A Workers’ Paradise: Kim Jong-Un and the Society of the Spectacle
The Democratic Peoples’ Republic of Korea (DPRK), variously referred to in the West as North Korea or the “Hermit Kingdom,” and locally as the “socialist motherland of Juche,” is a nation that simultaneously attracts the fascinated gaze of casual observers and serious academics and horrifies the sensibilities of those concerned with human rights and democracy. It is a totalitarian society built upon the foundation of a uniquely-inflected homegrown ideology known as Juche, loosely translated as “self-reliance,” that combines elements of the most extreme interpretation of Stalinist doctrine with aspects of Confucianism. It is, for many, the real-world manifestation of the Orwellian nightmare; a highly surveilled society structured around a mystical, quasi-religious leadership cult that glorifies the revolutionary exploits of the Great Leader Kim Il-sung, North Korea’s “Eternal President,” and his family.
A more rigorous examination of the ways in which the North Korean regime effectively stages politics for internal consumption and global representation is warranted given the recent and unprecedented overtures made by current ruler and grandson of Kim Il Sung, Kim Jong-Un, to both South Korea and U.S. President Donald Trump. Moreover, to more clearly understand the inner dynamics of North Korean propaganda, it is necessary to explicate the ways in which the cultural policies of the government of the DPRK encourage loyalty to the state and belief in the utopian narrative of the Kim family’s creation of a “Workers’ Paradise.” Ultimately, by adapting Guy Debord’s theoretical architecture from 1967’s The Society of the Spectacle, upon which he further elaborated in his subsequent Comments on the Society of the Spectacle, as well as borrowing concepts from contemporary utopian theory as it relates to political science and cultural critique, a clearer picture of the various ways in which the mass media produces Kim Jong-Un’s contemporary North Korea emerges for critical analysis.
Originally published in France shortly before the mass social upheavals of 1968, Debord’s The Society of the Spectacle is a deceptively accessible work of cultural critique defined by philosophical eclecticism, the main object of which is the analysis of the ever-evolving and constantly changing and adapting dynamics of global capitalism. Debord, perhaps best known for his involvement with the Situationist International and the ludic re-imagination of urban space known as “psychogeography,” defined the spectacle as “a social relationship between people that is mediated by images.”
Deconstructing the reality of the global regime of bi-polarity, defined as it was by the competing ideologies of Western liberal democracy and Marxist-inspired variants of state socialism (what Debord referred to as “bureaucratic capitalism”), Debord identified two complementary forms of the spectacle: the diffuse and the concentrated. The model of the diffuse form of the spectacle, dominant in the West, attempts to provide a working vocabulary for analyzing the complexities of advanced capitalism, while the concentrated spectacle, that form of the spectacle dominant in the Soviet Union and the other nations within the socialist camp, is Debord’s attempt to theorize the multiply-configured relationships between the subject and the state in a different context. In his article “Ilya Kabakov and the Concentrated Spectacle of Soviet Power,” Matthew Jesse Jackson summarizes the operations of the concentrated spectacle in the following way: “Incapable of replicating the West’s phantasmagoria of commodities and commodified experience, the concentrated spectacle proliferated through the imposition of the visual and the verbal rhetorics of ‘Soviet Power,’ that is the self-abnegatory ideology of the bureaucracy’s supposed ‘proletarian’ dictatorship.”
Ed Howard, in an online review of Debord’s cinematic re-articulation of his conceptual framework in the 1973 film The Society of the Spectacle, elaborates upon Jackson’s point and observes: “For Debord, Stalinist oppression is quite possibly the epitome of the spectacular society, an absurd illusion in which the Soviet officials must simultaneously inhabit contradictory identities: as proletarian revolutionaries and as totalitarian bureaucrats. This creates a paradoxical government whose representatives can never totally inhabit either of these opposite poles, instead vacillating between public statement of proletarian ideals and private membership in a government structure whose elite nature contradicts the aim of the proletariat.”
