Worship and Celebration, from Pyongyang to London

June 25th, 2012
16

This year, as with many other years, has seen a number of widely discussed events. It seems that every week we have something else to discuss and debate. However two events in particular stand out for this author, and it centres on anniversary celebrations held on opposite sides of the world, and reported in very different contexts; the 100th anniversary of the birth of Kim Il-Sung, and the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Elizabeth. While the celebrations held in North Korea were analysed, mocked and reported with the usual array of ‘unique glimpses’ and ‘rare insights’, the celebrations held in London and beyond were generally gushing and complimentary. Perhaps this shouldn’t be surprising; North Korea has long been seen as an abuser of human rights and run as a dictatorship, while the countries which recognise Elizabeth as their Queen are mostly regarded as democratic and upstanding members of this world. With this in mind, it’s worth looking past the headlines and comparing how these two events were reported, and what the event tells us about Western elite attitudes towards what can only be described as two similar, yet very different events.

The first week in June provided a spotlight for the UK, as politicians, citizens and viewers around the world watched and took part in a series of festivities aimed at celebrating the 60th anniversary of Queen Elizabeth as “Her Majesty Elizabeth the Second, by the Grace of God, of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, and of Her other Realms and Territories, Queen, Head of the Commonwealth, Defender of the Faith”. That is to say nothing of her numerous other titles, such as “Commander-in-Chief of the British Armed Forces” and “Lord High Admiral of the Royal Navy”. The peak of the weekend was laid out as a river pageant, thousands of boats sailing down the Thames as a tribute to her reign. In essence, more a naval parade than a military one, with on-lookers watching from the riverside rather than the paved streets. In all, the extravagance and celebration is estimated to have cost the economy billions, ranging from £1 billion in the best case to over £3 billion in the worst case.[1] Reaction was understandably mixed, though the majority of it was positive. The BBC devoted an entire section of its webpage to the event[2] and broadcast almost wall-to-wall coverage of proceedings. Other UK media outlets shared in much of the revelry, providing blanket coverage no matter if it was negative or positive. In essence, the UK was bombarded by messages about the royalty, and stretching further, towards discussion of patriotism, nationalism, and of course the future of the monarchy.

In contrast, the spotlight in the DPRK did not find as willing an audience as perhaps the Diamond Jubilee provided. International media covered the celebrations for Kim-Il Sung, “Great Leader and Eternal President of the Republic”, however these were cast in a far more negative light and the discussions revolved around not solely his reign, but on the current state of the DPRK, and the politics of succession surrounding Kim Jong-Eun. Perhaps it would be disingenuous not to mention the desire of the DPRK to also affix the importance of Kim Jong-Il into the ongoing narrative of the country, or as a general celebration of the history and existence of the DPRK. Despite this, the day itself would not be shy in celebrating the reign of Kim Il-Sung. A rocket launch had been planned for the same time, though this resulted only in failure. New monuments were unveiled, military parades ensued, and the provision of extra food and drink was aimed at allowing the citizens to enjoy the day, as well as to paint the country in as positive a light as possible. Unlike the discussions provoked by the Diamond Jubilee, these celebrations offered nothing new from the international media, and the consistent focus on human rights, the nuclear programme, tensions with their neighbours, and perceived eccentricities prevailed. There were even the obligatory mistakes of suggesting that the DPRK wished to be a socialist paradise.[3] Domestically, the coverage was incessant, much as would be expected.

So far, it seems exactly what you would expect in this scenario; the UK and by extension the international community generally portrayed the Diamond Jubilee as a celebration of service to nations, and of a reign advertised now as uniting people despite their differences. In contrast, the DPRK celebrations were seen as the act of a delusional regime, throwing propaganda and contempt at its citizens. While no one would seek to exactly compare the two roles and functions of these events, there are undeniably common themes within each scenario. For one, they are both the celebration of dynastic rulers. Queen Elizabeth is an unelected head of state, which hardly reflects the growth of democracy. Ironically, rulers in the DPRK have at least the façade of democracy through infrequent elections. Both celebrations involved an extravagant financial cost, and turned the capital cities of each state into a place for pomp and worship. Both involved blanket coverage employing sycophancy and continued praise towards the recipients. The events themselves followed what can essentially be seen as a carbon-copy formula; massive public events and displays of affection, unavoidable media coverage, the invitation of foreign guests and media, an expectancy of worship from the population, and declarations of the benefits the country has wrought from their presence. Although tolerance and publication of anti-monarchist and republican voices was at least possible in the UK, too often this was drowned out by the sheer weight of coverage of the Diamond Jubilee. Needless to say that such dissent was not possible within the confines of official DPRK media outlets.

