[KS] KCTV's hour-long paean to Kim Jong-un yesterday can now be seen in full by all

Ruediger Frank ruediger.frank at univie.ac.at
Wed Jan 11 02:59:19 EST 2012

Dear Frank and all,
that's what I meant when I wrote that the NKs are no mindless robots; that 1994 is not 2012; and when I tried to visualize through images of plastic surgery and capitalist hairstyles the tremendous change that has happened in NK in the past decade, i.e. in particular the size, status and self-perception of the Pyongyang middle class. 
The question is when this individual wondering will turn into cynicism, and when such individual cynicism will turn into a collective feeling. The latter is a pre-condition, although not a sufficient one, for anything to happen. The history of socialism in Europe, and here I am speaking out of personal experience, has shown that despite open and collective cynicism, these systems can still prevail for many ears unless some triggering event takes place (in our case, it was Poland + Gorbatchev + Hungary). I though that maybe KJI's death could do the trick for NK - but it might have happened too early, although the show is not yet over, I think.
Having said that, it is also important to note that NK socialism differs in at least one important point from European socialism. The NK ideology is openly ultranationalist or, as Brian Myers always points out, racist. It was relatively easy for Europeans to see that their socialism was a farce, because the state itself provided them with the benchmark to evaluate its performace. The promise was almost entirely on the material side. We just had to compare what was written in the papers with what we could see, note the difference, and discard all of the state's propagada as a big fat lie (which, ironically, to many now appears as a mistake). In NK, however, the ideological legitimacy of the state/the system rests on much less tangible factors, such as national independence, pride, etc. The existence of economic problems is not denied but explained as being of secondary importance, and caused by the evil outside world. One analyst (gosh, I forgot the name) wrote that NK is best understood as being in a permanent state of War; I think this is indeed a helpful approach (and a scary one for South Korea, as it explains the need for an incident every once in a while). Under such conditions, even smart and enlightened NKs might accept that type of crude propaganda like the KJU video. 
At this point, it would be nice to get som eclarity by just talking to some of them and find out what they really think - are they cynical, or do they support the system out of nationalist considerations no matter what. This is not so easy, though. I have tried numerous times but failed; not least because I was hesitant to push them too hard, knowing that it's not me who would have to pay the price, or because I had reasons not to trust the source. Anyhow, one NK once told me that we have to understand the overglorification of the leaders (I asked about alleged supernatural abilities) as being symbolic, not to be taken at face value. Just as the citizen's public behaviour (see mourning) is to be seen as a symbolic act expressing support for the system, not necessarily displaying the actual measure of individual grief.
So there are two+two dangers here: to over/underestimate the NKs longing for values that we take as a given; and to over/underestimate the system's ability to influence the minds of its people. Anyone who can solve this puzzle becomes the world's undisputed North Korea-whisperer. Good luck! The rest of us will still be stumbling around between these four options. 

on Dienstag, 10. Januar 2012 at 19:15 you wrote:

>>I agree; if there is no image, there is no news ...

> Let me then rephrase the main point I was trying 
> to make (that did not come over, I think, was not 
> supposed to be our reception of NK)--and this may 
> more be a question to be discussed from a 
> sociological point of view:

> I do not wonder so much about the reception of 
> North Korean paraphernalia as communist chic 
> here, there is no doubt that this is what 
> happens. The question is, to my mind at least: is 
> NK outliving itself while it turns its country 
> and political culture into a paraphernalia flea 
> market for the rest of the world? NK propaganda 
> posters and "art" are serving the voyeuristic 
> needs of the international (incl. South Korean) 
> public, and that is not a public of "Korea 
> watchers" and other certified spies anymore but a 
> very general wider public that talks this out 
> over Facebook and posts things in YouTube. So far 
> I am still talking of our side of the fence, of 
> course. What has changed is that there is now no 
> filter through those Korea watchers anymore, they 
> are being replaced by an immediate 
> reception--WITHOUT the authoritative filer on our 
> end, therefore a loss of authority of both sides! 
> (Which again will likely help to shift the 
> perspective of North Korea to one that is a 
> little less manipulated by mostly U.S. government 
> visions of the world.) Can you see that? North 
> Korea is loosing its mojo as a thread, as an 
> enemy country because of the way reception has 
> changed, especially visual reception. If North 
> Korea becomes a kind of Manga theme, the 
> country's official propaganda films (as Don Baker 
> also remarked) are perceived as slapstick that do 
> not need any further editing, then our still new 
> modes of communication and visual reception via 
> the Internet and all its tools--and this is now 
> an INTERACIVE reception process--now allow the 
> spectators a direct gaze and a direct response, 
> and this inevitably results in Stalinist 
> propaganda to be turned into a comic at first, 
> but results in a more balanced view over the long 
> run. That is what happens on our side of the 
> fence and that is a major part of why visuality 
> now plays such a big role, and why the perception 
> of North Korea is changing.

> Though, what I was hoping to discuss is if the 
> situation is not possibly going into a similar 
> direction in North Korea itself. In a monarchic 
> system the leadership cult can seemingly be 
> reduplicated indefinitely. In Europe the 
> remaining monarchies have over the past hundred 
> years just been operating as tokens of democratic 
> states, build into democratic systems--with 
> exception of Spain, where a dictatorial monarchy 
> survived until the 1970s. In North Korea such a 
> cult reduplication is still happening under 
> serious conditions with serious consequences, not 
> just to feed the yellow presses with nice visuals 
> and stories. Seeing their own propaganda films, 
> posters, "art" being understood as slapsticks and 
> Mangas overseas is one thing, but actually--AND 
> that is what happens--there is a mass production 
> and mass reproduction of these kind of images for 
> a foreign market (done in North Korea to an 
> absolutely amazing degree). That again is one 
> further step into a very different direction than 
> we saw in the past. If our new modes of gazing at 
> North Korea are voyeuristic (see above), then 
> what does that make North Korean traders and 
> middle-aged party leaders who turn themselves and 
> their leaders and official ideals into objects of 
> communist chic paraphernalia, converting their 
> official visual icons into international sales 
> objects and prototypes for computer games while 
> still ruling the country? Nobody should care 
> about those leaders. Yet, this must have a 
> possibly decisive impact on the people in North 
> Korea, at least in P'yôngyang where there is 
> quite a bit of contact to the outside world. If 
> the middle-aged party leadership is already now 
> treating the Kim family cult icons like Mao 
> Zedong was treated since the early 1990s inside 
> and outside of China, and with all the exchanges, 
> Koreans from China and elsewhere who visit North 
> Korea, then such a change of perception from 
> serious thread to Mickey Mouse might well 
> undermine any sort of leadership. No? (Maybe not 
> so in China, because their is a bargain, because 
> people get their economic needs being taken care 
> of ... but in North Korea?) There are 
> preconditions for state initiated "cults"--and I 
> wonder if this will destroy these conditions for 
> some sections of the population, which would then 
> create space for alternative thinking and 
> movements. That may have already happened.

> Best,
> Frank Hoffmann

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