This “Stalinist illusion” to which Howard refers is only intensified in the DPRK, a society in which North Korean citizens are divided into three main classes: The Core, constituting the party elite and descendants of revolutionary heroes, The Wavering Class, and Those citizens deemed hostile to the regime. The core class is given access to the best the state has to offer, including nicer living quarters, better food rations, and the ability to purchase and drive automobiles. Moreover, the role of the Suryong, or leader, with its attendant personality cult, requires citizens to perform elaborate rituals in order to signify a kind of religious devotion to the ruling Kim dynasty. Additionally, recent developments in the official ideology of the ruling Workers’ Party such as Kim Jong-il’s Red Banner philosophy and the “Military First” policy emphasize the primacy of the soldier over the laborer thereby upending the traditional Marxist glorification of the working class.
In the traveling exhibit “North Korean Images at Utopia’s Edge,” Nicholas Bonner, one of the most prolific collectors of original North Korean artworks, presents a series of twenty-four linocut prints that exemplify the aesthetics of Zhdanovite Socialist Realism as it was imported and adapted to local conditions. Bonner produced the documentary “Crossing the Line” which follows the life of James Dresnok, a soldier in the US Army who defected to North Korea in the 1960s, and is associate producer of the documentaries “A State of Mind” and “The Game of Their Lives.” Bonner’s exhibit generated so much interest that recently a symposium was held at the University of Toronto to discuss the pieces in the collection. More than just triumphalist renderings of laborers with wind-swept hair joyfully fulfilling their production quotas or heroic portraits of the Great Leader, some of the pieces in Bonner’s collection portray scenes of everyday life in the DPRK, including weddings, picnics, and other prosaic activities.
Suk-Young Kim, in her article “Springtime for Kim Il-sung in Pyongyang,” upon which she further elaborated in 2010’s Illusive Utopia: Theater, Film, and Everyday Performance in North Korea, argues that “the leader’s iconographic presence throughout North Korea has been so pervasive that the continuum between stage and everyday life became functionally homogenous, tightly interwoven by immediately recognizable renderings of Kim Il-sung.” While Kim’s object of analysis primarily is the propaganda performance genre known as “revolutionary opera” (Hyeokmyeung gageuk), much of her critical labor is concerned not just with the interpretation of content but with the theorization of space and what she refers to as “the dynamics between Pyongyang on stage and Pyongyang as stage.”
Much of Kim’s argument relies upon Tracy Davis and Thomas Postlewait’s definition of “theatricality,” that is “the heightened states when everyday reality is exceeded by its representation.” This notion of theatricality is writ large in the North Korean context through the “staging” of mass rallies in honor of the Workers’ Party or in the many parades, what Kim calls “reality-producing machinery,” held on May Day and on other national holidays.
Attendance at these events, according to the accounts of defectors, is mandatory and is a way for the state to engage in the production of ideal citizens and strong socialist subjects. But it is the Arirang Mass Gymnastic and Artistic Performances that are perhaps the most spectacular (in the Debordian sense) example of totalitarian theatricality. This annual two-month festival requires tens of thousands of acrobats, soldiers, and card-turners who put in countless hours of preparation to create a massive display of devotion to the state. In this remarkable event, performers and audience are brought together as one, each individual being absorbed into the collective. It is a triumph of political theatre and cultural management, the purpose of which is to sustain the mythology of the Workers’ Paradise.
French political philosopher Claude Lefort, in works such as The Political Forms of Modern Society: Bureaucracy, Democracy, Totalitarianism and Democracy and Political Theory, offers a compelling theory of totalitarian societies, be they National Socialist or fascist in orientation or communist societies structured around Stalinist models of domination and social control. Aptly summarized by Ales Erjavec, Lefort’s theory states that “[t]otalitarian discourse doesn’t allow the subject any distance from the discourse and ‘demands his identification with power and with the person or persons who retain it at the top of the State.” Ultimately, according to Erajavec, “[t]he totalitarian society thus gives the semblance of being completely homogenous and unified, with social divisions completely masked, and with the border between the state and civil society concealed, if not eliminated, the former annihilating the latter, along with the difference between the public and the private spheres.”
In the North Korean context, this abolition of “the difference between the public and private spheres” is accomplished not only through the state’s effective use of propaganda but also the active and creative employment of what the British sociologist Christel Lane refers to as “ritual specialists,” that is “those who devise new, or adapt old, rituals in order to uphold their definition of social relationships.” For example, ritual specialists in North Korea, acutely aware of the history and significance of Christianity in their country, especially in pre-Revolutionary Pyongyang, adapted aspects of the celebration of Christmas to their contemporary totalitarian socialist context. Instead of presents in December, schoolchildren in North Korea receive sweets and other gifts in April for the celebration of the birthday of the Great Leader who performs the function of a benevolent and always smiling Santa Claus-type figure. In his book Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader: North Korea and the Kim Dynasty, Bradley K. Martin observes that “[e]xperience in church-related activities played a considerable role in training one of the most successful mass leaders and propagandists in the history of the world, not to mention providing a model for his (Kim Il-sung’s) own eventual elevation to divine status.”