What then separates the anachronistic worship of a hereditary leader in the UK, from the adulation and collective devotion to one in the DPRK? Superficially, little if anything separates them beyond the reporting itself. Perhaps the main difference can be seen not in the extent of coverage, but in how observers around the world reacted. Within the UK it seemed that the message was unanimous and strong; there was an attempt to show that the celebration was not for the royal position, or for the very concept of monarchy, but to personalise these events as a tribute to Elizabeth herself. She was seen not as a ruler or royalty, but as the very bastion of what binds Britain, and a connection with a purportedly glorious British past. Newspapers such as The Independent, The Express, The Guardian and The Daily Mail, all presented the occasion as a display of national unity, a demonstration of the ‘uniqueness’ of the United Kingdom, and an almost personification of everything that they aspire to present as virtuous about being British. The phrase “national communion” was frequently uttered, lending a religious and spiritual overtone. For some, this was undoubtedly true, though it was notable that the further from London a person resided, the less likely that they had really bought into the message of the UK monarchy. In Scotland, for example, street parties were almost non-existent, and a number of commentators used the occasion to discuss what the Jubilee attempted to say about British identity, the future of the constitutional status of the United Kingdom, and of course the future of the monarchy in a democratic nation. Around the world, further respect was awarded by media outlets, though it should be noted that some did take a more open view on affairs, such as media outlet Russia Today, who critically compared the expenditure on proceedings to the level of austerity cuts. United States President Barack Obama notably recorded a video message for the Queen, in which he praised her glorious reign, eulogised on the relationship between the USA and the UK, and congratulated her on her many achievements.[4] Overall media coverage was complimentary around the world, if at times indifferent and challenging some of the rhetoric.

In comparison, domestic reaction within the DPRK to celebrations for Kim Il-Sung was just as gushing. Again this is not a surprise; the state has a monopoly on the media within the DPRK, and lacks any challenging voice. News stories from KCNA revolved around a number of articles about the leaders of the country, although their foreign-language pages are tempered somewhat in comparison with UK coverage of the Diamond Jubilee. For the international media, there was generally no room to praise the DPRK. Questions on the pomp and circumstance, the expenditure, and other aspects of the country beyond the reason for the anniversary, were ritually discussed. Just before the celebrations, Hillary Clinton had suggested that feeding its people should be a priority above building nuclear weapons. It was left to Russia and China of the major countries to send a form of recognition and congratulations to Kim Jong-Eun, providing cordial messages rather than flattering. In essence, the past was also not as useful in the discussions around the DPRK. Little was said about the reputation and legacy of Kim Il-Sung, and instead focus was placed on the role of Kim Jong-Il, and how Kim Jong-Eun would take the country forward. This shouldn’t be a surprise; the historical legacy of the DPRK does not arrive from a story of centuries-past success and failure, nor does it contain the controversy of being the builders of Empire. For the DPRK, the future and how it shapes alliances with a mostly hostile and suspicious set of neighbours is far more important than discussion around the level of development in the decades past. However if the international media had been prepared to look at the DPRK in the same structure as a number of commentators had looked at the role of the monarchy within the UK, understanding and analysis of the DPRK would improve. There is a continued portrayal of the DPRK as a totalitarian nightmare, where a bunch of maniacal eccentrics rule the country. As strict and militarised as areas of the DPRK might be, this does nothing to engage or explore the multi-faceted details that make any country what it is. Nothing was further said of whether all regions of the DPRK celebrated as did Pyongyang, or whether this same “national communion” drew citizens together in a positive fashion in the DPRK as it apparently did for so many citizens of the UK. There was little or no discussion on whether previous leaders embodied the very concept of Korean identity, or even North Korean identity. More was aimed at the weight and age of Kim Jong-Eun than his relevance within DPRK culture and generational attitudes.

In comparing two similar events, we see a very different reaction to events. The Diamond Jubilee celebrations were admired, whereas the 100th Anniversary of Kim Il-Sung was dismissed. It shows that there is still a tendency to show hostility towards the DPRK, even when it does something almost identical to a Western nation. This is unfortunate, as looking at the DPRK as an anomaly to be shunned, mocked and threatened simply perpetuates stereotypes, and hampers any road towards cultural understanding, a peace-treaty, denuclearisation or helping them towards self-sufficiency in food and energy. For all the importance of national structure, governance and politics in how we judge other countries, looking beyond this to the people themselves, their thoughts and beliefs, understandings of their country and national identity, and how they see the future, often proves more beneficial than poring over statistics and outspoken rhetoric in a newspaper or television broadcast.


