The absurdity of the North Korean dictatorship is easy to caricature. Kim Jong-un, with his 1930s-style pudding-bowl haircut (cultivated, it is claimed, to make him resemble his grandfather, Kim Il-sung, the regime’s founder), his antiquated Mao suit, and his short, plump body, is almost like a cartoon character himself.
Officially regarded as an omnipotent genius, he is worshipped like a god and shown constantly surrounded by people, including his highest military officers festooned in medals, laughing or clapping, or shouting hysterically.
As we know, of course, life in North Korea is anything but amusing. Periodic famines devastate the population. Up to 200,000 political prisoners are kept as slaves in brutal labor camps, where they are lucky if they are not tortured to death. And free speech does not exist. It is not only forbidden to express reservations about Kim’s divine status; staying alive requires regularly proclaiming one’s devotion.
It is possible, even likely, that many North Koreans behave like worshippers only because they must. Others fall into line because they don’t know any better. Like people everywhere, they reflexively conform to the norms of the world around them, without thinking through their merits. But some North Koreans, perhaps many, might genuinely believe in the cult of the Kim dynasty, which, like all cults (or indeed religious faiths), is made up of bits and pieces taken from other cultures, beliefs and traditions.
The Kim cult owes something to Stalinism, something to messianic Christianity, something to Confucian ancestor worship, something to indigenous shamanism, and something to the emperor worship of the Japanese, who ruled Korea in the first half of the twentieth century.
Kim’s father, Kim Jong-il, was supposed to have been born on Mount Paektu, believed to be a sacred spot where the divine founder of the first Korean kingdom, a bear-man named Tangun, was born more than 4,000 years ago. The birth of Kim Jong-il, also known as the Dear Leader (his father, Kim Il-sung, was the Great Leader), turned winter into spring and was illuminated by a bright star in heaven.
All of this might sound zany, but the stories of miracles in any faith invariably do. What matters is that people believe them.
A history of domination by greater powers
In this respect, North Koreans are no weirder than believers anywhere else. There are often good reasons why certain beliefs have a strong appeal. Islam and Christianity found ready converts among outcasts and the oppressed because they offered equality in the eyes of God. The North Korean faith is altogether less inclusive. Indeed, at its core is a sense of ethnic purity, a feeling of sacred nationalism that must be defended at any cost against hostile forces.
Like Poland, which has a strong Christian self-image of national martyrdom, Korea has a history of being dominated by greater powers, mainly China, but also Russia, and, most notably since the brutal invasions of the sixteenth century, Japan. The Americans are latecomers, but official hatred of American imperialism in North Korea stems not only from the savage Korean War, but also from the long memory of foreign oppression.
Domination by outside powers created poles of collaboration and resistance in Korean history. Some of the ruling classes in various Korean kingdoms cooperated with the foreign powers, and some struggled against them. This resulted in deep hatreds among Koreans themselves.
Kim Il-sung handpicked by Stalin
Kim Il-sung began his career as a collaborator. He was handpicked by Stalin to be a puppet Communist leader in the North. This made the legend of Kim as a resistance hero against the Japanese during World War II, and later against the Americans and their South Korean “collaborators,” all the more important.
North Korean nationalism, with its cult of self-reliance known as Juche, is as religious as it is political. Defending the Kim dynasty, built up as a symbol of Korean resistance to foreign powers, is a sacred task. And when the sacred takes over politics, compromise becomes almost impossible. People can negotiate over conflicting interests, but not over matters that are considered holy.
Donald Trump, a real estate developer, believes that everything is negotiable. Nothing is sacred in business. His idea of making a deal is to overwhelm the other party with bluff and intimidation, hence his promise to “totally destroy North Korea” (a promise, by the way, that would mean more than 20 million dead). It is hard to imagine how Kim Jong-un, as the divine defender of his people, could be persuaded by such bluster to negotiate.
Because Trump’s hostile tweets and swaggering public utterances are usually followed by more cautious statements from senior members of his cabinet, Kim might not take them seriously
It is possible that Kim, and perhaps even some subjects of his despotic rule, would rather be obliterated than give in. It would not be the first time that a cult turned suicidal.
But there is another, more likely, risk. Because Trump’s hostile tweets and swaggering public utterances are usually followed by more cautious statements from senior members of his cabinet, Kim might not take them seriously. He may well think that Trump is all bluff and will never carry out his threats.
This might prod Kim into taking some reckless action – aiming a missile at Guam, for example – to which the US would feel it must respond in kind. The result would be a catastrophe, not only for the Koreans who believe in Kim’s sacred mission, but above all for millions of Koreans, just 35 miles from the North Korean border, who have no part in the Kim cult at all.
Ian Buruma, Editor of The New York Review of Books, is the author of Year Zero: A History of 1945.
Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2017.