‘Day of Songun’ and the Ongoing Succession Process in North Korea

It is a coincidence, but an interesting one, that North Korean representatives concluded their negotiations with South Korea just in time for August 25, the ‘Day of Songun’ in the DPRK. 

As faithful readers of the Sino-NK website will be aware, the ‘Day of Songun’ was devised in 2012 and promulgated in 2013; its overt intention was to commemorate the deceased Kim Jong-il’s early dedication to the cause of Songun, or ‘military-first politics’ dating back to a visit he supposedly made with his father to the 105th Tank Corps just before he started university in 1960, at age 18. As I’ve argued elsewhere, most substantially in a working paper published by the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, the function of this commemoration is actually to reinforce Kim Jong-un’s legitimacy to rule, confirm the principle of very early succession and young leadership, and emphasize the preternatural military abilities of the sons in the Kim family.

A major new DPRK documentary film which appears to have been released on 15 August further emphasized the continuation principle, by showing Kim Jong-un at the end of a long line of military successes. I found it absolutely fascinating that part of the feature included his time in the control room at the spring 2009 launching of the Kwangmyongsong-2 missile with Kim Jong-il — this episode of his scantly known pre-history with the levers of power had previously been shown, comprising the backdrop of a music video at his first huge event after his father entombment, a February 2012 concert by the now-defunct Unhasu Orchestra. But in the new documentary, his aunt, Kim Kyong-hui, is pared out of the narrative — sound familiar? — and the young Kim Jong-un gets his first apparent taste of praise from a small crowd. What is the point of reminding viewers that Kim Jong-un looked so young, and so unsure, and went through a period not so long ago during which he was no God-king, but rather a rather passive observer of events? The point is to say: He was there, he learned from greatness (Kim Jong-il), and it is in his genes. Kim Jong-un with Missile Scientists, spring 2009

Yet, correlation (or coincidence) is not causation. In other words, it would be foolish to say ‘North Korea prompted the recent crisis in order to provide more material for Kim Jong-un’s succession propaganda themes.’ By the same token, when North Korea ends a crisis just in time for one of its major new commemoration days focused on the brilliance of Kim family military tactics, and a man like Hwang Pyong-so declares victory of a sort, perhaps we should not be so surprised.

Herewith, a few more resources on the theme. Steven Borowiec, of the Los Angeles Times, is thanked for the recent phone conversation that really helped me to crystallize the possible interplay between the ongoing events on the peninsula and the succession process. 

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