[1] A report on the costs can be found at http://www.culture.gov.uk/publications/8519.aspx

[2] The section can be found here http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-17500000

[3] See comments at the end of this article by Damian Grammaticas. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-china-17658524

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About the Author

Gerard Clare

Gerard Clare is a research student at the University of Glasgow in Scotland, specialising in issues of regionalism and centre-periphery relations in the Russian Far East, including how citizens on the periphery can identify with central representations of what it means to be Russian, and in what ways these representations may conflict with regional identities. His knowledge extends through to Russia-DPRK relations in the post-Soviet era, with particular focus on engagement, expectations and wider themes around energy and security. He has previously completed both his undergraduate degree in Central and East European Studies in 2011, and his MSc in Russian, Central and East European studies in 2012, at the University of Glasgow. He has contributed a number of articles to NKNews since 2011, looking at Russia-DPRK relations, Six-Party Talks and even football within the DPRK.

Join the discussion

  • Leonid Petrov

    How many political prisons do they have in the UK?
    And what is whrong with calling North Korea a “socialist paradise”?
    LP

    • http://twitter.com/stakhanovite Gerard Clare

      Hi Leonid,

      You are correct in saying the UK does not have political prisons. You could say that the UK was complicit along with the USA in the illegal rendition of a large number of people across a number of sites, as well as a host of other crimes, but that begins another discussion entirely. My aim was not to look at this side of events, precisely as it seems to be one of the only issues that people mention with regards to the DPRK. Instead I wanted to show that even when doing something that a Western nation does, the DPRK is portrayed very differently. Sycophancy and elaborate celebrations are not just an invention of the DPRK.As for describing the DPRK as a “socialist paradise”, I think there is a massive difference between socialism and what exists there, so I did take issue with the referenced quote. I don’t think the leadership has any illusions or desire to try and implement a socialist system. The country is far away from any form of socially-oriented ‘democracy’. Call it “Juche” or something else, but it certainly isn’t trying to reach socialism.

  • Leonid Petrov

    How many political prisons do they have in the UK?
    And what is whrong with calling North Korea a “socialist paradise”?
    LP

    • http://twitter.com/stakhanovite Gerard Clare

      Hi Leonid,

      You are correct in saying the UK does not have political prisons. You could say that the UK was complicit along with the USA in the illegal rendition of a large number of people across a number of sites, as well as a host of other crimes, but that begins another discussion entirely. My aim was not to look at this side of events, precisely as it seems to be one of the only issues that people mention with regards to the DPRK. Instead I wanted to show that even when doing something that a Western nation does, the DPRK is portrayed very differently. Sycophancy and elaborate celebrations are not just an invention of the DPRK.As for describing the DPRK as a “socialist paradise”, I think there is a massive difference between socialism and what exists there, so I did take issue with the referenced quote. I don’t think the leadership has any illusions or desire to try and implement a socialist system. The country is far away from any form of socially-oriented ‘democracy’. Call it “Juche” or something else, but it certainly isn’t trying to reach socialism.

  • James_C

    This is an interesting article and I’m glad you’ve written it, as when I saw the boat show in London I couldn’t help but being reminded of all the celebrations that were held in NK just a few weeks before.
    As for Leonid’s observation – I’d ask you then what is more important when analysing NK – the fact it has these political prisons or the fact it has a regime in which we see manifestations like we did on April 15 that are seemingly reproduced in slightly different form in the UK?

    • http://twitter.com/stakhanovite Gerard Clare

      Thanks for reading and commenting James. I was surprised that noone else had broached the subject, but perhaps there wasn’t as much interest in one or both of the events from regular NK-watchers. I certainly feel that more objectivity and consistency is required when discussing the DPRK. A widening of the fields of research and the discourses employed is essential to really advance understanding of events, at the very least on a macrosociological scale. A country and a society cannot be judged by the elite alone.

  • James_C

    This is an interesting article and I’m glad you’ve written it, as when I saw the boat show in London I couldn’t help but being reminded of all the celebrations that were held in NK just a few weeks before.
    As for Leonid’s observation – I’d ask you then what is more important when analysing NK – the fact it has these political prisons or the fact it has a regime in which we see manifestations like we did on April 15 that are seemingly reproduced in slightly different form in the UK?

