Leadership secrets of Kim Jong Il: The infantilization of North Korea

One of the questions I’ve seen being asked today as a result of Kim Jong Il’s death this Saturday was, “Why would you only show footage of a bunch of crying people. Sure, crying is fine, but aren’t you going to have some people talking the leaders up and saying some words of praise? How does showing endless tears make you remember your leader more?”

My answer to this is that showing footage of North Koreans in severe emotional distress is specifically done in order to reinforce the infantilization of the North Korean populace. A key tenet of the North Korean propaganda machine is to portray the now deceased Dear Leader, and the State, as the ultimate father figure. This isn’t my own analysis but the work of a number of others:

The Atlantic – Mother of All Mothers

Kim Il Sung’s title Eobeoi Suryeong means not “Fatherly Leader”—a common rendering that encourages Martin to exaggerate the influence of Confucianism on the personality cult—but “Parent Leader,” the most feminine title the regime could get away with. As the country’s visual arts make clear, Kim was more a mother to his people than a stern Confucian patriarch: he is still shown as soft-cheeked and solicitous, holding weeping adults to his expansive bosom, bending down to tie a young soldier’s bootlaces, or letting giddy children clamber over him.

The tradition continues under Kim Jong Il, who has been called “more of a mother than all the mothers in the world.” His military-first policy may come with the title of general, but reports of his endless tour of army bases focus squarely on his fussy concern for the troops’ health and comfort. The international ridicule of his appearance is thus as unfair as it is tedious. Anyone who has seen a crowd of Korean mothers waiting outside an examination hall will have no difficulty recognizing Kim’s drab parka and drooping shoulders, or the long-suffering face under the pillow-swept perm: this is a mother with no time to think of herself.

When it comes to the Workers’ Party, the symbolism is even more explicit, as in this recent propaganda poem:

Ah, Korean Workers’ Party, at whose
breast only
My life begins and ends
Be I buried in the ground or strewn
to the wind
I remain your son, and again return to
your breast!
Entrusting my body to your
affectionate gaze,
Your loving outstretched hand,
I cry out forever in the voice of a child,
Mother! I can’t live without Mother!

It’s easy to imagine what Carl Jung would have made of all this, and he would have been right. Whereas Father Stalin set out to instill revolutionary consciousness into the masses (to make them grow up, in other words), North Korea’s Mother Regime appeals to the emotions of a systematically infantilized people. Although the propaganda may seem absurd at a remove, it speaks more forcefully to the psyche than anything European communism could come up with. As a result, North Korea’s political culture has weathered the economic collapse so well that even refugees remain loyal to the memory of Kim Il Sung.

It would appear that Kim knows just enough. The border with China remains so porous that even children often sneak back and forth, and yet no more than three or four percent of the population has chosen to flee for good. The regime obviously did the smart thing by publicly acknowledging the food shortage and then blaming it on American sanctions, instead of pretending there was no food shortage at all, as Stalin used to do.

The Dear Leader has also deftly exploited the tradition according to which Koreans care for their parents in old age: the masses are told that it is their job to feed him, not the other way around, and his famed diet of “whatever the troops are eating” is routinely invoked to shame everyone into working harder. Never has a dictator been such an object of pity to his people, or such a powerful source of guilt. In 2003 North Korean cheerleaders, living it up on a rare visit to a sports event in the South, responded to a rain-soaked picture of Kim by bursting into a hysterical lament that baffled their hosts.

Kim must also be aware that the infantilization of the people has come at a price. Away from Pyongyang’s carefully monitored tourist sites, North Korea is a much more raucous place than any dictator could be comfortable with. “One surprising thing,” Michael Breen writes in Kim Jong Il: North Korea’s Dear Leader (2004), “surprising because you expect robots, is … how frequently fights break out.” According to refugees, even women fight out their differences, and young female teachers are said to hit children the hardest.

This lack of restraint is a problem for many North Koreans trying to adjust to life in the South. Social workers complain that the refugees pick fights with strangers, and storm off jobs on the first day. “I’d have thought they’d be better at controlling themselves, coming from a socialist system,” is a common lament.

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