The view that state-sponsored nationalism has played a major (or even decisive) role in the persistence of the North Korean political system has been expressed by a wide range of scholars, such as Brian Myers, Andrei Lankov, Jin Woong Kang and Young Chul Cho. These authors have emphasized that nationalist propaganda served the regime’s interests in a variety of ways.
From the very beginning, the (real and fabricated) nationalist credentials of Kim Il Sung constituted an important source of legitimacy vis-a-vis his intra-party opponents and the rival nation-state in South Korea. As early as 1955-1956, Kim skillfully used the card of cultural nationalism to discredit the “foreign factions” (i.e. the Soviet Koreans and pro-China Yan’an faction), effectively preventing them from gaining popular support. The xenophobic and racist depiction of the DPRK’s non-Korean enemies (America and Japan) also helped the regime to perpetuate a siege mentality, and justify the extreme militarization of society. Due to the population’s general unawareness of the fact that the Korean War broke out on the initiative of Pyongyang, rather than Seoul or Washington, the bitter memories of U.S. carpet bombing did lend credence to the regime’s claims about the ever-present external threat (see here for an example).
These observations are certainly accurate in many respects. Nevertheless, the specific contribution that nationalism has made to the stability of the North Korean regime – and indeed the specific nature of North Korean nationalism – needs further investigation. Namely, it should not be assumed that a dictatorship’s strong commitment to ethnic nationalism, and the population’s ready acceptance of such an ethno-nationalist identity, would automatically cancel out socio-economic discontent, or ensure that the regime be regarded by the population as the sole legitimate representative of the nation. To paraphrase the famous pronouncement of Samuel Johnson, patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel, but it will not necessarily save him in the end. Nicolae Ceauşescu, the dictator of Romania from 1965 to 1989, found this out the hard way.
These parallels between the two countries were inspired by Ceauşescu’s repressive policies
The apparent similarities between the DPRK and Ceauşescu’s Romania have caught the attention of several scholars who sought to analyze the North Korean political system by creating various comparative models, rather than describing it as a sui generis phenomenon. As Greg Scarlatoiu put it: “Life in Romania under Ceauşescu was the closest Eastern Europeans ever got to experiencing North Korea up close and personal.” Cheng Chen and Ji-Yong Lee placed both regimes under the category of “national Stalinism,” a term coined by Vladimir Tismaneanu, a noted authority on Romanian communist history. These parallels between the two countries were inspired by Ceauşescu’s repressive policies; the extravagant cult created around him and his “academician” wife, Elena Ceauşescu; his efforts to install his son Nicu as his successor; his penchant for monumental construction projects and economic autarky; his disregard for the falling living standards of the population; his defiance of the Soviet Union; and – last but not least – his assiduous cultivation of nationalist myths for political purposes.
Indeed, a glimpse into the Romanian historical works produced in the Ceauşescu era is likely to arouse feelings of déjà vu in an observer familiar with North Korean historiography. In the 1970s, the party leadership imposed the narrative that the Romanian nation had emerged exactly on the territory of the present-day Romanian state, and anachronistically insisted on using modern Romanian geographical names in reference to ancient and medieval settlements. Official historiography claimed that a persistent desire to merge the principalities of Moldavia and Wallachia into a single Romanian nation-state had emerged as early as the 16th century (two or three centuries before the rest of Europe began to warm up to the idea of ethnic nationalism), and depicted the Transylvanian peasant uprising of 1784 as a modern national revolution that neatly predated the French Revolution of 1789.
Nevertheless, the sources of Ceauşescu’s nationalist legitimacy were considerably different from that of Kim Il Sung, and these differences greatly influenced the specific way Romanian and North Korean historiography was distorted. To be sure, both dictators depicted their intra-party rivals and the earlier generations of communist cadres as persons insufficiently committed to national sovereignty. Still, Kim’s post-1955 conflicts with the Soviet Koreans constituted a less important source of legitimacy than his (grotesquely exaggerated) involvement in the anti-Japanese guerrilla struggle. In contrast, Ceauşescu’s legitimacy was defined primarily in opposition to the pre-1965 leaders of the Romanian communist party, and based on Romania’s growing independence from the Soviet Union. Having spent much of his pre-1944 political career in prison, he was less able to capitalize on his involvement in the anti-fascist struggle than Kim Il Sung had been. In the 1960s and 1970s, Ceauşescu’s approach certainly paid off, since his defiance of the USSR greatly enhanced his popularity in a country where anti-Russian sentiments had a long tradition.
