It’s something of an understatement to assert that the rest of the world watches events in the DPRK with a sense of befuddled bemusement. It seems difficult to relate, understand, empathise, sympathise or connect with either the general context or specific events within the country. When we are presented with footage of events happening in the DPRK, recordings of presentations of such events from DPRK media sources or even the artistic/cultural output which is derived from such events, it just looks “alien”, foreign in a way that little else looks these days. When we experience the DPRK second hand we all become a little “orientalist” in ways we don’t expect possible.
When Kim Jong il’s death was announced and the mourning/funereal period rapidly followed by the accession/ascension to power of Kim Jong Un, the spectating world was presented with, and was witness to, a series of events which appeared to the eye unfamiliar with the DPRK as, at the least, faintly absurd and at worst down-right ridiculous. We witnessed the almost psychotic and strangely artificial mass grief of the general population (Weingartner, 2012), the impassioned adoration and valedictions bestowed upon a leader whom many in the wider world consider at best a buffoon and at worst the manifestation of pure evil (“Idea and Exploits of Kim Jong Il Are Immortal”, KCNA,19th December,2011 – accessed http://www.kcna.co.jp ), the instant rise to power of an apparently inexperienced, slightly chubby (possibly), 28 year old about whom practically nothing was known in a nuclear capable pariah state as well as some more peripheral oddities, such as the irony of engaging a 1976 Lincoln Continental as the vehicle to carry Kim Jong Il’s body during his funeral procession.
All of these events, appearing perhaps strange or ridiculous to the distant public of the wider world, would have been part of a comprehensive and thought through strategy focused on the continued and developing legitimation of not just the regime of Kim Il Sung/Kim Jong Il/ Kim Jong Un, but also of the DPRK itself, for if they were not, I doubt it possible that they would have formed part of the programme at such a vital point in the DPRK’s history. I do not and will not claim that such a strategy is in anyway way a coherent ideological formulation (B.R. Myers’ analysis in “The Cleanest Race…” helped convince me of that), but instead seems more akin to the narratives of political communication developed by modern western political organisations. What I will assert its comprehensive nature, as I think any researcher focused upon the DPRK would consent to. There is apparently no-one or -thing in the DPRK that cannot be utilised to the end of supporting or legitimating both regime and nation. The reality of this fact may help to explain one of the more peculiar strands to the DPRK’s presentational narrative during the transitional period between Kim Jong il and Kim Jong Un.
“Bears live in deep forest and sleeps in a burrow in winter. That day, however, the bears appeared on the road in the daytime, on which Kim Jong Il took his way, and roared for a long time. It was really mysterious…even beasts seemed to cry with sorrow for the demise of the heaven-born great man…” (Rodong Sinmun,2011)
The Rodong Sinmun is here reporting one of a number of intriguing events that according to the DPRK’s media narrative occurred during the immediate period succeeding the death of Kim Jong Il. Some of these events were picked up by media outlets in the wider world (Yonhap, from the ROK for example, the BBC, and even the Daily Telegraph, and presented for the curious value that such reportage represents. The prospect that bears, owls, and cranes might even notice the death of Kim Jong il is indeed a slightly spurious or tenuous one, however it points to a vital element in a developing strand of the DPRK’s strategy of legitimation.
Since the period of famine and economic collapse of the early 1990s and the engagement that followed it for the DPRK with agencies and institutions from the wider world, the environment and the natural world has become an important part of DPRK strategy. For an industrial- and output-focused nation like the DPRK, environmental management or development has of course always been important. The more cynical observer might regard the development of a concern for the environment per seby environmental agencies within the DPRK as merely a useful tool for the extraction of extra resources from those agencies. That may be true, but what cannot be avoided is the key role that the natural world — the “environmental” — now plays for the DPRK in both its internal propaganda presentation, and in its external diplomatic/political narratives.