Leaving aside, momentarily, our consideration of cultural artifacts produced in North Korea about North Korea, I want to turn briefly to a cursory discussion of works recently published in the West that provide various provocative representations of the DPRK. For example, in the Inspector O series of mystery novels by pseudonymous author James Church, readers are presented with a well-developed protagonist who defies commonly held stereotypes of North Korean automatons who blindly worship at the altar of the Great Leader and his successors. First introduced in 2006’s A Corpse in the Koryo, Inspector O is more than the archetypical socialist bureaucrat who skillfully negotiates his way through a labyrinthine system of competing intelligence and security ministries through mastery of the rhetoric of the state and the protocols of constant suspicion; through privileged access to his internal monologues, we learn of his doubts about the supremacy of the system in which he lives and gain a greater appreciation for how nuanced forms of dissent and resistance can manifest themselves.
More intensive critical labor needs to be done in terms of theorizing how the ways in which Church manipulates the conventions of the mystery novel effectively represents life in a totalitarian society like North Korea. For example, Church employs various literary devices such as unresolved narrative streams and heightened ambiguity to increase the reader’s level of anxiety thereby reproducing aesthetically how many defectors from dictatorial regimes characterize their experiences living in constant fear of secret police and neighbors-turned-informants.
Guy Delisle’s 2003 graphic novel Pyongyang: A Journey in North Korea attempts, through the use of multiple forms inherent to the genre, to explain the intensity of the confrontation with the uncanny experienced by many foreign visitors to the DPRK. Pyongyang is Delisle’s autobiographical account of his two-month stay in North Korea as a consultant for SEK (Scientific and Educational Film Studio of Korea), an arts and animation studio. In Pyongyang, Delisle’s minders and guides are represented as mouthpieces that parrot the party line; for example during one of Delisle’s conversations with his government-appointed companion he asks where all the handicapped people are. His guide responds by informing him that there are no people with disabilities in North Korea by explaining that “We’re a very homogenous nation. All North Koreans are born healthy, strong, and intelligent.”
In some ways, in contradistinction to the Inspector O mysteries, Delisle’s graphic novel, instead of subverting commonly held notions of North Korean society, merely reinforces them. There are the obligatory visits to the nation’s most sacred monuments, including the massive statue of Kim Il-sung in Pyongyang’s main square and the USS Pueblo museum; elevators in the hotels reserved for foreign visitors don’t work; and the many wide boulevards in the capital city are devoid of motor vehicles (except for the occasional Hungarian-manufactured buses). Ultimately, like the work that needs to be done on Church’s novels, new approaches to the aesthetic politics of graphic novels, as well as comparative projects that place Delisle’s Pyongyang within a certain genealogy that might include Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis or Art Spiegelman’s Maus, will only enhance our appreciation for the ways in which this genre engages with questions of representation and social analysis.
What I have been gesturing toward is the necessity for the development of new approaches to the study of the cultural politics of totalitarian societies, approaches that combine elements from the disciplines of anthropology, history, sociology, comparative literature and comparative cultural studies. Debord’s critical theory, in conversation with the work of theater critics, art historians, and political philosophers can provide the foundation on which to build a more contemporary theoretical framework for the intensive critique and analysis of how totalitarian governments engage in cultural management and mass socialization. Orlando Figes and Boris Kolonitskii’s important book, Interpreting the Russian Revolution, as well as Carol Barner-Barry and Cynthia Hody’s adaptation of the role of myths and mythmakers in American politics to the study of Soviet culture, also provide models for how we might construct a more comprehensive approach to the study of totalitarianism. And finally, by consulting the major works of transitology, a subfield of comparative politics concerned with the transition of nations out of authoritarianism, we can better prepare ourselves as scholars and as activists for the moment when the artifice of Kim Jong-Un’s society of the spectacle collapses under the weight of its own barbarism.