Daily Archives: 14 February 2005

North Korean Recipe for a Personality Cult

The Kim cult combined images of Confucian familism with Stalinism, elements of Japanese emperor worship, and overtones of Christianity. Confucian familism, and particularly the virtue of filial piety (hyo), was perhaps the most distinctly Korean element of this “cult.” Kim’s revolutionary family background was frequently stressed in the propaganda literature, focusing especially on his father, who was a member of an anti-Japanese nationalist organization when Kim was a child. Thus, Kim Il Sung was a filial son (hyoja), perhaps the most revered virtue in Confucian Korea, carrying on his father’s legacy. Of course, the precedent of Stalinism played a role in this cult formation, and the term suryông itself seems to have been used as a translation of Stalin’s title vozhd’ (“chief”). But suryông had a deep resonance in Korean history, going back to the tribal chieftains of Koguryo, and was a term of great respect for political leaders in postliberation Korea, including Yô Unhyông and Pak Hônyông in the South (before Pak became a subordinate of Kim’s). The use of suryông for Kim Il Sung began shortly before the DPRK was founded, and it became his main title after the mid-1960s.

As for the Japanese cult of the emperor, the frequent use of the image of the sun as a metaphor for Kim Il Sung, especially as the “sun of the nation” (minjogûi t’aeyang), seems a deliberate reversal of the sun-image of the Japanese emperor, in whose direction Koreans had been forced to bow as colonial subjects. The benevolent, fatherly, but awesomely powerful image of the sun-god was North Korea’s answer to the foreign god of the Japanese–our sun (uriûi t’aeyang), as the novelist Han Sôrya described Kim in the first recorded use of this appellation, in 1946. Finally, Christian imagery appears in the early hagiography of writers like Han Chaedôk, who wrote in 1948 that Kim’s emergence as a leader was marked by a brilliant star, his return to Korea was equated with the coming of the sun, and he shed his “precious blood” for the sake of national salvation. To what degree Kim’s own Christian background contributed to his personality cult can only be speculated.

Korean Christianity is both a contributing element and useful comparison to the cult of Kim Il Sung. Like Christianity, Marxism-Leninism-Stalinism in Korea was indigenized, blended with folk belief, and thereby made more comprehensible to the popular masses. Also as in Christianity, ideological purists condemned this popularization. Kim also embodied and symbolized political power in a highly personalized, quasi-supernatural manner reminiscent of the bundle of Korean folk beliefs often referred to as “shamanism.” For example, … Kim was attributed with an almost magical power over nature in North Korean publications, which credited him with personal responsibility for the bumper harvest of 1946 and control of the winter floods of 1946-47. Furthermore, it was not by accident that this popularization was propagated by and centered on Kim Il Sung, a man who understood Christianity at least as well as he understood Marxism-Leninism. What he understood most of all, however, was of the psychology of Koreans, especially northern peasants. Both evangelical Protestant Christianity and “Kim Il Sung-ism” took root in the same area of northern Korea. Both derived their unique strength and peculiar nature from the way in which they appropriated and subverted the language of popular belief.

In the symbol and “cult” of Kim Il Sung, a popular nationalism of multiple practices became a single, elite narrative of the minjok [‘nation, tribe’], and national subjectivities were reduced to one class, one party, and finally one man. If the nationalist project in modern Korea has been an attempt to re-create a center of national identity and politics, a center that is “connected with the way the world is built,” in North Korea, Kim Il Sung became that symbolic center. He became father, village chieftain, and priest, embodying and monopolizing previous symbols of authority in North Korea’s peculiar variant of the “cult of personality.”

SOURCE: The North Korean Revolution, 1945-1950, by Charles K. Armstrong (Cornell U. Press, 2003), pp. 223-225

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