North Korea Succession Watch / News Roundup

On some days, the reading of KCNA (Korean Central News Agency) dispatches seems to offer real insight into a different world, the world of the Pyongyang news reader.

After reports of a conciliatory stance seemingly taken out of nowhere this past Monday, today’s dispatches are quite active on the denunciation front.  South Korean leader Lee Myung Bak is tagged particularly vehemently; more on this and the anti-Japanese angle later in the post.   As Alan D. Romberg, the highly intelligent head of Korea programs at the Stimson Center in Washington, D.C., states so tactfully, “Koreans are refreshingly direct.”


Kim Jong Il in Kanggye, northwestern provincial capitol of Chagang-do, inspecting high-tech state enterprise, December 2008
Kim Jong Il in Kanggye, northwestern provincial capitol of Chagang-do, inspecting high-tech state enterprise, December 2008



Kim Jong Il at the Textile Mill

The main news item is Kim Jong Il’s on-the-spot inspection of the Pyongyang Textile Mill.  Two things stood out for me in this dispatch.  The first is the almost wistful tone that Kim Jong Il takes upon the work of his father, the founder of the North Korean state whose relics formed the first part of the visit to the mill:

He first went round the monument to the on-the-spot instructions of President Kim Il Sung and the monument to his field guidance, a room for the education in the revolutionary history and a room devoted to the history of the mill.

Seeing valuable historic relics and mementoes, he said that the Korean people would always remember the profound loving care and benevolence of the President.

He said that the core of the thoughts and practice of the President in his life was the spirit of absolute devoted service to the people, underscoring the need for the officials to always bear this lofty intention of the President deep in their minds and fully embody it in their work and life.

Perhaps it is the context that counts here.  One does not expect Kim Il Song’s legacy to be under the control of Kim Jong Il perpetually, and thus the son is attempting to pull out as much meaning as possible from the past.  And, as he did during the Cultural Revolution, Kim Jong Il has again taken a Maoist bon mot and made it his own: “serve the people” (wei renmin fuwu).  But this comment also indicates how soft is Kim Jong Il’s father’s legacy and the impossibility of loading Kim Il Song’s essential attributes to the successor.  The necessary prerequisites for a North Korean head of state here aren’t about nationalism, revolutionary experience, liberating the country, battlefield stamina, undercover actions behind enemy lines or even the ability to make operas and movies more ideologically sharp.  One simply has to “serve the people” and keep rapacious lower officials in line. 

Has Kim Jong Il succeeded in implementing his own advice?  

The politics of succession — the overriding if not always obvious force behind recent North Korean actions — were made more explicit in the follow-up dispatch regarding the Textile Mill, where the exploits of younger workers are made manifest.  Here is the whole dispatch:

Heroines Produced by Pyongyang Textile Mill

Pyongyang, July 30 (KCNA) — The Pyongyang Textile Mill where women make up the majority of its employees has produced many heroines.

Min Il Hong, manager of the mill, told KCNA on the occasion of the 63rd anniversary of the promulgation of the Law on Sexual Equality (July 30): The mill has produced many heroines including those of the Chollima age.

Ju Pyong Son, Sung Chang Suk, Pak Kum Ok, Ri Hwa Sun and others grew to be heroines in the Chollima age when all people advanced like the wind in the spirit of Chollima.

Four decades have elapsed since then. The weavers are also rendering services to the construction of a great, prosperous and powerful nation, carrying forward the feats of the heroines.

Labor Heroine Jon Ok Hwa has worked as weaver for more than 40 years. She is still working with youthful ardor along with girl-weavers.

Spinner-Labor Heroine Kim Pong Rye remarked: I do want to work more and more to repay the solicitude of the motherland which has put forward as mistresses of the country and factories the women who had been subjected to maltreatment and deprived of the dignity and rights before the liberation. 

She is devoting all her wisdom and energy together with young spinners.

Standing in the van [e.g., vanguard] of the current great upsurge are workshop head Ri Myong Ok, deputy to the Supreme People’s Assembly and Labor Heroine, and Labor Heroine Kim Pok Sil.

The number of innovators who are carrying forward the true life of the heroines produced in the Chollima age is increasing day by day. 

The weavers of the mill are registering great successes every day in the current 150-day campaign in the same spirit as was displayed by heroines in the great Chollima upsurge, holding high the torchlight of the new great revolutionary upsurge.

The transference of revolutionary experience from generation to generation is, again, not a completely new phenomenon in North Korean media, but this reference seems to be somewhat more pointed.  “Chollima generation” (read: Kim Jong Il) is actively encouraging “youthful innovators” (read: next generation of Kim executive power).   The Open Source Center’s report on such themes and their longevity and acceleration in the North Korean broadcast and print media is, again, indispensable.   

Last note on the mill visit.  Try reading the following excerpt in the context of economic nationalism (of which there seems to have been more written in Pyongyang lately, critiques of global capitalism):

Noting that it is an unshakable resolution and will of the Party to provide the people with better clothes, he [Kim Jong Il] underlined the need to bring about a fresh turn in solving the problem of clothing by exerting great efforts for the production of textile.

Reports from street markets (and my conversations with cab drivers and Chinese merchants in the border areas) indicate that most of the fabrics, clothing, and household items being purchased in North Korea today are in fact made in China.  Perhaps this situation is beginning to distress the Dear Leader?  