In 1975, the (Romanian) regime went so far as to encourage the publication of a novel that favorably revised the image of Ion Antonescu, Romania’s wartime dictator
These circumstances seem to have played a major role in that in Ceauşescu’s Romania, state-sponsored nationalism was of a relatively “inclusive” nature. The acerbic words of Romanian scholar Lucian Boia succinctly describe the manipulative incorporation of pre-1944 cultural and political figures into the Romanian national pantheon: “Writers, scholars, and politicians, who not only had had nothing to do with communism but had utterly detested it and in some cases been among its victims, were posthumously obliged to uphold the communist project.” Notably, the historians of the Ceauşescu era presented interwar Romania in a far more positive light than their Stalinist predecessors had done in 1947-1952, and increasingly downplayed the misdeeds of the Romanian extreme right. In 1975, the regime went so far as to encourage the publication of a novel that favorably revised the image of Ion Antonescu, Romania’s wartime dictator.
Leader-centrism was a dominant element in both North Korean and Romanian historiography, but in different ways. Romanian propaganda used the glorification of earlier strong rulers (like Burebista, Michael the Brave, Stephen the Great and Alexandru Ioan Cuza) as building blocks to boost the cult of Ceauşescu, whose “golden age” was presented as the culmination of the achievements of his monarchical predecessors. Similarly, nationalist revolutionaries like Nicolae Bălcescu, the leader of the 1848 Wallachian revolution, were praised for their contribution to national unification. Romanian authorities displayed Bălcescu’s bust in most towns, and named numerous schools and other institutions after him. That is, the cult of the supreme leader was not incompatible with the existence of secondary cults around non-communist figures.
One unintended effect of these propaganda efforts was that the Romanian population remained fairly aware of the distinction between the Romanian nation-state (an entity created in 1859, well before the communist takeover) and the communist regime (a secondary, superimposed entity). Due to the existence of the aforesaid secondary cults, the leadership could not fully monopolize the nationalist discourse, and the alternative national symbols did not disappear from popular consciousness. The significance of this issue became plainly visible during the Romanian revolution that led to the downfall of Ceauşescu. On December 16, 1989, when the first protests erupted in Timișoara, and later in Bucharest, demonstrators promptly used two 19th-century nationalist songs, Deşteaptă-te române and Hora Unirii, as mobilizing symbols. Deşteaptă-te române (“Awaken, Romanian”) was the anthem of the 1848 Wallachian revolution, whereas Hora Unirii (“The Round Dance of Unity”) commemorated the 1859 union between Wallachia and Moldavia. Under Ceauşescu, both songs could be sung in public, but the regime selected a song laden with communist rhetoric as its official national anthem. Under such circumstances, Deşteaptă-te române and Hora Unirii could be effectively juxtaposed to the regime’s imagery, because they were both sufficiently well-known and clearly distinguishable from communist symbols. Thanks to its appeal to national heroism and its condemnation of the “barbaric tyrants,” Deşteaptă-te române was enthusiastically adopted by anti-Ceauşescu demonstrators as early as 1987, during the worker protests in Braşov. Similarly, the national flag with a hole in the center (from where the superimposed communist coat of arms was ripped out) became a symbol of the 1989 revolution. By these acts, revolutionaries expressed the view that they, rather than the regime, were the genuine representatives of the nation. National symbols, instead of serving the dictatorship’s aims, greatly facilitated mobilization and cohesion-building.
IMMUNITY TO RESISTANCE?
In the light of the role that national symbols played in the Romanian revolution, it is worth raising the question whether North Korean nationalism really made the regime immune to popular resistance. In my view, the peculiarities of North Korean nationalism did reinforce the regime’s stability, but not necessarily in the way as Brian Myers and other scholars suggested. In an article entitled “North Korea’s State-Loyalty Advantage,” Myers expressed the following opinion: “The Kim myth identifies the regime with the state, just as it links the state to the race… an ethno-nationalist state can link itself in the public mind with the race and thereby maintain class-transcending support even through difficult times.” This thesis is certainly valid in many respects. Still, it needs to be reformulated if one is to explain why the creation of such linkages between nation, state and regime turned out to be more effective in North Korea than in Romania.
