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Meeting Kim Jong-un?

By David Tizzard

Still as wide as he is tall and with a flattop that would make Guile from "Street Fighter" proud, an emotional Chairman Kim Jong-un appeared to cry as he addressed the citizens of North Korea recently. He was apologizing.

Speaking at a military parade to mark the 75th anniversary of the country's Workers' Party, Kim took off his glasses and seemed visibly moved by the situation that confronted him.

But just take a breath and consider that. The leader of the country cried (twice) and said sorry to his citizens for his failure to combat and address particular issues appropriately.

We could easily live through innumerable incarnations of the universe's current timeline and never get anywhere near Messrs. Trump, Johnson, Putin, Erdogan or Bolsonaro saying anything remotely similar to the population that has placed them in vaunted positions of power.

Of course, cultural idiosyncrasies have to be taken into account. And this is not to suggest that the North's fag-smoking ruler is in any way more benevolent than his international contemporaries.

However, rather than tirades, tweets, or toxins injected into the bodies of political opponents (he'd already done that at a Malaysian airport, to be fair), the people of Kim's country got tears.

First was for the lack of continued economic development that would directly benefit the people: Particularly the elite in Pyongyang. North Korea must keep the privileged in the style they are accustomed to or risk losing their legitimacy.

And there is a certain luxury to life in the DPRK's capital. Those who live there, judged according to the Songbun political caste system, have department stores, restaurants, water parks and other various trappings of modernity.

The second apology from Chairman Kim was for the response to the COVID-19 pandemic. It's obviously hard to get a complete understanding of what's going on there, but one can only imagine that there were no repeats of the recent post-curfew street parties like Liverpool witnessed while the city's emergency room beds stood full: Probably because any such events would have been greeted with gulags and gunshots.

North Korean expert Andrei Lankov remarked of the speech that Kim clearly does care about his people. Kim is of course willing to sacrifice those outside of the elite, particularly the farmers of the wavering and hostile political classes that live in the countryside up by the Chinese border and far from Pyongyang's center of power if it means the survival of the state, but beyond that there is a genuine affection.

The relationship between leader and subject that rests on a cult of personality is a fascinating one to watch in the 21st century ― especially from the comfort and safety of a free and open democratic society.

Ever the masters of propaganda, the Western-style gray suit Kim was wearing at the parade instead of the usual Mao get-up and flares would be taken by Western commentators and those with too much time on their hands as a coded signal.

"Look at his tie. Reform and opening is coming!" they would cry. "His brand of cigarettes has changed, which is really important. And then I zoomed in on the ashtray on his desk and noticed that it was perpendicular to the camera."

But while analysts analyze, the predictions of North Korea's demise have been greatly exaggerated. It has now lasted longer than the Soviet Union and is increasingly becoming a permanent fixture of the international community.

South Korea, the United States and Japan do their best to deny its existence by refusing diplomatic relations, but for the rest of the world the DPRK is something to be accepted and dealt with according to international law and sovereignty. The reality also suggests that like the United Kingdom, France, Russia, China, the United States, India, Pakistan and Israel, North Korea is, whether we like it or not, a nuclear-weapon state.

As elsewhere in the world, many of the North Korean citizens would have loved the military parade, missiles and gauche displays of nationalism that Kim presided over. Despite what the super progressives would have you believe, such xenophobic tendencies are neither the creation of the whites nor the capitalists: Humans instinctively love a good chest thump.

And, filled with dreams, fears, love, lust and lumps of fine dust, the North Koreans can be racist as anyone else.

The Baekdu Revolutionary Bloodline is an ethno-nationalistic ideology that still serves as the main source of legitimacy for Kim's ruling family in Pyongyang. While it tolerates foreigners to an extent, it does not allow them to mix genetically.

The gods of North Korea are born under stars, on volcano tops and foretold in mythical literature. It doesn't really matter that most were born and educated abroad; history is a set of lies agreed upon, and there "they" write the lies. If ever there were a patriarchy to be found in the modern world, here it is.

Yet once the crying has finished and we go back to diplomacy, Donald's, and detente, have we thought what it means to meet Chairman Kim?

When President Trump meets Chairman Kim he is labeled a fool and completely unaware of the history, importance and danger of the North Korean regime. If President Moon Jae-in does it, he is a harbinger of peace and progressiveness, touted as someone who sees beyond partisan politics and borders.

Yet Kim remains the same.

Getting close to Kim Jong-un can boost a politician's domestic position. However, one fears they are just photo shoots for the rich and famous most of the time.

