Why is North Korea doing things that are bound to hurt it? Because that is the leadership’s style.

For the last one month I have been living in a suburb of Seoul in South Korea which is about 40 miles from the North Korean border. Through most of this period, North Korea has been making belligerent noises — including nuclear ones. It has also been taking some strange actions that will surely hurt it quite a lot, one way or another.

Puzzled by this paradox, I have been talking to scholars here and reading to find out what makes North Korea’s leadership so unusual. (The ‘leadership’ is in fact actually just one person, Kim Jong-un, son of Kim Jong-il, son of Kim Il-sung. They are the Supreme Leader or suryeong).

But the answer perhaps lies not so much in the general idea of a Supreme Leader, which is common enough — including in our own Congress party — as in what Supreme Leader means in North Korea. The most illuminating essay on this aspect, which I summarise below, is called Biopolitics or the Logic of Sovereign Love by Sonia Ryang, an associate professor in anthropology and international studies at the University of Iowa. It is in a book with a rather pedestrian title: North Korea: Toward a Better Understanding.

The North Korean leadership style is based on a very old but now discarded principle: the divine right of the sovereign to rule, and therefore be obeyed unconditionally. Essentially, this principle requires the people to be loyal only to the sovereign, not to any group or groups including family.

In North Korea, the Supreme Leader is sovereign in a sense that is very similar to the way the Japanese Emperor was before the Second World War. The irony of this seems to have escaped the North Koreans because Kim Il-sung who started this Supreme Leader thing had fought the Japanese who had colonised Korea in 1910. Indeed, the Kim Il-sung mythology centres around his heroic fight against the Japanese.

The Exception

A North Korean citizen is expected to die for the Supreme Leader. This is not very different from Americans dying for their flag or Brits for the Queen. But the twist comes when death involves suicide which in these circumstances, notes Ryang, is a ‘sovereign’ act. How this is so will become clear a little later.

The Supreme Leader concept as it has evolved over the last 60 years, places the Supreme Leader apart from everyone else in that he is the exception; and it is he who decides he will be the exception. Thus, he alone makes the rules but is not bound by them. As Ryang puts it, “He is simultaneously the law and above the law.”

But theoretically anyone can be the sovereign. So dynasty kicks in. Which parent would like to deprive an offspring of his main chance? We in India have several examples of this, the dynastic bit at least.

In North Korea, in theory, sovereignty rests with the people. But it rests with them in a transitive sense in that in order to enjoy this status, it has to flow back to them from the Supreme Leader. For this they have to surrender their will to him.

Thus, says Ryang, life for the North Korean citizen becomes meaningful only through total political submission. To quote, “North Koreans carry out a sovereign act in renouncing sovereignty.”

The suryeong is full of infinite love for his people. He is also omniscient. Both are critical to understanding the Supreme Leader’s place in North Korean society.

His love has to be returned by the people totally and unconditionally in a manner that echoes all religions. North Koreans judge each other by the extent of their love for the Supreme Leader. There is no other metric.

The North Korean model has another interesting and very European feature: the individual is the unit of all social action, including political action, in the post-Enlightenment sense. With some knobs and bells, this is called the Juche idea in North Korea because it also incorporates the idea of self-reliance, strength and such like.

The current context

The worry about the current policies of North Korea is best understood in this overall context of North Korean leadership and its relationship with the people.

It has an internal logic that foreigners from democracies find hard to comprehend.

The immediate concern is that the new Supreme Leader, Kim Jong-un, is only 29 years old and inexperienced. He may, say experts here, go off half-cock because he needs to prove a point, just as his father, Kim Jong-il had had to when he became Supreme Leader in 1994 after his father Kim Il-sung died. Kim Jong-il made North Korea go nuclear and invited disastrous sanctions.

Now it is Kim Jong-un’s turn. He has to show he is as good, if not better, than his father. What better than to take on the mighty US, if need be by some skirmishing against South Korean forces?

As long as no US soldier or citizen gets killed, it ought to be OK.

(This article was published on April 5, 2013)
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