N. Korea escalates 'cult of Kim' to counter West's influence
In a time of famine and poverty, nearly 40 percent of the country's budget is spent on Kim-family deification.
SEOUL, SOUTH KOREA — North Koreans are taught to worship Kim Jong Il as a god. In a manner unique among nations, the North exerts extraordinary control through deification – a cult ideology of complete subservience – that goes beyond the "Stalinist" label often used to describe the newly nuclear North.
While outsiders can see film clips of huge festivals honoring Mr. Kim, the extraordinary degree of cult worship is not well known, nor that programs promoting the ideology of Kim are growing, according to refugees, diplomats, and others who have visited the Hermit Kingdom.
In fact, in a time of famine and poverty, government spending on Kim-family deification – now nearly 40 percent of the visible budget – is the only category in the North's budget to increase, according to a new white paper by the Korea Institute for International Economic Policy in Seoul. It is rising even as defense, welfare, and bureaucracy spending has decreased. The increase pays for ideology schools, some 30,000 Kim monuments, gymnastic festivals, films and books, billboards and murals, 40,000 "research institutes," historical sites, rock carvings, circus theaters, training programs, and other worship events.
In 1990, ideology was 19 percent of North Korea's budget; by 2004 it doubled to at least 38.5 percent of state spending, according to the white paper. This extra financing may come from recent budget offsets caused by the shutting down of older state funding categories, says Alexander Mansourov of the Asia Pacific Center for Security Studies in Honolulu.
It has long been axiomatic that the main danger to the Kim regime is internal unrest. That is, Koreans will discover the freedoms, glitter, and diversity of the modern outside world, and stop believing the story of idolatry they are awash in. "It isn't quite realized [in the West] how much a threat the penetration of ideas means. They [Kim's regime] see it as a social problem that could bring down the state," says Brian Myers, a North Korean expert at Dongseo University in Busan, South Korea.
Since the poverty and famine of the late 1990s, everything from CDs and videos, South Korean radio, and cellphone signals from China, new styles and products, and new commercial habits have seeped in, mostly across the Chinese border, in a way that might be called "soft globalization." Such flows feed a new underground system of private business, information, bribery, and trade that exists outside the strict party-state discipline and rules.
Yet rather than accept such penetration as an inexorable threat, Kim is putting up a serious fight to slow and counter it – by increasing his program of cult-worship.
Like a computer software firm updating program versions, the North is steadily updating its ideology to make it relevant. This practice of mass control by in-your-face ideology has been laughed off in much of the world, including China. But North Korea is increasing its ideological cult worship. The scope of the current project outdoes even the cult of personality during Mao's Cultural Revolution, according to a 2005 doctoral dissertation by Lee Jong Heon at Chung-Ang University in Seoul. Mr. Lee visited North Korea several times for his research.
After the Oct. 9 nuclear test, for example, banners sprang up over North Korea stating "We are a country with a nuclear deterrent." Kim's test feeds a national pride that is part of the propaganda drilled into Koreans from birth: that Kim alone can fend off the US and Japanese enemies. A US diplomat in Asia says such pride may prohibit Kim from giving up his nuclear program in the current "six party talks" – and those talks stalled again in late December in Beijing.
"The cult of personality campaign is more extensive today than in 1985," says former South Korean foreign minister Han Sung Joo, who visited Pyongyang this past October, and in 1985. "Unlike the Stalin and Mao personality cults, there is a deification and a religious emotional element in the North. The twinned photos of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il are everywhere. Every speech says Kim Il Sung is still alive. I think if I stayed another two weeks, I might even see Kim Il Sung. The country worships someone who is deceased, as if he is alive."
Kim Jong Il has upgraded his deification strategies to strengthen the family cult system. Western reports often detail Korea's unique "juche ideology" – a theology of Kim worship, repeated hourly and daily, reminding Koreans they are insolubly bound to the Kim family and must erase foreign influence from their minds.