The pronouncements surrounding the grieving cranes and magpies, dead birds and cracking ice on Mt Paekdu (here and on December,21st,2011, “Natural Wonders Observed”), all form part of a cohesive strategy of internal legitimative presentation in which nature is incorporated within the citizenry of the DPRK. Nature itself is not only subject to the same demands of loyalty, honorific glorification and in the case of the death of Kim Jong il, grief as any other citizen, but it is also (in the eyes of the regime) imbued with the same “natural” desire to support and celebrate the manifestation of national perfection as represented by the family Kim.
Externally the DPRK now participates in regional forums for environmental improvement such as the ‘North East Asia Forest Forum’ , and the ‘Greater Tumen Initiative’. More importantly but perhaps less recognised is the role of the environmental in “de-legitimative” strategies the DPRK employs against nations it regards as hostile. Along with being politically corrupted, ethnically decadent and morally decrepit the DPRK also presents nations such as the United States and Japan as environmentally careless or damaging and therefore less legitimate than the DPRK (For example, “KCNA Blasts Japan’s Decision to Extend Sanctions against DPRK”,April 28th,2011 or “Shameless impostors’ remarks blasted”, March 4th, 2003).
Although these pronouncements – surrounding as they did the grieving roles of Bears, Herons, Cranes, Owls and a myriad of other non-human actors during the period of Kim Jong Il’s funeral along with the extraordinary, melodramatic denunciations of other nations on the grounds of pollution issues – may sound perhaps rather glib or extraneous to wider debates and narratives, the natural world has begun to play a key role in the narrative framework supportive of both the institutions and regime of the DPRK. I hope in future postings to be able to examine other examples of this narrative within the historical context and as it develops, as it surely must, during the era of Kim Jong Un.
ABC News (2011) – Korean Dictators Final Ride Was In a Vintage Lincoln-Continental – http://abcnews.go.com/blogs/headlines/2011/12/korean-dictators-final-ride-was-in-a-vintage-lincoln-continental/
Howard, K (2011) – Redefining Koreanness: North Korea, musicology, ideology,and “improved” Korean instruments in Exploring North Korean Arts ed. Rudiger Frank – (Vienna, Verlag fur Moderne Kunst)
KCNA (2003) – “Shameless impostors’ remarks blasted” – accessed from http://www.kcna.co.jp
KCNA (2011) – “Idea and Exploits of Kim Jong Il Are Immortal” – accessed from http://www.kcna.co.jp
KCNA (2011) – “KCNA Blasts Japan’s Decision to Extend Sanctions against DPRK”– accessed from http://www.kcna.co.jp
Myers, B (2010) – The Cleanest Race: How North Koreans See Themselves – And Why it Matters (New York City, NY, Melville House)
BBC News (2011) – Kim Jong-il death: ‘Nature mourns’ N Korea leader – http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-16297811
The Daily Telegraph (2011) – Mother Nature Mourns Kim Jong-il death – http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/asia/northkorea/8973430/Mother-nature-mourns-Kim-Jong-il-death.html
Park, H (2002) – The Politics of Unconventional Wisdom (Boulder, CO, Lynne Reinner)
Rodong Sinmun (2011) – Heaven Born Great Man and Peculiar Natural Phenomena – http://www.rodong.rep.kp/InterEn/index.php?strPageID=SF01_02_01&newsID=2012-01-12-0011&chAction=S
Weingartner, E (2012) – The Reality of Tears (38 Degrees North posting) – http://38north.org/2012/01/eweingartner010512
Yonhap News Agency (2011) – N. Korean media steps up myth-making for death of Kim Jong-il – http://english.yonhapnews.co.kr/northkorea/2011/12/27/42/0401000000AEN20111227003400315F.HTML
 Keith Howard’s research on North Korean musical instrument development is a case in point. See Howard, “Redefining Koreanness: North Korea, musicology, ideology, and “improved” Korean instruments” a chapter of “Exploring North Korean Arts”, University of Vienna,2011).
This post was originally published at sinonk.com – The author wishes to acknowledge the editorial support from colleagues at Sino-NK such as Dr Adam Cathcart, Christopher Green, Steven Denney and Darcie Draudt. Any edits or additions to the piece from its original authored draft are acknowledged. The author asserts his right to republish his own work here, but also acknowledges the element of co-production implicit from pieces originally published on sinonk.com