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View more articles by Wang Son-taek
Wang Son-taek is diplomatic correspondent for South Korea's YTN news network and one of the country's leading journalists on North Korea and diplomatic affairs.
Views expressed in Opinion articles are exclusively the authors’ own and do not represent those of NK News.
Recent photos of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un sitting on a white horse atop Mount Paektu were extraordinary for many reasons.
One reason why is that they provide significant clues in understanding what kind of state North Korea is, and how Kim Jong Un understands his own legitimacy as a ruler.
A leader’s legitimacy to rule is important because it may influence the nation’s political system. According to Max Weber, there are three types of legitimacy: charismatic, traditional, and legal. Chairman Kim falls into the “traditional” category, since he is the son and grandson of the former leaders, Kim Jong Il and Kim Il Sung.
Leaders with traditional legitimacy typically inherit their rule as the descendants of a charismatic founding father. They usually don’t have to worry much about their legitimacy, as long as they stay within the charismatic founding father of the nation’s original policy guidelines.
Chairman Kim’s legitimacy has been stable since he became supreme leader in December 2011, partly because his power structure is extremely strong, and also because his policies have not differed substantially from his grandfather’s.
However, last week’s photos and accompanying article about his horse-riding trip suggest a shift is taking place, and included many charismatic as well as traditional leadership-type traits.
A combination of the two types is possible and not at all risky. However, it could be a problem if a shift from one to the other happens suddenly without any explanation. There are some sudden changes evident in these photos, so they’re worth taking a look at.
MESSAGES BEHIND THE SYMBOLISM
The photos are full of symbolism, the most prominent of which perhaps being the color white.
The horse and the mountain are white, and Mount Paektu means “white head” in Korean. Whiteness represents sanctity, and this mountain is sacred to the Korean people.
The mountain is especially sacred to North Koreans in particular, however, because, according to state propaganda, it was the site of the first supreme leader Kim Il Sung’s base camp during his revolutionary fight for Korean independence from Japanese occupation.
North Korea wants to stress that Chairman Kim is a sacred man and the master of this sacred mountain, clearly.
The horse itself symbolizes power and shows that Chairman Kim himself is a powerful man, the only man to lead the country. According to North Korean logic, the country became powerful due to the nuclear weapons that were developed thanks to his efforts and leadership.
The stars on the bridle and breastplate of his and his sister Kim Yo Jong’s horses symbolize nobility, suggesting that he and his sister are descendants of a noble family.
And the top of Mount Paektu, the highest mountain in the Korean peninsula, symbolizes ultimate victory. Kim Jong Un is shown to be the absolute winner of all battles.
The wind and snow can be seen as representing the obstacles the North Korean leader has had to face — he’s been on the receiving end of sanctions and pressure from outside the country, and economic problems and factionalism from within.
These difficulties, however, have all been overcome by the North Korean leader.
There was some hidden symbolism too. The picture where Chairman Kim is looking contemplative suggests that he is thinking ahead about the many troubles that lie ahead, and is preparing a new strategy to win in the final battle. He has faced many difficulties over the course of his revolutionary struggles, but the fight that will result in that final, glorious moment has not yet finished.
North Korea wants to stress that Chairman Kim is a sacred man and the master of this sacred mountain
To sum up: Kim is a sacred and noble man. The nation has endured much agony from outside attacks and internal schism.
Imperial Japan was indeed driven out thanks to the leadership of Kim Il Sung, yes, but there are new, stronger attacks coming from the U.S. But Chairman Kim has developed the perfect defense measure with his nuclear weapons.
However, the revolutionary march is not over yet. There will be one last big struggle on the road to becoming a prosperous nation. And North Korea will win this fight, because they have the wonderful leader Kim Jong Un on their side.
The only thing left is for the North Korean people to fully submit to his leadership.
This kind of North Korean narrative of their leader may seem familiar, but there are a few changes compared to before.
The photos suggest that Chairman Kim is the most dominant North Korean leader, even more powerful than the original charismatic leader, Kim Il Sung.
They can be interpreted as him having exceeded his grandfather’s level of performance, as if the photos are telling us that he has a charisma all of his own.
But there are still elements of his traditional leadership legitimacy on display, meaning that Chairman Kim’s new type of legitimacy is a combination of these traditional and charismatic elements.
However, Kim’s traditional legitimacy in relation to his father, Kim Jong Il, has been considerably weakened, if not erased.
When he visited the Mount Kumgang tourist area several days later the Mount Paektu trip, he criticized the project’s previous leadership for having relied too much on cooperation with South Korea and denounced the project as a mess.
Who was leader during the previous Kumgang tourism project? None other than Kim Jong Il, who gave permission for the project to a South Korean businessman around 20 years ago in return for receiving a large sum of money, probably around four hundred million dollars.
The photos imply that Chairman Kim is the most dominant North Korean leader, even more powerful than the original charismatic leader, Kim Il Sung
Kim’s white horse photo-shoot was probably planned for a couple of reasons.
First, North Korea is preparing to announce its achievement of the five-year national economic development strategy next year. The victory ceremony will likely go along well with the 75th anniversary of the Worker’s Party of Korea on October 10.
Secondly, they are preparing for Kim’s 2020 new year’s speech in two months. This address will include positive indicators for the success of the 2016 development plan.
Thirdly, they are preparing their options for negotiations with the U.S. If North Korea does succeed in squeezing concessions from the U.S. in these talks, Pyongyang will be able to portray it as a victory over the country’s old enemy. If they fail, they can say that North Korea did not give in and that they will instead live by their own policy of self-reliance.
According to Weber, there is no example of one pure type of legitimacy in the real world. The three types of legitimacy always coexist to some extent.
Before Chairman Kim’s legitimacy shift, his ratios would look something like 70% traditional, 20% charismatic, and 10% legal. Now, it’s more like 50% charismatic, 40% traditional, and 10% legal.
Troubles can arise from sudden changes in legitimacy. If there are changes, there must be an explanation given to the people. Without one, they can’t understand the new type of legitimacy and can’t obey the leadership properly.
The people have obeyed Kim Jong Un until now because he has done his best to follow the guidelines set by the original charismatic leader, Kim Il Sung, and his successor, Kim Jong Il.
If Chairman Kim changes his legitimacy type, it could be seen as a policy differing from the original guidelines.
The photos and article about his horse riding display many charismatic as well as traditional leadership traits
If Chairman Kim maintains his current type of legitimacy and tries to follow traditional policy lines, the people of North Korea will not demand more results in policy from him. What he should do is to continue to fight against the U.S.’s imperialist interventions.
However, he’s making the shift towards being a charismatic leader. Unlike traditional leaders, charismatic leaders should display extraordinary capabilities in enforcing people’s obedience, or in getting people to follow them voluntarily.
Charismatic leaders should also periodically remind people of their invincibility or attractiveness. This means that Chairman Kim should prove that he is extraordinarily capable at bringing safety and prosperity to the people.
However, it’s looking like it will be difficult for him to do this. His reputation could take a hit if negotiations with the U.S. do not go well.
Edited by James Fretwell and Oliver Hotham
Featured image: KCNA