The ethno-racial nature of North Korean nationalism per se does not fully explain the DPRK’s divergence from Ceauşescu’s Romania. Notably, in 1986-1989 Ceauşescu made particularly intense efforts to retain his vanishing popularity basis by encouraging xenophobia, but the results of this propaganda were quite mixed. On the one hand, the regime did manage to aggravate inter-ethnic tension, whose effects would be felt long after the demise of the communist system. On the other hand, these ethnic animosities did not divert popular attention from the deepening socio-economic crisis. Ceauşescu’s post-1981 austerity program generated near-universal discontent, and the top leadership’s direct responsibility for the fall of living standards was so obvious that the problems could not be credibly blamed on the Hungarian minority. This is why it happened that the initial protests in Timișoara did not remain confined to the ethnic Hungarians but quickly spread to the Romanian community – an event that effectively sealed Ceauşescu’s fate.
When comparing the North Korean and Romanian regimes to each other, neither an analogical model nor a model of binary opposition would be fully accurate, since North Korean nationalism has undergone a complex transformation since the establishment of the DPRK. Similarities with Romanian nationalism were greater in certain periods than in others. Furthermore, certain components of North Korean nationalism proved more constant than some other elements. For example, the racist depiction of the DPRK’s foreign opponents – a phenomenon aptly highlighted by Myers – has remained a leitmotif of North Korean propaganda ever since the Korean War, whereas the cultivation of pre-communist national traditions and “progressive” national heroes fluctuated to a substantial extent.
During the Korean War, Kim Il Sung personally invoked the memory of such ancient and medieval Korean military heroes as Ulchi Mundok, Kang Kamchan and Admiral Yi Sun Shin, using them as mobilizing symbols. In July 1950, the government created the Order of Yi Sun Shin for navy commanders, and the textbooks published in 1954 directly attributed the victory over the Japanese invaders to the military genius of the admiral. In 1955-1956, the positive re-evaluation of Korean cultural traditions (like the Sirhak Movement) and a stronger emphasis on the pre-1945 nationalist protests (such as the 1919 March First Movement) constituted integral elements of Kim Il Sung’s strategy to sideline his Soviet-Korean rivals and loosen Soviet control over the DPRK. These policies had much in common with the use of nationalism in post-1965 Romania.
…the growth of Kim Il Sung’s cult was accompanied by a decreasing emphasis on Korean cultural traditions and pre-communist national heroes
However, in the late 1960s and early 1970s – when Kim Il Sung began to install Kim Jong Il as his successor, and purged many former anti-Japanese guerrillas who did not belong to his own 88th Brigade – a new shift occurred in North Korean propaganda. While the intensity of state-sponsored nationalism remained unchanged, its form underwent a major transformation. This time, the growth of Kim Il Sung’s cult was accompanied by a decreasing emphasis on Korean cultural traditions and pre-communist national heroes. In 1974, a deputy minister of culture categorically told an astonished Romanian cinematic delegation that, “We regard folk music as the music of slaves, serfs, landlords, and drunkards, which is unsuitable for instilling enthusiasm in the workers.” Anxious to make the Kim family the sole object of veneration, the new textbooks gradually downplayed the significance of such previously glorified individuals as Ulchi Mundok and Yi Sun Shin. In December 1975, a visiting Hungarian educational delegation described the regime’s efforts to eliminate any potential alternative political symbols as follows: “While one can hardly count the (ubiquitous) Kim Il Sung statues, we saw no other kind of statue, with the exception of the royal tomb.”
Predictably, the depiction of modern Korean history was strongly affected by this campaign against alternative symbols. Kim Il Sung’s legitimacy was defined in competition with a wide range of earlier and contemporaneous politicians who were all committed to the cause of liberating Korea from Japanese rule: the leaders of the 1919 March First Movement, the interwar Korean Communist Party, his post-1945 intra-party rivals, the non-communist northern nationalists (like Cho Man-sik), and, above all, the South Korean state. Since his main asset was his involvement in the Manchurian guerrilla struggle, North Korean historiography had a strong stake in embellishing his nationalist credentials, and in downplaying the deeds of any anti-Japanese politician unassociated with his guerrilla group. As Andre Schmid put it in Korea between Empires, “In discounting the Patriotic Enlightenment Movement, the March First Movement, and the Shanghai provisional government, the DPRK rejects the nationalist pedigree of the very people whom Seoul has claimed for its own legitimizing purposes.”
