Armed and Ludicrous - What are we looking at when we look at North Korea?

The semiotics of North Korea aren’t merely kitsch – they border on camp. They seem to play knowingly with our distinctions between real and unreal, serious and comic, authentic and artificial. It’s hard to imagine what other country could be a more suitable subject of Vice’s ongoing hipster diplomacy, or who else’s despotic leader could be the butt of jokes in 30 Rock, Team America: World Police and a slew of internet memes (most famously on the Tumblr “Kim Jong-il Looking at Things”). And yet, for all its cabaret absurdity, the DPRK’s “rogue” status – particularly the nuclear aspirations it is busily trying to realise – means that working out what’s real and what isn’t takes on a geopolitical significance.

The images of North Korea seen by the outside world tend to be mocked for their crude authoritarian fakery. According to the standard view, such propaganda tells us little about what is actually going on in the DPRK. But philosopher Amia Srinivasan, a Prize Fellow at All Souls, Oxford who writes on epistemology and ethics, argues against dismissing the Kim dynasty’s kitsch.

Five tiny doll-faced children plucking five full-sized guitars in eerie unison. A dazzling mosaic made up of 30,000 coloured cards held up by 30,000 choreographed schoolchildren. A towering bronze statue with neat rows of bowing subjects at its base. A scowling baby-faced leader in a canvas jacket, square-rimmed glasses and a crew-cut perm. A newscaster, wracked with sobs, announcing the leader’s death. His pudgy son, courtside with Dennis Rodman, laughing and thumping the barrier. A YouTube video of the US Capitol in flames, rendered in rudimentary CGI, the voiceover a triumphal screech.

The semiotics of North Korea aren’t merely kitsch – they border on camp. They seem to play knowingly with our distinctions between real and unreal, serious and comic, authentic and artificial. It’s hard to imagine what other country could be a more suitable subject of Vice’s ongoing hipster diplomacy, or who else’s despotic leader could be the butt of jokes in 30 Rock, Team America: World Police and a slew of internet memes (most famously on the Tumblr “Kim Jong-il Looking at Things”). And yet, for all its cabaret absurdity, the DPRK’s “rogue” status – particularly the nuclear aspirations it is busily trying to realise – means that working out what’s real and what isn’t takes on a geopolitical significance.

The unknowability of North Korea is a fixture in commentary on international politics: it is the world’s “most secretive state”, the “hermit kingdom”, “isolated” beyond diplomatic or epistemic penetration. The clichés imply a lack of information or data. But that isn’t the problem. Though heavily policed, North Korea’s borders are porous enough that thousands of defectors are able to leave each year and tell their stories of poverty, repression and concentration camps. In 2008, a joint venture between the Egyptian telecommunications company Orascom and the state-owned Korea Post and Telecommunications Corporation brought mobile phones to the country; Orascom reported in 2012 that there were more than a million North Korean users. And though it’s officially impossible to make foreign calls, phones near the border can pick up South Korea’s signal, allowing the exchange of news across the 38th parallel. YouTube is full of documentaries of North Korea, official and covert, showing the same rotation of images from supervised trips: visits to the showcase city of Pyongyang with extravagant feasts in empty halls; lights flickering on in buildings just as visitors drive by; smiling minders rehearsing anti-American diatribes; desolate country landscapes dotted with factories and drab hovels; “spontaneous” visits to happy and well-fed farming families. We see plenty of North Korea, we just don’t know how to interpret what we see: how to piece together the images we have into a coherent picture.

When did North Korea become so illegible? There was a time when westerners could view it as just another Soviet satellite, no more difficult to understand than anywhere else behind the Iron Curtain. It was formed at the end of the Second World War when the Korean peninsula, under Japanese imperial occupation since 1910, was divided along the 38th parallel in a deal brokered by the UN. The Americans occupied the south, the Soviets the north. Each side installed their preferred leader. The Americans picked Syngman Rhee, a political exile who had been living in the US for the previous three decades. They flew him in on General MacArthur’s private plane. The Soviets too wanted someone untainted by a history of Japanese collaboration, someone they could mould into a plausible nationalist leader. They settled on Kim Il-sung. Kim hadn’t actually been in the Pacific War – though according to official North Korean mythology, he won it almost single-handedly from a secret mountain base – but he had fought against the Japanese as a captain in Mao’s army a decade earlier. It was decided that he would do.

