomes shocking when it betrays common assumption. That is why we are watching anxiously.

EL: What is the role of the North Korean people in this theatrical setting?

BHC: A few main actors usually get the spotlight. For a country like North Korea where the political process is not revealed to the outside world, we are likely to assume that the leader or the few political elites move the society in perfect order. However, in the theater state North Korea, most of the 25 million people actively participate in the drama as directors, actors, staffs, and audience. They make considerable influence in the composition and construction of the drama.

After the great famine in the late 1990s, people opened spontaneous street markets and crossed the border as refugees, illegal traders, or migrant workers. The amount of transnational communication of information, goods, and people made it impossible to achieve societal consent simply with closed socialist style theatrics. Government-initiated entertainments and performances have begun to mix capitalist popular culture. For the survival of political power, the elite group cannot postpone the open-door policy. They only hope to enact it with an orderly manner to maintain the existing hierarchical system.

EL: And what about nation-state actors on the global stage, like South Korea, Japan, China, Russia, Syria, among others?

BHC: Currently, the leaders of South and North Korea and the related four states are all charismatic leaders playing their roles according to their own political situations and cultural styles.

Among them, the South Korean President Moon Jae In’s active role is especially remarkable. His charismatic power came form the fact that he was elected by the millions of candlelight demonstrators who succeeded in impeaching President Park Geun Hye, the daughter of the authoritarian leader Park Chung Hee. She was a pair to Kim Jong Eun, the heir of hereditary power in North Korea, and was consolidating the antagonistic co-existence of two Koreas. The candlelight demonstration which broke down one of the axes of the division system was a “social drama,’ which symbolically showed the power of popular sovereignty in South Korea. Moon Jae In, who understands the power of theatric presentation has accomplished cultural exchange at the Winter Olympic Games, and South-North Korean Summit, and has helped to make NK-US Summit a reality. As a designer and mediator, he is putting the two contrasting charismatic powers in spotlights in the global political arena.

EL: Finally, how does the character of Donald Trump figure into this theatrical production?

BHC: Trump is an expert at the theatrics of power. His reality show style performance, speaking with an air of importance, and unpredictable improvisation make him a noticeable and dramatic actor. He has the stereotypic qualities of an American hero. Unlike most politicians, his logic is simple and emotional expression is straight. He is not afraid of being a joker and a show-off. These could lessen his authority in a traditional sense, but, they also make him stand out from the status quo as an unconventional and unpredictable actor who can open new possibilities.

Though most of these characteristics are in contrast with the secretive charismatic power in North Korea, the unpredictability of both parties increases tension and draws attention. What will be the contents of the drama by these two actors? Trump would want to be the hero of a historic social drama like Richard Nixon’s 1972 visit to China, “the week that changed the world.” The Cold War has not ended in the Korean peninsula. We only wish that the two leaders’ desires and needs will choose a path toward peace.

EL: Anything else that we as anthropologists should be paying special attention to as this drama plays out?

BHC: Ruth Benedict observed that the symbolic power of the emperor system in Japan can be very effective in dramatically changing the direction of the nation. This is the time that theater state North Korea needs a dramatic change. With the Japanese experience in mind, we can think of a few scenarios. Like the Japanese emperor at the end of the War, the empresario and main character of the drama can stop and change the scenario (and director). Or, like the Meiji Restoration, new directors may carry out a rapid reform utilizing the traditional political symbols. Highly trained actors, staffs, and audiences can be immersed in the new drama with the same level of enthusiasm. In any case, theater state North Korea can open a new stage with minimum sacrifice.

This article first appeared on the blog of the American Anthropological Association

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