Late last month, during talks with North Korean official Kim Yong Chol in Washington, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo tweeted: “POTUS has made it clear that if Kim Jong-un denuclearizes, there is a brighter path for #DPRK. We envision a strong, connected, secure, and prosperous #NorthKorea that maintains its cultural heritage but is integrated into the community of nations.”
While the need for North Korea to denuclearize is nothing new in U.S policy towards Pyongyang, Pompeo’s turn of phrase that the country could maintain its “cultural heritage” is curious.
So what exactly is North Korea’s cultural heritage?
Besides a ruthless police state, an all-powerful personality cult, and ever-present propaganda apparatus, does the DPRK have a cultural heritage distinct from the one it shares with its southern neighbor?
During the Kim Jong Il era, numerous historians of the DPRK, chiefly Bruce Cumings and his many advisees, claimed that the DPRK was a neo-Confucian state. As Cumings once put it, North Korean’s corporatist system is “Neo-Confucianism in a communist bottle.”
It is harder to claim that North Korea is a neo-Confucian state these days. Led by a 34-year-old youngster that enjoys watching hoops with his American friend Dennis Rodman and with propaganda filled with disdain for traditional hierarchies, this is not a society that reveres the old over the new.
Additionally, as Peter Ward has pointed out, the North Korean state had no issues in the past mobilizing the elderly for work-related purposes.
In a 1987 speech, Kim Il Sung said, “We need to get a workforce for coastal fish farming… It would be good if the workforce be made up of 30% young-to-middle aged workers, with the other 70% being the old, social insurance recipients, and the infirm. There are going to be people who are too old or weak to work in jobs like mining. It’d be good to put them to work in coastal fish farming… It’s not a hard job…” This lack of respect for the welfare of the elderly is completely at odds with Confucian values, which stresses filial piety.
It is also hard to see where the distinctly Korean cultural concept of ancestor worship comes into play in present-day North Korea. Although still widely practiced south of the DMZ, the North claims ancestor worship as a remnant of Korea’s “feudal” past and banned the practice during the Cold War era.
North Korean culture primarily revolves around the Kim family personality cult. From students participating in the Mass Games to learning the revolutionary history of Kim Il Sung in schools, North Korean culture and the Kim family’s history are inseparable.
North Koreans’ love for singing almost always has an ideological element to it as well. Although North Koreans’ penchant for Celine Dion’s “My Heart Will Go On” is well documented, one is much more likely to hear a rendition of the “Song of General Kim Il Sung” or “Footsteps” north of Panmunjom.
It seems unlikely Pompeo had kimchi on the mind when he mentioned North Korea’s “cultural heritage”
Additionally, required attendance at regularly held self-criticism sessions and Party meetings is a distinctly communist relic that North Korea still adheres to. It is no wonder that many North Korean defectors express their relief that they will never have to attend another self-criticism session again.
The widespread forced participation in military life and events is also a distinctly North Korean phenomenon. With an estimated 6.5 million North Koreans in the military, virtually every citizen in the DPRK has some kind of linkage to the vast military-industrial complex.
One is much more likely to see a soldier walking on the streets of Pyongyang than a book-carrying university student. Militarism in North Korean culture is ubiquitous, a far cry from the education-focused Confucian society of Choson-era Korea.
Food, an important part of any nation’s cultural legacy, has a uniquely Russian influence north of the 38th parallel. With the use of heavy dressings in salads to a seasoned carrot side dish known only to many ethnic Koreans in the former Soviet Union, North Korea’s food culture is albeit Korean but with a Russian flare.
But it seems unlikely Pompeo had kimchi on the mind when he mentioned North Korea’s “cultural heritage.” What he meant was most likely a euphemism for the continuation of the Kim family regime and its many levers of powers within the DPRK. From its personality cult to its stranglehold on North Korean politics, the DPRK’s “cultural heritage,” as Pompeo meant it, is the Kim family regime’s system.
North Korean culture, as Pompeo most likely views it, is Kimism. The leadership in Pyongyang most likely understood Pompeo’s careful phrasing and appreciated Washington’s rhetorical concessions to allow the continuation of its brutal system.
They’d prefer to keep their nukes too.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
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Featured Image: by nknews_hq on 2018-01-10 23:10:36