North Korea is the Kim dynasty, and vice versa. It is almost impossible to separate the history of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea from that of the bloodline of the family monarchy which has governed the state north of the thirty-eighth parallel since its foundation in 1948.
Kim Il Sung’s Founding
This bloodline was inaugurated by the dynasty’s founder Kim Il-Sung (1912-1994). He created a political cult around his family’s political ideology and the veneration of it. It is permeated by an atmosphere of religiosity and fanaticism.
After liberation from Japanese rule and the division of the Korean peninsula into the two states that exist today, Kim Il-sung, a long-standing fighter against Japanese occupation, was a leader capable of wisely positioning North Korea among the network of socialist countries but with a strategic positioning that made it possible to operate with autonomy.
The political nature of the creation of North Korea — the offspring of the Cold War like its neighbor and rival to the south — made it necessary for Kim to establish a legitimacy that extended beyond the military’s loyalty. The proposal to unify the peninsula under the Korean socialist flag became expedient rhetoric after the Korean War of 1950-1953.
Unique Communist Experiment
The North Korea of the Kims, in fact, defined itself as a communist experiment in its own right. On the one hand, as the only socialist country governed by a hereditary family monarchy; on the other, most of all, for the extremely precise ideological detail that legitimizes the Kim leadership. It is not only a personality cult fueled by North Korean propaganda and Pyongyang’s supporting infrastructures under the leading family, but a real people’s religion.
The principle of “suryong”, the unavoidable need to have a strong and charismatic man at the helm of the state to build order and harmony, is central to the Juche ideology, the theoretical and political construct that North Korea has made its cornerstone. Conceived as a theory of Kim Il-sung and cloaked in socialist rhetoric, Juche is a profoundly Korean ideology and, since its launch in 1955, it has taken the form of cultural, social, and even geopolitical doctrine. The only Italian group studying the Juche reports on its official website that North Korea holds “an unchangeable policy of the Government of the Republic, driven by the Idea of the Juche, to treasure the Juche type character and national identity, to preserve and fully realize them.”
The three key principles of the political constitution of the Juche are the jaju (literally “independence”), which preaches the decision-making autonomy of the country, the jawi (“self-defense”), which is central in emphasizing the role of the armed forces in the construction of the State, and the jarip (“self-sufficiency”), which enhances the self-sufficient economic capacity of the state.
This is part of a hyper-nationalist construct that has the supreme leader at its core: Kim Il-sung (1948-1994), Kim Jong-il (1994-2011) and now Kim Jong-un (2011-present), who have taken the lead in consolidating the scope of application of the doctrine and in embodying it first-hand.
The ‘Deification’ of the First Two Kims
Like any royal lineage, even more so as inhabitants of an area as rich in history as East Asia, the Kims have built an epic family history by investing Kim Bo-hyon, Kim Il-sung’s paternal grandfather, and his son Kim Hyong-jik, with a pedigree as anti-colonial fighters, and linking their name to that of a sacred place for the entire Korean people, Mount Paektu. Paektu is a 2,744-meter volcano that has been dormant for over a century, from which flows the Yalu River. This is the river that has served as border between the Korean culture and states and the Chinese civilization, and which is revered throughout the peninsula as a spiritual home for the Korean people.
According to a legend handed down in the “Hermit Kingdom” for decades, in 1942 Kim Jong-il, son of Kim Il-sung, was born on Mount Paektu while a bright star shone in the sky and a miraculous double rainbow could be seen. The Soviet state archives, more prosaically, claim that the second Kim was actually born the previous year in the military camp of Khabarovsk, in Siberia, but the poetic link between the dynasty and the symbolic heart of Korea covers both the spiritual as well as the civil aspect of the structure based on the Juche ideology and the Kim personality cult.
The link between humanity and the perceived transcendental nature of the North Korean leaders is probably unprecedented in world history, so much so that Pyongyang has created an institutional role in its Constitution for the two deceased Kims. Since 1994, Kim Il-sung has officially been “Eternal President of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea”, while in 2012 his son Kim Jong-il was proclaimed by Kim Jong-un “Eternal General Secretary of the Worker’s Party of Korea.”
The remains of the two leaders lie at the Kumsusan Palace of the Sun, the former presidential residence converted into a mausoleum. Both sacred and profane, the leaders’ bodies are displayed as relics, while the recording of their names among the “eternal” figures of North Korea formalizes the overlap between the people, the nation, its ideology and its leadership cult. Throne and altar together: for a country that officially professes state atheism it’s not a small achievement.
The Third Kim
Kim Jong-un, who ascended to power at a young age and has, over the years, carried out a gradual consolidation of power, bears the weight of a consolidated political, ideological and cultural history linked to the name of his predecessors. The entire Kim family today wears a cloak of political sacredness, and any movement outside its perimeter is simply unthinkable.
Precisely for this reason, worrying reports on the health of the young leader have alarmed experts on North Korea. This is because in the case of the two transitions, in 1994 and 2011, the Kim in power died after having already set out institutional practices and the “liturgy” of succession, while Kim Jong-un has not yet done this, and a disordered transition is unthinkable for the country.
The North Korean leader is a political, military, ideological and religious leader. The “Hermit Kingdom” of the Kims has carried out an experiment never attempted elsewhere in post-war history, in managing to invent tradition. Today this tradition justifies the narrative of Kim’s leadership and remains fundamental in the country’s day-to-day balance of power. And we should not be surprised if it is a new horse ride by Kim Jong-un up to the sacred Mount Paektu, after that which he did last winter, to herald his return to the scene after his absence over the last few weeks.