The leadership of North Korea is poorly understood in Western political discourse. Kim Jong Un and his predecessors are vilified, mocked and dismissed with the usual western buzzwords of “dictator”, “brutal”, “despot”, “madman” and so on. When faced with the observation that many people in North Korea happen to revere the leadership, again westerners dismiss it as “propaganda”, “an act”, “brainwashing” or so on, as the average western assumes it is impossible they can be in any way legitimate. But this simplistic and highly misleading. At Visit North Korea, we are an educational organisation, we believe in utilizing critical thinking to challenge the way people think about the world. Without making a judgement on the moral character of these leaders (which is not what this article is doing), the loaded terms and assumptions above ultimately reflect a poor understanding of North Korea’s history, politics and culture. Thus today, we will explain why North Koreans revere the leadership of their state the way they do.
Korea is a not western country. That speaks for both Koreas. Neither share the West’s normative foundations of evangelical liberal universalism. Although the political and economic circumstances of North and South Korea have diverged massively, they both share a common philosophical tradition in how they think about society and people. This is known as Confucianism. It is a tradition which dominated Korea officially for millennia. Unlike standard liberalism, which emphasizes human beings as individualistic and fundamentally equal, Confucian thinking is atomistic. In Confucianism, humans are not equal but they exist within a network of hierarchical social relationships. Traditional Confucian thought emphasizes five in particular, they are: subject to ruler, husband to wife (it was of course patriarchal), younger to elder and father to son. Strong piety is to be exercised in each relationship accordingly. Elements of this tradition persists in both Koreas today. Of course, for the interests of this article we will stick to the “subject to ruler” relationship. The point is though, Korean is hierarchic. There is a strong emphasis on social roles and compliance and respect towards authority.
With this emphasis on roles and obedience to authority, Confucianism also went further. It taught that leaders must rule “benevolently”; That leaders sustain their roles through moral excellence and brilliance, leading primarily by example and teaching. The state in Confucianism is therefore interventionist, it is inherently paternalistic. This is the point where the North Korean leadership comes into the equation. As much as North Korea is a state that was built in the model of Stalinism, Korean Historian Bruce Cummings notes that the North Korean system essentially blended with pre-modern Confucian traditions, with the themes of “benevolent leadership” and “filial piety” being mixed with Marxist-Leninism, post-colonialism and revolutionary socialism.
With this, Kim Il Sung, the first leader of North Korea, was therefore not understood as a “Stalinist despot” as the way the west might argue, but rather a “benevolent leader” and a father figure, placed in the context of a socialist nation state. North Korea is a family. As with his successors, many North Koreans therefore feel a sense of piety, devotion and connection to the leaders. Influenced by this thinking, leaders of North Korea seek to appear “benevolent” and “virtuous”, seeking to guide and therefore educate the people with their thought. The constant talk of their achievements and acts by North Korean media is therefore not simply glorifying them for the sake of glorifying them, but because these things are what generates political legitimacy in Korean tradition. Many of the public behaviours towards the Kims, such as bowing and giving flowers, are simply manifestations of Korean customs. Koreans traditionally bow to their superiors, as well as giving flowers for appreciating one’s deeds and achievements. Thus, personality cult of the Kims is not parallel to that of Stalin or similar leaders (although there are obviously, some parallels to Mao). Those cults emphasize strength, this one emphasizes moral excellence and achievement. Therefore, the Kims are not revered in North Korea not only people are forced to do so, but because many people genuinely believe in their exemplary deeds and service to the Korean nation as a whole. Therefore, many believe it is their duty to obey. Thus, when North Korea gets offended by the mocking or insulting of Kim Jong Un, it is not because “they hate our values and freedom of speech” but because it is the literal equivalent of insulting one’s family name, a big deal in Asian culture.
With obedience and piety as political obligations in North Korea, it is therefore misleading to simplify reverence of the Kims as the product of pure force or coercion. The situation is more complex and it is steeped in anthropological and social nuances which are poorly understood outside of Asia. This does not mean of course North Koreans do not have doubts or criticisms, but it means the social role of those elements matter less in the bigger picture than what they do in the West. For them, it is about loyalty. Ultimately, the fact that North Korea has had less exposure to Western cultural influences than the South, as well as being aligned against “the west” and a relative state of isolation, has preserved traditional thinking and social relationships to the point they have uniquely influenced politics. Kim Jong Un himself should not be characterized as a “madman” simply playing these people for fools, he himself is a constrained component of this social order pressed by the obligations placed upon him by his father, whom as a Korean, must be intrinsically loyal towards.