    • http://twitter.com/stakhanovite Gerard Clare

      Thanks for reading and commenting James. I was surprised that noone else had broached the subject, but perhaps there wasn’t as much interest in one or both of the events from regular NK-watchers. I certainly feel that more objectivity and consistency is required when discussing the DPRK. A widening of the fields of research and the discourses employed is essential to really advance understanding of events, at the very least on a macrosociological scale. A country and a society cannot be judged by the elite alone.

  • CWR_1

    I nominate this as my candidate for the ‘Simon Winchester DPRK Essay Writing Prize 2012,’ for handsomely written, yet unintentionally satirical analysis.  

    • http://twitter.com/stakhanovite Gerard Clare

      Can’t beat some sardonic rhetoric eh? I’ll try to make some room for the award in my trophy cabinet. :)

  • CW_1

    I nominate this as my candidate for the ‘Simon Winchester DPRK Essay Writing Prize 2012,’ for handsomely written, yet unintentionally satirical analysis.  

    • http://twitter.com/stakhanovite Gerard Clare

      Can’t beat some sardonic rhetoric eh? I’ll try to make some room for the award in my trophy cabinet. :)

  • Danb312

    A very interesting argument. You did touch on the fact that whilst the celebrations are similar the actual roles of the heads of state in question are wildly different. Whilst Queen Elizabeth is a figurehead only and has very little actual power Kim Il Sung was instrumental in bringing about a political system in which his people starve and regularly have their human rights abused. That is why people generally have very little other than contempt for the celebrations in N. Korea (it would be like the Russians celebrating Stalin day or the Cambodians celebrating Pol Pot day).
    This being said I do agree that the celebrations in the UK were out of all proportion – particularly considering the lengths the government is trying to go to to cut spending. That 3 billion could have gone towards the health service.
    Good article – thought provoking.

    • http://twitter.com/stakhanovite Gerard Clare

      Thanks for reading and commenting Dan. There are aspects I would have liked to go into more detail about, but unfortunately there are some limits on how long an article of this nature can be. You are right to mention the vast difference in powers between Queen Elizabeth and Kim Il-Sung, and how they chose to weild those powers and responsibilities. It was more the nature of these occasions and how they are contrastingly seen by others that I hoped to draw out, rather than focusing on the well-known abuses of the DPRK rulers. These are well-covered, almost relentlessly, with marginalised focus on any other aspect of life beyond the elite. Perhaps worth noting though from your examples that Stalin still has a sizeable following in Russia, even when only as an ambiguous uncertainty over how to frame him in Russian/Soviet history, and usually best seen around celebrations such as Victory Day where his role as leader during a time of massive tragedy and victory is harder to seperate. Long-term leaders tend to widen opinion, as invariably a larger appraisal of their rule is debated instead of just a short period of focused oppression. In the case of Stalin, and likely the same for Kim Il-Sung within the DPRK, people will also remember positive outcomes to some of their policies, even when there are massive abuses.

  • Danb312

    A very interesting argument. You did touch on the fact that whilst the celebrations are similar the actual roles of the heads of state in question are wildly different. Whilst Queen Elizabeth is a figurehead only and has very little actual power Kim Il Sung was instrumental in bringing about a political system in which his people starve and regularly have their human rights abused. That is why people generally have very little other than contempt for the celebrations in N. Korea (it would be like the Russians celebrating Stalin day or the Cambodians celebrating Pol Pot day).
    This being said I do agree that the celebrations in the UK were out of all proportion – particularly considering the lengths the government is trying to go to to cut spending. That 3 billion could have gone towards the health service.
    Good article – thought provoking.

    • http://twitter.com/stakhanovite Gerard Clare

      Thanks for reading and commenting Dan. There are aspects I would have liked to go into more detail about, but unfortunately there are some limits on how long an article of this nature can be. You are right to mention the vast difference in powers between Queen Elizabeth and Kim Il-Sung, and how they chose to weild those powers and responsibilities. It was more the nature of these occasions and how they are contrastingly seen by others that I hoped to draw out, rather than focusing on the well-known abuses of the DPRK rulers. These are well-covered, almost relentlessly, with marginalised focus on any other aspect of life beyond the elite. Perhaps worth noting though from your examples that Stalin still has a sizeable following in Russia, even when only as an ambiguous uncertainty over how to frame him in Russian/Soviet history, and usually best seen around celebrations such as Victory Day where his role as leader during a time of massive tragedy and victory is harder to seperate. Long-term leaders tend to widen opinion, as invariably a larger appraisal of their rule is debated instead of just a short period of focused oppression. In the case of Stalin, and likely the same for Kim Il-Sung within the DPRK, people will also remember positive outcomes to some of their policies, even when there are massive abuses.