Anti-Chinese sentiment in North Korea, particularly of the economic variety, might be a type of useful implement for the regime, but this dispatch can’t be read purely in the Chinese context certainly.  After all, the DPRK remains deeply dependent upon trade with China, as everyone knows.  Perhaps instead Kim  is setting up a standard for the successor, returning to the socialist bedrock that might return North Korea to the absolute state domination.  That is to say, retrieving state power in private markets, being able to provide the population with all of its material needs (along with maintaining a serious military deterrent and preventing cultural infiltration from all fronts) may be among the most significant agenda items for the third generation of North Korean leaders.  

And my agenda includes a short verse to conclude this little story: 

Kim Jong Il at the textile mill/ the croissance imperial/the son drops the will

Backfill state promises/recall the glory days/of polyester blending into Namp’o haze

Back in the day of pre-ROK forte / before the Park Chung-hee aufschwung blazed the way…

KCNA on the Lee-Japan conspiracy

The following dispatch reminds us yet again how any contact with the Japanese government or discussions of Japan’s defense taints the image of South Korea and the US in North Korea.  This isn’t something that could just be fixed by the visit of a prominent Japanese symphony orchestra to Pyongyang.  

Pyongyang, July 30 (KCNA) — The Japan Defense Ministry in the “2009 white paper on defense” released recently again claimed that Tok Islet belongs to the territory of Japan. This shameless act brings into light the criminal scenario of the Japanese reactionaries to grab Tok Islet, part of the inviolable territory of Korea, and realize their old ambition to stage a comeback to it at any cost. 

Rodong Sinmun Thursday says this in a signed commentary.

It goes on: 

The Japanese reactionaries’ evermore undisguised moves to grab Tok Islet are a product of the humiliating policy of the south Korean conservative ruling forces to serve Japan as they have been hell -bent on confrontation with fellow countrymen, backed by outside forces.

It is the ulterior intention of the Lee Myung Bak group of traitors to realize its wild ambition for invading the north at any cost even by doing harm to compatriots in collusion with the Japanese reactionaries, the sworn enemy of the Korean nation. That is why the group of traitors feigns ignorance of the mounting anti-Japanese sentiment of all Koreans and the evermore undisguised moves to stage a comeback to Korea including the moves to seize Tok Islet. The group’s intention is also explained by the fact that it is zealously taking part in the hostile moves against the DPRK, crying out for “bringing on tract [sic; “track”] the relations” with Japan and strengthening the “alliance.” 

It is none other than the Lee group that connived at the Japanese reactionaries’ moves to grab the islet and egged them on to whet their swords for comeback to Korea. The Lee group is a clique of the worst type traitors serving Japan in the world as they play the role of a guide for aggressors while harming the dignity and interests of the nation.

Tok Islet will always remain part of the inviolable territory of Korea. Intolerable are the moves of Japan to grab Tok Islet associated with the blood and soul of the ancestors who waged an indomitable struggle for the protection of the dignity and sovereignty of the nation.

Here the anti-Japanese struggle is again rendered in generational terms.  The agony of the ancestors dating back to the Imjin War has been redeemed only partially by Kim Il Song’s anti-colonial struggle and the establishment of the anti-colonial state (the DPRK).   North Korean ethnic nationalism / anti-Japanese Confucian filial piety demands vigilance against the Japanese revival.  

For images from, and analysis of, anti-Japanese propaganda at the inception of the DPRK, see my 2008 article co-authored with Chuck Kraus, “International Culture in North Korea, 1945-1950,” available as a pdf. from Review of Korean Studies. 

The China Angle

The Choson Ilbo speculates on PRC-DPRK relations, and adds a cautionary note on how US-China relations by their very nature marginalize South Korea.

Japanese Mainichi Shimbun reports that Hillary Clinton spent some time talking with CCP foreign relations guru and practitioner Dai Bingguo about North Korea.   She gushed about their discussion, noting that she learned quite a bit.  Perhaps she will turn up next in with Dai at the Changbai Autonomous Korean County to get an eyeful of Hyesan, the administrative center of DPRK’s Yanggang province, with some binoculars, John Foster Dulles style at the DMZ?  

Finally, a good friend of mine, An Ryong Ho, a retired faculty at Yanbian University, was recently honored at a ceremony organized by his fellow academics in Pyongyang:

Pyongyang, July 30 (KCNA) — The DPRK doctor’s degree of literature was awarded to An Ryong Ho, Korean resident in China who is teacher of Yanbian University in China. 

He comprehensively studied, analyzed and systematized the progressive and patriotic words of songs created in Korea in the middle ages, thus contributing to enriching the Korean history of poetic literature.

The awarding ceremony was held at the Mansudae Assembly Hall on Thursday.

An is a champion scholar and translator with whom I struck up a friendship not long ago in Yanji.   (I didn’t need the standard “letter of introduction” because I showed up in the birch-tinged steam room he frequents; after sweating for an hour or so and a few dips in the icy spring water that gushes into the place, we got a bit tipsy together on tiny stools next to a grill set up in a demolished house as he fed me what felt like thirty lamb kabobs.  Thus he remains one of my favorite Chinese scholars.)    

Now reaching his early 70s, An was born and raised in Yanbian, and volunteered to serve in the Korean War.  However, given his prodigious intellectual acumen, the CCP decided he would be better used as a translator in Yanbian, not risking his life on the battlefield.  Thus he has had extensive contact over the years with North Koreans, with whose aid the Yanbian University Korean language department in particular was set up.  An is a personal favorite of mine also because we share an interest in music.   He is also an active composer who writes and has performed various patriotic songs focusing on the Korean minority in China.