Does North Korea Have Two Rulers? Visions of the Female General

In a Reuters dispatch published today, James Pearson uses multiple perspectives to reflect on Kim Jong-un’s 8 January birthday in North Korea. In the end, it appears that the ostensible 32nd birthday of the young ruler was not marked by a major state propaganda push, nor did North Korean workers even get the day off.  Indeed, there were no huge parades held, nor even any new songs published in praise of Kim Jong-un. The closest we might find is yesterday’s a large outdoor rally in Pyongyang of students and the Democratic Women’s League, a gathering addressed by Choe Ryong-hae and others who hailed the ‘boundless excitement’ of the youth and the military for the agenda laid out in Kim Jong-un’s New Year’s Speech.

As noted by one of Reuters’ interviewees, the low-key nature of the Kim Jong-un birthday should not preclude that the day will eventually become a big deal within the North — after all, even in an exaggerated state like North Korea, one has to save a few arrows in the metaphorical quaver for future developments in the personality cult.

But something noteworthy — indeed, absolutely important in the North Korean context — happened in the state press anyway. Naturally, it concerned the cult of Kim family rule in the socialist paradise.

In short, the state has ‘discovered’ (i.e. recently manufactured) yet more trees in Ryanggang — a mountainous northern hinterland province of the DPRK — which allegedly had slogans carved into them by Korean guerilla fighters and their sympathizers in the 1930s. An AP reporter dazzled from a ‘rare’ trip to Mount Paektu in 2012 (trips to the Chinese side of the mountain do not count, apparently) provided a beautifully unbalanced view of the matrix of myth out of which these slogan trees emerged:

Biblical shades come through in the legend of Kim Jong-Il’s birth at Paektu in 1942.

Some accounts [sic, researched texts concerned with reality] suggest Kim Jong-Il was born in Siberia in 1941. But according to North Korea, his mother, Kim Jong-Suk, gave birth to the future leader in a simple log cabin at the height of winter in 1942, swaddling the infant with military blankets until fellow guerrilla fighters came to her with a quilt stitched together with salvaged scraps of cloth. Guerrilla fighters spread the news of the baby’s arrival in messages painted in ink on the bark of trees across the Paektu region, the official history says.

Mount Paektu has been re-created as an altar of sorts to Kim Il-Sung, his wife and his son, who are referred to as the “three commanders of Mount Paektu.”

Setting aside any issues one might have with (or ulcers caused by) the AP’s enterprise in Pyongyang, the entire northern tier of the DPRK might indeed be said to be, in a certain sense, an altar of revolution, or at least a museum. What this means for analysts is that North Korea’s own narratives about the northern borderland provinces need to be monitored carefully for changes in the regime’s own historical allegories, or for visits by Kim Jong-un to meaningful nodes of revolutionary history. It is not for nothing that Kim Jong-un was in Ryanggang while the final moves were being made against his uncle Jang Song-taek in Pyongyang in November 2013, for instance.

So to the birthday story: Today, an article was published in Rodong Sinmun (Workers’ Daily), the organ of the Korean Workers’ Party and the country’s most important public daily print publication.  Entitled ‘狼林革命史迹馆补充抗日武装斗争时期革命口号和文物 (Revolutionary Footsteps Museum in Nanglim [낭림] Uncovers Revolutionary Slogans of the Period of Anti-Japanese Armed Struggle),’ it describes the locale of the new discoveries.

Among the slogans here included are a few gems such as the one tweeted above (‘On the face of the earth will rise a country of Mount Paektu for a thousand years’), but it is the following slogan that appears to be the most interesting in the present context:

‘祖国同胞呦,请跟随抗日女将军投入反日抗战 (Brothers of the motherland! Please follow the anti-Japanese female General and throw yourself into the anti-Japanese war!)’

In the final analysis, the most important piece of propaganda produced by the state for Kim Jong-un’s birthday might not be praise of him, but this oblique but unmistakeable inclusion of his sister Kim Yo-jong via an act of historical allegory.

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