For instance, the Modern History of Korea, a North Korean book published in 1979, did not mention the leaders of the 1919 March First Movement by name; instead, it declared that they “surrendered themselves to the Japanese police and preached non-resistance to the masses.” Those post-1919 individuals whom the book did occasionally mention by name were usually confined to the following two categories: loyal followers of Kim Il Sung, or demonized opponents. The subordination of earlier national heroes to the cult of Kim Il Sung would reach its culmination in the following declaration of Kim Jong Il: “The Great Leader is the first leader our people received and served throughout thousands of years of history.”
This selective depiction of national history was combined with the cultivation of a regional identity, that is, the implicit or explicit juxtaposition of northern and southern identities under the cloak of all-Korean nationalism. As early as 1953, the purge of Pak Honyong and other southern communists reinforced the position of those intellectuals who wanted to create a standard Korean language on the basis of the Pyongyang dialect, rather than the Seoul dialect. In 1966, Kim Il Sung emphatically declared that the DPRK’s new standard language should be clearly distinguished from the “mixed and impure” Seoul dialect. As Leonid Petrov pointed out, from the 1960s on North Korean historiography devoted increasing attention to the ancient Korean kingdom of Koguryo, whose territory had partly corresponded to that of the DPRK. Anxious to deprive the South Korean government of any historical legitimacy to unify the nation, North Korean historians claimed that Koguryo, rather than the southeastern Silla state, had been the oldest, strongest, most advanced, and most patriotic of the Three Kingdoms. They also stressed that northerners had been subjected to harsh socio-political discrimination under the Seoul-based Koryo and Joseon dynasties. During a conversation with Swiss entrepreneur Felix Abt, a professor of Kim Il Sung University expressed these views in a particularly straightforward way: “Unfortunately, the history of Korea is also a history of treason and betrayal of southerners against northerners!”
LINKING NATION TO STATE
Actually, the national symbols of the North Korean state were more conducive to distinguish the DPRK from the ROK than to express an all-Korean national identity. In 1945-1947, the modern Korean national flag (Taegukgi) was widely used both in the North and the South, but the establishment of the DPRK led to the creation of a new national flag radically different from the Taegukgi. Since then, the Taegukgi was no longer regarded by North Koreans as an all-Korean symbol but rather as an exclusively South Korean one, to the extent that the possession of a Taegukgi became a criminal offense. Similarly, North Korea’s national anthem, its state flower, and other national symbols are partly or completely different from their southern counterparts. Furthermore, the symbols of the DPRK state have been increasingly overshadowed by symbols exclusively associated with the Kim family. Played far less frequently than “The Song of General Kim Il Sung,” the national anthem has lost much of its former significance.
In comparison with Romania, there was only a very narrow intermediate sphere between the regime’s own specific imagery and those symbols that the authorities deemed hostile
In sum, the Workers Party of Korea leadership did not simply “link the state to the race”; it rather linked the nation to the North Korean state. That is, post-1967 North Korean propaganda created such an image of the Korean nation that could not be potentially juxtaposed to the DPRK state. Nor could the state be perceived as a secondary and superimposed entity vis-à-vis the primary entity, the nation. In effect, North Korea became “Kim Il Sung country” (Myers) and “Kim Il Sung nation” (Young Chul Cho). Any alternative source of legitimacy was rejected or downplayed. In comparison with Romania, there was only a very narrow intermediate sphere between the regime’s own specific imagery and those symbols that the authorities deemed hostile. This sphere did exist (North Korean historiography drew a largely favorable picture of the Sirhak Movement and the Tonghak uprising), but it lacked the powerful symbolism that the memory of the 19th-century nationalist movements occupied in Romanian popular consciousness. The secondary cults of pre-communist national heroes (which had once existed in North Korea, too) gradually disappeared. The Taegukgi, having lost its status as an all-Korean flag, became a symbol associated near-exclusively with the ROK. The DPRK’s anthem and flag, having been created together with the party-state, could not be effectively turned against the regime, and in any case, they were subordinated to the cult of the Kim family. Under such conditions, the North Korean population lacked alternative mobilization symbols akin to the ones that played a prominent role in the Romanian protests.
