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This essay was written in Seattle in October 2011.
Today I spent some time leafing through a solemn black notebook filled with sketches made primarily in the stacks at the University of Washington Suzzalo Library, reminding myself that not all good research is immediately digitized. Sometimes it takes a few months before a certain concept can swim down to the bottom of one’s consciousness and take root.
After all, in the intervening time between the initial scribble and the considered return, new experiences are had which illuminate old notes freshly.
For instance: one casually turns on a cable-equipped television in the United States in August 2009, and is assailed by programming on a major network of what amounts to gross historical distortion, hate speech, incitation to violence, and the unrelenting equation of the country’s first African-American president with Adolf Hitler.
(Having once thought this line of thought to be too obviously ridiculous for anyone to take seriously, I found in a conversation with a fellow hard-working American who loves country music in the Long Beach Airport that there are people out there who eager lap up the above line of reasoning. Moreover, these individuals will sloppily and readily interchange Adolf Hitler with his existential foe Franklin Delano Roosevelt in deciding upon historical parallels for our current president.)
It does seem awfully odd to be alive at a time when some people seem to insist that the Obama years are simply a replay of the Weimar era in Germany. Wouldn’t that make G.W. Bush the Kaiser of a defeated state? In these weird historical comparisons, Bush is somehow absent: Only Obama holds the match to the Reichstag when “the future crisis” occurs.
Incessantly arbitrary distortions of the past and marshaling of pure hatred for the head of state make Fox look akin to Xinhua at its worst moments. This is pure propaganda, reminiscent of an anti-Japanese paroxysm in North Korea or China (on guard against a fascist revival!), but directed within. Why is it necessary to torpedo any semblance of rational debate by implying that the President of the U.S., sworn to protect the country and uphold the constitution, is a foreign communist engaged in some sinister plot to revive the Holocaust?
In any case, Hitler was on the brain thanks to the propaganda trust at Fox, and my own foolish curiosity to see just what some Americans were watching as “news.” Having met a Fox news anchor face-to-face in May 2007 at Hiram College, and sat through her speech which essentially called for an invasion of Iran while Christianizing China, I managed to forget the encounter, until the same person caused a frisson by analyzing Obama’s greeting of his lovely wife after his acceptance speech in St. Paul as “a terrorist fist jab.”
And so we are back to my black notebook.
Last spring, in search of references to Japan in World War II, I spent a couple of hours reading transcriptions of Hitler’s monologues at his headquarters [Adolf Hitler, Monologe im Fuhrerhauptquartier (Hamburg, 1980)].
Hitler recalls a moment in his adolescence when he first identified with Japan (watching Chechen children weep in his classroom with hatred for Russia, recalled in a conversation of 21 September 1941) and goes on to spell out a few clichéd ideas about Japan’s role in race war. He likens the Japanese to the Dutch as “a people of small capitalists” who therefore “do not wish for a National Socialist revolution” (conversation at Wolfsschanze, 31 December 1941).
But perhaps most interesting of all is the notion of states and charismatic leaders. At the end of a long rant on the night of January 3 which extended into the early hours of January 4, 1942, Hitler identified himself with the Japanese emperor. Noting that the state religion in Japan centered around the emperor, Hitler asserted that the state had to be personified by an individual: “Die Volksfuehrung under die Stadtsfuehrung muessen in einer Person indentifizierst sein!”
We see the same form of hero-worship running though German culture in the late 1930s; even enunciations of German praise for Chiang Kai-shek such as the one published by Lilly Abegg in 1940 centered around this notion that an individual could incarnate the will of the nation. And Chiang ate it up, as we can see in his China’s Destiny.
And this notion of a state cult centered around an individual suddenly took on more clarity for me in the light of another essay I have been turning over recently, one by Brian Myers.
In his recent work, Myers argues that likening the North Korean state system with its imperial Japanese predecessor yields an understanding greater than simple comparison to a Stalinist system or South Korean dictatorships. We really need not take juche seriously, he notes, because the North Koreans themselves do not really take it seriously. In fact, we ought to strenuously un-capitalize it, and pay heed to instead is the racial and racist aspects of North Korean nationalism, which, Myers argues, are rooted in Japanese ideologies of the past rather than supposedly race-neutral Stalinism, for instance.
Myers writes that Mount Paektu is essentially made into a sudden substitution for Mt. Fuji in 1945, and that the graphic similarity between Hirohito’s white horse and Kim Jong-il’s white horse should give observers pause. There are various conventional ways to critique this “North Korea as the true inheritor to imperial Japan” thesis, but they are probably best reserved for a more formal essay. Suffice it to say that Paektu was not ‘suddenly’ important in 1945; one would have to look and document at images of Mt. Fuji in colonial Korea; one could also consult Paektu references in anti-colonial literature from and about Chosunjok in China among whom Kim Il-sung moved with relative fluency. And in terms of the white horse, Napoleon also had such a beast, and the Kims are surely aware of and are able to imitate European forms of grandiosity as well as the Japanese ones with which they (and the writers praising them in the early years, as Myers documents nicely) were already acquainted.
