9 January 2012 North Korea celebrated its new leader Kim Jung eun’s 28 or 29 or 30 birthday hardly a week after the entombment of his father Kim Jung il.
The celebration was more a manifestation of the seamless transition of power than an explosive demonstration of the popular will.
Kim’s birthday gave his critics in the west another opportunity to ‘belittle’ North Korea, the extravagant stories of the ‘Young General’s’ mental and physical prowess notwithstanding, which leave him open to ridicule.
Surprisingly BR Myers, author of the ‘Cleanest Race: how North Koreans themselves–and why it matters’, in an opinion piece in Sunday’s ‘New York Times’ took the ‘West’ to taks for ‘continu[ing] paying … little attention to North Korean ideology’ like he does. In fact, Myers spent eight years reading anything he could lay his hands on coming out in the DPRK. After close and diligent examination of text, he differs radically from the ‘comic relief’ the birthday offers his colleagues in the press and in scholarly circles.
For the director of the international studies department at Busan’s Dongsoo University, the germ of North Korea’s dynastic succession lies not in Korean history but a slavish knockoff of aggressive Imperial Japanese pre world war two militarism and colonialism exemplified in the figure of Hirohito.
Such an interpretation is patently absurd in the light of the DPRK’s 80 year struggle against Japanese militarism and mating of US UN led and South Korean forces during the 1950 Korean War. North Korea is a hyper nationalist state which prefers its own way and independence before submitting to foreign domination.
In the ‘subdued’ blaze of pageantry of Kim Jung eun’s birthday, we see not only cultural misunderstanding but a misreading of Korean history. The birthday fanfare is understandable in the North Korean context, so that leadership would not be made or unmade by disputing cliques in the party backed up by factions in the army. Instead, in the Asiatic mode, the leader was set apart, made ‘holy’ in the eyes of his people by awe inspiring rituals, thereby reducing the temptation of factions within the party and the army to treat the ‘Dear Leader’ with facile contempt. Little wonder, the ‘loss at sea’ and the simplistic and crude mockery. How else could they explain the awe in the faces of the North Koreans or the Max Reinhardt like theatricality of the event?
Furthermore, since his choice of his third son to succeed him, Kim Jong il did impose his will on the party and the army and the core cadre to support Kim Jung eun. Consequently, the easy succession on Kim’s death that so stunned the US and the ROK.
Washington and Seoul are fingering worry beads that Kim Jung eun will engage in military adventurism to firmly secure his leadership. Is that the right question to ask? Maybe. Yet the record shows that North Korea responds defensively to threats from joint US ROK military exercises on the edge of its territorial waters.
2012 is year 20 of ROK China recognition. Lee Myung bak is in Beijing on an official business, the Chinese wont lift a finger to box in North Korea, its neighbour and ally, unless Lee is willing to compromise: which is unlikely. Timothy Geithner will shortly land in the Chinese capital for the same reason; he will get absolutely nowhere, the more especially in the light of the new Obama military doctrine which draws a bead on China itself.
Again, the making fun of Kim Jung eun’s birthday is yet another example of the US North Korean clerisy shortsightedness–they take the tree for the forest. As such, they have to go back to school to relearn history.