‘As Long as we have our Marshal’, she said.
We had been discussing the extraordinary developments regarding Korean reunification. Not in the south, but in Pyongyang.
Even though reunification has long been DPRK policy, which would be undertaken peacefully, without foreign interference, and with a federal system that recognises the two different systems in north and south, it remained mostly an aspiration – apart from a few brief periods.
Now concrete progress was being made, with north and south making small steps that were building into a major leap. The governments of both parts had made the calculation – like other Asian nations – that United States influence was waning and that they had to solve their own problems.
For a young person like our guide, all of this was welcome but unsettling. She had been brought up with a solid education and a culture of struggle for the construction of socialism. Her country had seen much suffering, inflicted by two imperialisms – that of Japan and of the United States. She had grown up with the strong sense that her people were tough and determined, against formidable enemies that could at any time launch yet another war of massive destruction. Vigilance and preparation were the norm, even as people went about their everyday lives.
Who would not welcome a change? Who would also not be apprehensive as to what it might entail?
That evening, we had been discussing many matters: Marxism, the Workers’ Party (which she aspired to join), her family, education, the booming economy and the changes it had seen, visitors from the south, a sharp upturn in tourists, especially from China. Above all, we discussed reunification.
What would it mean? She wondered. Would the life she had come to know end?
Her secure basis in all these changes: ‘As long as we have our marshal’.
Marshal Kim Jong Un – the one who had kick-started the recent reunification process with his New Year speech of 2018.
Why the marshal? Simply put, he is the one who holds the whole system together.
But how to make sense of this reality?
The DPRK is a socialist state with a hereditary leadership, the only one in the world to do so. This is a feature that many foreigners – especially Marxists who are by and large in favour of what the DPRK is doing – find most difficult to understand. President Kim Il Sung, General Kim Jong Il and Marshal Kim Jong Un in succession provide the inescapable cohesion of the whole project.
‘As long as we have our marshal, everything will be fine’. The vast majority genuinely hold to this position. The respect and veneration given takes place every day. For example, at the Palace of the Sun (mausoleum), one shows absolute respect, bowing low at three points of each leader’s preserved body (not the head). Or whenever one comes before a statue, one bows low in respect. Images of the leaders are not to be reproduced for commercial purposes, and one always uses their titles when speaking of them.
How to understand this reality? We cannot bracket it out and mock it, for that is to misunderstand the country and its system. One could draw on different frameworks in an effort understand: the respect for the Thai king; absolute monarchy in Europe; the old Korean imperial tradition; the socialist ‘cult of the personality’; the well-worn trope of a quasi-religion in place of old-style religion. Ultimately, all of them are unhelpful for understanding the role of the leadership in the DPRK.
One angle is to draw on the strong notion and practice of inheritance in the DPRK, for which there are comprehensive laws. I mean not the inheritance of property, but the family tradition. Marshal Kim Jong Un inherits the family tradition of being a revolutionary leader. Let me add one further ingredient: it has become clear by now that the revolutionary leader is crucial not merely for the success of the revolution, but even more so for the construction of socialism. This complex process of veneration first developed with Lenin, but has been repeated in each effort to construct socialism. Lenin died only a few years after the October Revolution, but he lived on in so many ways. Leaders like Mao Zedong and Kim Il Sung were fortunate enough to live long after the revolution, leaving their imprint on the new societies they led. In many respects, the leader embodied the revolution, so much so that the body itself was preserved and continues to be venerated (I, for one, have paid my respects to Lenin, Mao, Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il).
If we connect this history of veneration of the revolutionary leader with the strong emphasis on inheritance in the DPRK, we are led to the following conclusion: Kim Jong Un today inherits the role of revolutionary leader from his father and grandfather. They might live on in people’s hearts, but Kim Jong Un is alive today. Thus, he is not merely the descendent; he is the revolutionary leader. He embodies the socialist project of the DPRK today.
Hence, ‘As long as we have our marshal’.