The Soviets cobbled together a Workers’ Party for Kim to lead, and brought the printing presses, publishing houses and radio stations under its control; the first state radio broadcast was of a mass rally in Pyongyang in celebration of the Soviet saviours. Collective farms were set up, and a political bureaucracy modelled on Stalin’s. A personality cult developed around Kim Il-sung, who was conveniently tall and handsome. There were candy-coloured posters of him with children or soldiers, bronze statues, a university in his name. Meanwhile, the South was under American military occupation. After three years, UN-monitored elections in 1948 led to the establishment of the Republic of Korea under Rhee. In angry response, Kim established the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea and the Soviets withdrew.

Two years later, Kim led a Soviet-financed attempt at forced reunification, starting with a surprise attack over the border. The Korean War, between the North, with its Soviet and Chinese patrons, and the South, with its American occupier-allies, ended in an armistice agreement – but no peace treaty – in 1953. The border between North and South remains where it was; the Korean “demilitarised zone” is the most heavily militarised border in the world. The iconography of the border, in fact, is its own subject. On the southern side of the Joint Security Area, South Korean and American soldiers face forward in a row, towards North Korea. The North Korean soldiers opposite are arranged not in a row but a triangle, as in a Mexican stand-off, in case any one of them tries to defect. When the South Korean soldiers open the door to the joint conference room, they link their arms in a daisy chain so no one gets pulled over to the North.

After the war, North Korea became the most remote outpost of the eastern bloc, hostile to Soviet interference, though still dependent on its economic aid. Kim Il-sung was no intellectual, but he vied for academic prestige with Mao nevertheless, ordering his propagandists to write vaguely Marxist texts in his name, from which the state’s official ideology – juche (“self-reliance”) – emerged. When Moscow complained about North Korea’s method of agricultural collectivisation, Kim carried on regardless. Soviet plays were no longer performed in Pyongyang. The official record denied that the Soviets had had any role in the war; all victories against the “American bastards” were home-grown. Whatever spirit of international proletarian struggle there might have been before quickly waned; eastern Europeans and Cubans reported suffering xenophobic attacks on visits to the increasingly paranoid DPRK.

Kim’s personality cult grew. Every home in North Korea had only two pictures on its wall – one of Kim Il-sung, the Great Leader, and another of his (inconveniently unattractive) son and heir Kim Jong-il, the eventual Dear Leader. Random inspections by local authorities would ensure that the pictures were properly dusted. When Kim Il-sung died in 1994, the nation was plunged into extravagant mourning: crowds of adults and children gathered around all 34,000 of his statues, prostrating themselves and wailing. State TV projected countless images of the outpouring, creating a mirrored spectacle of grief: mourners watching themselves mourn. (The same ritual was repeated two years ago after the death of Kim Jong-il.)

The death of the Great Leader and his replacement by Kim Jong-il coincided with economic crisis. Though the country enjoyed a decent quality of life in the decades immediately following the Korean War (stable growth, free housing and medical care, increased gender equality), the collapse of its patron the Soviet Union in 1991, along with severe floods, plunged North Korea into darkness and hunger. From this era a new set of images emerged, many from defectors in search of food across the border with north-east China: corpses piled up in train stations; emaciated children; hospitals without medicine; prison camps for people found trying to escape; public executions of those caught stripping defunct factories; cannibalism; the shadow capitalism of black markets and prostitution. The propaganda posters of this era are of the younger Kim’s visits to inspect the army: they signal the new ultra-militarist character of the state and offer a tacit justification for why the population was being allowed to starve. Estimates of the number who died in the famine range between 600,000 and four million. North Koreans are today on average six inches shorter than their Southern relatives.

READ ENTIRE ARTICLE HERE: http://tankmagazine.com/issue-59/fronting/armed-and-ludicrous

Print this post

Do you like this post?

Add your reaction to this article