It was a combination of historical and political factors, rather than simply Kim Il Sung’s vainglory, that led to the emergence of this restrictive form of nationalism. First of all, the creation of the DPRK was not preceded by the long existence of a modern, non-communist nation-state in the same way as the Romanian nation-state had been established in 1859. The closest analogy to the latter process was the proclamation of the Great Han Empire (1897), but due to the utter weakness of the monarchical state, this event did not occupy a prominent role in the post-1945 Korean nationalist discourse. From the 1890s to 1945, Korean nationalism existed more as a resistance movement than as a state-building process. This background greatly facilitated Kim Il Sung’s efforts to create a tabula rasa. In Romania, the communist party seized power well after the creation of the non-communist nation-state, and its leadership became increasingly willing to present 1859 as a great achievement of the nation. In contrast, the establishment of the North Korean party-state was nearly simultaneous with liberation from Japanese rule, with no intermediate phase of multi-party elections and with no officially recognized precedent in the form of a “bourgeois” state.
Second, their competition with Seoul induced the North Korean leaders to develop a distinctive subnational identity for the North. These policies at least potentially shielded the DPRK from the influence of southern-based ethnic nationalism. By tracing back North Korea’s distinctiveness to ancient Koguryo, the regime’s propaganda presented it as a historically determined phenomenon, rather than as a feature exclusively linked to the DPRK. This narrative probably served the state’s interests more effectively than the East German definition of national identity. Until the late 1960s, the GDR was officially committed to the idea of all-German identity. For instance, both German states used the same national flag until 1959, and the GDR’s new flag merely superimposed the East German coat of arms upon the old tricolor. In 1971, however, the East German leadership switched to the position that a new socialist nation came into existence in the GDR. Predictably, this narrative could not override the population’s long-established all-German identity.
Third, North Korea’s dynastic succession process, intertwined with the purging of many anti-Japanese guerrillas, stimulated a trend to lay greater emphasis on the symbols of the Kim family than on the symbols of the nation-state. In a certain sense, this trend constituted a reversal of the post-1896 emergence of modern nationalist ideas, for the latter had implied a shift from patriotism based on loyalty to the king to a nationalism based on popular sovereignty. Since the ethnic definition of the nation remained the cornerstone of North Korean nationalism, this reversal was only partial, but it did contribute to the regime’s efforts to downplay the significance of pre-communist national heroes, all the more so because the glorification of Kim’s lineage was gradually extended back to the 19th century.
To be sure, the selective nature of North Korea’s state-sponsored nationalism was but one factor that hindered the emergence of a “Romanian scenario,” that is, the juxtaposition of national identity to the party-state. The element of external threat perceptions did play such a major role as Myers suggested, and in this respect, North Korea again differed from Ceauşescu’s Romania. Romania’s post-1968 security doctrine, shaped as it was by fears of a Soviet invasion, was largely invalidated by the collapse of the Soviet bloc. Under such circumstances, the Romanian cadres had good reason to think that the fall of their supreme leader and the end of one-party rule did not constitute a threat to the nation-state as such. Actually, their ability to retain at least a part of their influence was clearly demonstrated in the elections held in May 1990. In contrast, North Korea’s threat perceptions remained as strong as ever. From 1948 to the present, Pyongyang’s security doctrine has been consistently focused on South Korea and the U.S. For the WPK leaders, the survival of their one-party regime was inseparably intertwined with the survival of the DPRK as a state. On the one hand, any setback North Korea suffered in the international arena was regarded as a threat to its political system; on the other hand, a possible collapse of the regime was expected to lead to the complete dismantlement of the DPRK state.
Nevertheless, the peculiarities of North Korean nationalism deserve attention, because the highly selective cultivation of national traditions reveals that the top party leaders, strongly nationalist as they were, did not become captives of their own nationalist propaganda. This instrumental aspect of North Korean nationalism also manifested itself in other phenomena, such as the diplomatically motivated shifts in Pyongyang’s propaganda about the Dokdo dispute. For this reason, the regime’s long-term stability may not necessarily reflect a nationalism-based consensus between rulers and the ruled. Instead, it may be at least partly based on a “symbolic vacuum” in popular consciousness, that is, the scarcity of such deeply rooted, indigenous national symbols that could be juxtaposed to the regime’s own imagery, and whose mobilizing power would be strong enough to embolden people to defy the might of the Leviathan-state.
Main picture: Wikimedia Commons
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