The Unification Minister and several other Pyongyang watchers in Seoul have come up with various reasons why the regime’s decision to stage a military parade on the eve of the “Peace Olympics” should not be seen as a sign of bad faith. The consensus is that the two events are unrelated.
Yang Mu-jin, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies, said it would be “preposterous” to assume the Olympics are the reason for holding a military parade, saying Pyongyang has its own political calendar. The professor noted that the decision to change the military anniversary was made by North Korea’s supreme decision-making body, the Political Bureau of the ruling Workers’ Party of Korea Central Committee. “However much reclusive North Korea has been, it is still a country run by its own rules and organizations,” the professor said. (Korea Herald, 24 January 2018)
I don’t know Professor Yang, but I’m wary of assuming he was properly quoted or summarized here. Needless to say, the actual supreme decision-making body in North Korea is Kim Jong Un. Yet I have a feeling we’ll be seeing more journalism and commentary in this vein in the months ahead.
By having so many officials killed on his own orders, Kim has made it impossible even for the most fanatical softliners to go on presenting him as a reform-minded dove constrained by military hawks. We are now to believe something different: that while he can abandon his hawkishness at short notice if treated right, the one-party state will need more time to come around. All encouraging developments are thus to be credited to Kim, all unpleasant ones blamed on the System (unless blamable on Washington).
Still, there’s more at work here than just apologetics. The tendency to overestimate the importance of formal hierarchy and procedure in dictatorships has long been common in the West. (See for example the focus on party congresses in Soviet studies, which Boris Groys has complained about.) While this face-value approach makes research much easier, it also reflects an honest misperception of the total-minded dictatorship of the left or right as an all-controlling, inflexible, total state, “run by its own rules and regulations.”
In vain have political thinkers tried to disabuse people of this fallacy. Although Hannah Arendt is better known, the best writer on this subject was Hans Buchheim, who passed away in 2016. Since his classic work Totalitäre Herrschaft (Munich 1962) and the English version Totalitarian Rule (which I don’t own) have been out of print for many years, I can perhaps get away with translating a few key excerpts relevant to North Korea:
True totalitarian thinking is anti-state in the most general sense of the word, because it represents the antithesis of the state form of the exercise of power…. The totalitarian movement … claims to represent only the will of the people or the class, and divests the state of its essence as a sovereign legal institution. (p.110)
The totalitarian movement enslaves the state…. The state’s function is essentially of a regulative or normative nature: It gives order to political life…. The aim of the totalitarian movement is diametrically opposed to this … every norm appears to it as the hindrance of its own leeway and freedom of decision. (p.113-114)
It is a dangerous error to regard totalitarian rule as an excess of state power, when in reality the state, and political life if rightly understood, belong to the most important preconditions for protection from the danger of totalitarianism. (p.118)
These points are all valid for the regime in Pyongyang too, even though it was installed more or less whole instead of attaining power through a movement.
Granted, the Workers’ Party is a step above the republic in the hierarchy, but in such dictatorships the ruling party — as Buchheim points out (p.112) — is but another of the external forms that the totalitarian leadership assumes and discards at will. How little the WP’s statutes matter in North Korea can be seen by the infrequency of its ostensibly quinquennial congresses, as well as by the unorthodox way Kim Jong Il became General Secretary in 1997. Even the word “became” is too suggestive of something higher than him. Better to say “began calling himself.”
The idea of any party body in North Korea even attempting on its own initiative to change a military holiday, let alone call a massive number of troops and weapons into the capital city, is far-fetched enough. That it would succeed in overriding the Supreme Commander’s own wishes, however mildly he might have expressed them, is out of the question.
We have also been hearing that the parade of February 8 has nothing to do with the Olympics because a) the restoration of this day for commemorating the KPA’s founding took place in 2015, after a 37-year interval, and b) 2018 marks a “round” year in special need of a big splash. The obvious retort is to ask why the Kim Jong Il regime, for all its militarism, saw no reason to restore the holiday in time for the much “rounder” anniversary in 1998. Besides, in 2015 everyone already knew when and where the 2018 Winter Olympics would take place.
In line with an older tradition of South Korean apologism is the effort of the Unification Minister and other Pyongyang watchers to argue that the parade is no cause for alarm because these displays of resolve and might are merely for “domestic propaganda use,” for “unifying the North Korean people,” or for “maintaining the system.”
This recalls the wishful approach to propaganda with which many foreigners and even German Jews deceived themselves in the first years of the Third Reich. “Anti-Semitism,” they argued, “is too central to the legitimacy and popularity of Nazism for the regime not to profess it constantly in the strongest terms. Were Hitler to give the Judenhetze a rest even for a month or two, the public backlash would be swift and harsh. Yet we aren’t to worry too much, because he can’t possibly intend to act on that nonsense.”
If anything, the South Korean variant is even more irrational. After all, what the Nazis were planning was without precedent, whereas that same North Korean military whose founding is to be celebrated on February 8 once came very close to destroying the Republic of Korea.
All the same, I welcome the Moon camp’s recognition of the fact that the communication of ideology is no mere sideline or diversion for the Kim regime, but rather is crucial to its efforts to maintain mass support. If it is to survive, it has to keep putting out bellicose anti-American rhetoric, calling for unification as soon as possible, and routinely displaying its growing military strength.
Must the North do so even at times like this? Yes, especially at times like this. Kim cannot afford to let his people think that either inter-Korean talks or joint Olympic activities will undermine his commitment to routing the Yankees and unifying the homeland. Domestic political realities leave him no choice but to stay on the military-first road to “final victory.” No other way of “system maintenance” is possible over the long term.
Where I differ with South Korean softliners is in seeing in all this a very obvious and insuperable obstacle to peaceful co-existence. A regime that cannot afford to let its people think it’s warming to the rival state cannot afford to warm to it in “the real world” either. The same political realities that prevent the one thing prevent the other.
I suspect that the Moon administration’s special envoy Moon Chung-in is yet again speaking for the president, despite avowals to the contrary, when he says that if Pyongyang wants to exploit the Games for propaganda ends, the South should just let it, while making better use of them itself. Such complacency shows up the self-contradiction in the softliners’ thinking: We must acknowledge that ultra-nationalist militarism is indispensable to the Kim regime’s survival — yet we mustn’t consider the frightening implications of that indispensability.
By forbearing to march behind the yin-yang flag at the opening ceremony of the Olympics, the South Korean athletes are making a bigger sacrifice than the North Koreans, in whose iconography the banner of the DPRK ranks lower than the party standard, which in turn ranks much lower than the Supreme Commander’s standard, the flag of the personality cult — something to which the North Korean athletes may end up paying homage anyway by wearing their leader badges.
More importantly: the peninsula flag means two very different things to the two Koreas. In the South it symbolizes a desire for peaceful co-existence, or at most for a unification of equal partners in the reassuringly remote future. In wall posters above the DMZ it has always symbolized the southern masses’ yearning for “autonomous unification,” meaning absorption by the North. It’s worrying to think how inner-track propaganda is certain to misrepresent the South Koreans’ eschewal of their state flag for this of all symbols — and at this of all events.
UPDATE: 8 February 2017
In the above posting I should have pointed out what Ha Tae-gyung, Yi Ae-ran and others have noted, namely, that North Korean calendars printed for 2018 identify April 25 as Military Foundation Day (kŏn’gunjŏl) and not February 8.