Perhaps we could draw similarly sloppy lines of causality between Hitler and Kim Il-sung. Ian Kershaw’s titanic Hitler biography [Hitler: Nemesis, 1936-1945 (London: Allen Lane/Penguin, 2000)] describes how, during the winter 1941 offensive against the Soviet Red Army, Hitler was suddenly seized with concern that the German soldiers lacked proper winter coats (p. 435). It was too little, too late — he had assumed the battles with the Soviets would not last into the winter, and public campaigns in Germany were necessary to solicit donations of warm clothing for the troops in the field. It was a point upon which Hitler could be criticized both by his staff and by the public at large, as he had forcibly associated himself publicly as the supreme command of the armies, meaning that responsibility for this action could not be fobbed off on unconscientious subordinates. Likewise, during the Korean War’s first unforeseen winter, Kim Il-sung had to regroup his troops and call for similar donations (see Works, vol. 6, speeches in December 1950), complaining that the Korean People’s Army was still fighting in summer straw shoes, in spite of the fact that it was his own failure to plan for possible setbacks that had led to this state of affairs.
If we are determined to make North Korea the corollary to Nazi Germany, and Kim Il-sung the inheritor to Hitler — we can say “Aha! Kim Il-sung was so much like Hitler that they made the very same mistakes. Clearly this is more than a coincidence!” Nevermind the fact that Kim Il-sung had actually watched Operation Barbarossa unfold from within the Soviet Union, and studied the conflict very much from the Stalinist perspective. The same is true of correlations of North Korean “mass games” with the Nazi exercises as seen in “Triumph of the Will” — these activities spring from a number of sources, most, but not all, of which are socialist. And even German mass gymnastics themselves have a pedigree that well predates the Nazis.
To liken Barack Obama to Adolf Hitler or Kim Jong Il to Hirohito is to both diminish the historical lessons of the Second World War and to grossly oversimplify the roots of the DPRK system. Likewise, reinstating the old bracket of tax deductions for Americans making over $250,000 per year is not the equivalent of Mao’s killing 700,000 landlords.
It is almost as if, lacking a monarch, the desire of some individuals to be controlled by some strong hand has been thrust upon Obama in the Jungian phenomenon of transference. And the desire to rail against state power, repressed during the war whoops of the early George W. Bush years, has somehow returned.
I found this French film, apparently shot in spring 2010, to be better than most treatments of the North Korean tourist experience. Among other things, a young North Korean “rapper” is encountered in an amusement park (at 12:31), North Korean rallies are accompanied by music by Philip Glass, and the piece benefits from the use of some selected extracts from North Korean film archives.
In Part II, one gets a sense of how French tourists experience the Korean War museum in Pyongyang, a visit which begins with one of the visitors writing an inscription about her father, who left Korea in 1950 for France, never to return, in the museum’s visitor’s book.
Of slightly older vintage (but with the same North Korean Francophone guide, and a far more vigorous and hirsute traveller) is this French documentary from 2008, which concludes, around 2’30”, with the main TV personality sprinting across a field to batter a plywood cutout of a big-nosed American soldier, which prompts some humorous dialogue with the locals.
In the following section, a man gathers edible grasses on Kim Il Sung’s birthday. Then, in section three (below), the host laughs — he has finally lost his guides, who refuse to enter the church along with him in Pyongyang.
In Part 4, the viewer can enjoy (what else?) spectacle, as the French man goes into an extended discussion with his hosts about the sex habits of ostriches, including the possibility of bisexual ostriches. This is as far from the dark and paranoiac music of Lisa Ling’s National Geographic DPRK documentary as possible! As with everything else, it seems that the results of a journey have much to do with the proclivities of the traveler.
On the more geopolitical side of things, there is this in-depth French look at current events through a historical prism, including interviews with (among others) Bruce Klingner of the Heritage Foundation which begins with a look — which I had never seen before — at the immense American flotilla sent to intimidate the North Koreans in summer 2010.
There are, somewhat less helpfully, long discourses by Jerrold Post, head of psychoanalysis [?] for the CIA, about Kim Jong Il’s cognac habits, and Klingner goes on about how the current generation of North Korean children are “mentally stunted.” But the documentary takes Kim Jong Il’s film history seriously, and, for the cultural historian, part 2 begins with extracts from the 1985 North Korean remake of Godzilla.
Not to be missed (besides the wonderful contrast between the personal stories of the casual and goateed bandana biker-styled Kenji Fujimoto and the statistics of Marcus Noland in his precisely fixed suit and tie) are North Korean television depictions of George W. Bush, seen here at 6’30”. What I find remarkable is the extent to which the continuity of the North Korean graphic styles manages to make Bush look like John Foster Dulles in 1950.
Finally, the obligatory refugee documentary, “Han, la prix de la liberte [Han, the Price of Liberty]” by Alexandre Dereims in 2009. Like Mike Kim’s book Escaping North Korea, “Han” traces the path of refugees from Yanji down to the Chinese borders with Laos/Thailand and takes them into Seoul. This is a well-known arc to anyone who follows news about North Korean defectors, but there is one point of fact which I found particularly interesting, if not happily so. At about 1’40” of the following segment, a young woman refugee being interviewed in an apartment in Yanji describes the years of famine — 1994, 1995, 1996, she enumerates them off one by one as if to recount each as an entity deserving of individual weight — and matter-of-factly recounts that people resorted to cannibalism. Then, she says “Things are presently on the path for it to happen again.” Not good news from inside North Korea. Incidentally, although in the wake of the Laura Ling/Euna Lee debacle which managed to break up at least one network dedicated to extracting refugees from the North, the defectors’ faces here not pixelated out because they made it to Seoul, where, presumably, they are presently.