Yet juche is a subcategory of a far more encompassing umbrella of deification known as woo sang hwa, or idol worship. In North Korea, woo sang hwa contains all the aspects of cult worship. Kim broke away from orthodox communism, for example, in a program called "our style socialism." While Marxism-Leninism demands fealty to "nation," "party," and "serving the people" – Kim's "our style [Korean] socialism" does no such thing. It makes "family loyalty," with Kim at the head, the supreme good – a major deflection from communism.
During the late 1990s famine, a "Red Banner" campaign for unconditional loyalty and harder toil began. Then came "Kangsong Taeguk" in the late 1990s – a project to push economic and military ideology. This project culminated in the 1998 Taepodong-1 rocket launches, which thrilled North Koreans, frightened Japan, and started a whole new military mindset in Tokyo.
The North uses "ideology rather than physical control," Lee says, whenever possible. The current variation of the program is called "military first." It is intended to bolster North Korea's nuclear efforts. Military First started as a campaign to support juche, and as a slogan designed to remind Koreans that the nation is at war. It came packaged with a rallying cry called "dare to die," say refugees and Kim experts. (There's a dare-to-die pop song, and a dare-to-die movie. Recent internal memos brought by defectors indicate "dare to die" is urged on local officials due to a feeling in Pyongyang that young people aren't showing enough zeal to make such a dare.)
Yet Military First may now be a tool for evolving a significant structural change – a new ruling elite in day-to-day affairs. For years, the North Korean state was ruled by the workers' party. Under Kim Il Sung the party was the driving force in Korea – the main route to achievement and pay. Everyone wanted to join. (Party members in China and Vietnam are 5 percent of the population; a 1998 Korean Central report put Korea's membership at 5 million, or 22 percent, though it may be lower.)
"The outcome of the Military First policy replaces the workers as a main force," says Haiksoon Paik, a North Korean specialist at the Sejong Institute outside Seoul. "North Korea's party has not been functioning as well as it is supposed to ... several positions in the Politburo have not been reappointed. Kim is not depending on the party, but a smaller more streamlined military apparatus. This is due to his politics as a result of the nuclear crisis brought by the Americans."
"Military First is not aimed at building up the military, which is already quite built up and strong," says Lee, whose dissertation is titled, "A Political Economic Analysis of the North Korean Regime." "It is about replacing the old party – First Rice – structure of senior Kim. If the party is unwieldy, the military will control the people on behalf of the leader."
Tellingly, on New Year's Day, Kim Jong Il visited the shrine where his father was interred. He has gone there only four times since he came to power in 1995. Each visit has taken place in a year following major accomplishments. According to South Korean media, for the first time, Kim visited the shrine without party or government officials. This time, only key military officials were in attendance. On Tuesday, North Korean papers heralded the visit, and the Oct. 9 nuclear tests as "an auspicious event in the national history."
Kim-worship in the North is a vivid – and inescapable – spectacle to behold, say visitors. Thousands of giant "towers of eternality" to Kim scatter the landscape. Special "Kimjongilia" crimson begonias are tended in family gardens. Kim's media calls him variously the "Guardian Deity of the Planet," and "Lodestar of the 21st Century." In 2002, Korean mass dances known as Arirang, featured 100,000 flag wavers (and was described in state media as the "greatest event of humankind.") Many loyal Koreans bow twice daily to Kim pictures that sit alone on the most prominent wall of their homes.
Perhaps the most misunderstood aspect of the Korean cult project is its recent veering toward race and ethnic solidarity, say Kim watchers. His main appeal to his people today, a push that rarely gets attention outside the North, is to the racial superiority of a people whose isolation and stubborn xenophobia supposedly makes their bloodlines purer. Mr. Myers notes that festivals of 100,000 flag wavers is not a Stalinist exercise, but a celebration of "ethnic homogeneity." Since the 1990s Kim has more fervently claimed lineage to the first ancient rulers of Korea, a move intended to place him in a position of historical, if not divine, destiny as leader of the peninsula.
• Next: How smart is Kim Jong Il?