Real diplomacy has been happening for many decades. Most European states have an embassy and an ambassador in Pyongyang. There, day by day, the people live and work next to each other: arguing over internet connections, gas, electricity, travel permits, and the exchange rate.

These are not opportunities for leaders to legitimize their own position, pay for Nobel Peace Prizes, or use the North as a tool for their own success. Instead, it is diplomacy carried out by professional civil servants who have to do a job that will never get in the newspapers.

In return, the North Koreans live and work in many of the world's capitals. While some like Thae Yong-ho and Jo Song-gil eventually defect and leave the DPRK in search of an elite life south of the border, many of them build strong and lasting relationships with their international counterparts.

We should not be fooled about the reality of what North Korea is. Their flaunting of international law is well known and, if the recent documentary "The Mole" is to be believed, it continues behind closed doors of European embassies.

But for now, it's an intriguing part of the international community and looks like it will be so for years to come.


Dr. David Tizzard (datizzard@swu.ac.kr) has a Ph.D. in Korean Studies and is an assistant professor at Seoul Women's University. He discusses the week's hottest issues on TBS eFM (101.3FM) on "Life Abroad" live every Thursday from 9:35 a.m. to 10 a.m.


By David Tizzard

Still as wide as he is tall and with a flattop that would make Guile from "Street Fighter" proud, an emotional Chairman Kim Jong-un appeared to cry as he addressed the citizens of North Korea recently. He was apologizing.

Speaking at a military parade to mark the 75th anniversary of the country's Workers' Party, Kim took off his glasses and seemed visibly moved by the situation that confronted him.

But just take a breath and consider that. The leader of the country cried (twice) and said sorry to his citizens for his failure to combat and address particular issues appropriately.

We could easily live through innumerable incarnations of the universe's current timeline and never get anywhere near Messrs. Trump, Johnson, Putin, Erdogan or Bolsonaro saying anything remotely similar to the population that has placed them in vaunted positions of power.

Of course, cultural idiosyncrasies have to be taken into account. And this is not to suggest that the North's fag-smoking ruler is in any way more benevolent than his international contemporaries.

However, rather than tirades, tweets, or toxins injected into the bodies of political opponents (he'd already done that at a Malaysian airport, to be fair), the people of Kim's country got tears.

First was for the lack of continued economic development that would directly benefit the people: Particularly the elite in Pyongyang. North Korea must keep the privileged in the style they are accustomed to or risk losing their legitimacy.

And there is a certain luxury to life in the DPRK's capital. Those who live there, judged according to the Songbun political caste system, have department stores, restaurants, water parks and other various trappings of modernity.

The second apology from Chairman Kim was for the response to the COVID-19 pandemic. It's obviously hard to get a complete understanding of what's going on there, but one can only imagine that there were no repeats of the recent post-curfew street parties like Liverpool witnessed while the city's emergency room beds stood full: Probably because any such events would have been greeted with gulags and gunshots.

North Korean expert Andrei Lankov remarked of the speech that Kim clearly does care about his people. Kim is of course willing to sacrifice those outside of the elite, particularly the farmers of the wavering and hostile political classes that live in the countryside up by the Chinese border and far from Pyongyang's center of power if it means the survival of the state, but beyond that there is a genuine affection.

The relationship between leader and subject that rests on a cult of personality is a fascinating one to watch in the 21st century ― especially from the comfort and safety of a free and open democratic society.

Ever the masters of propaganda, the Western-style gray suit Kim was wearing at the parade instead of the usual Mao get-up and flares would be taken by Western commentators and those with too much time on their hands as a coded signal.

"Look at his tie. Reform and opening is coming!" they would cry. "His brand of cigarettes has changed, which is really important. And then I zoomed in on the ashtray on his desk and noticed that it was perpendicular to the camera."

But while analysts analyze, the predictions of North Korea's demise have been greatly exaggerated. It has now lasted longer than the Soviet Union and is increasingly becoming a permanent fixture of the international community.

South Korea, the United States and Japan do their best to deny its existence by refusing diplomatic relations, but for the rest of the world the DPRK is something to be accepted and dealt with according to international law and sovereignty. The reality also suggests that like the United Kingdom, France, Russia, China, the United States, India, Pakistan and Israel, North Korea is, whether we like it or not, a nuclear-weapon state.

As elsewhere in the world, many of the North Korean citizens would have loved the military parade, missiles and gauche displays of nationalism that Kim presided over. Despite what the super progressives would have you believe, such xenophobic tendencies are neither the creation of the whites nor the capitalists: Humans instinctively love a good chest thump.

And, filled with dreams, fears, love, lust and lumps of fine dust, the North Koreans can be racist as anyone else.

The Baekdu Revolutionary Bloodline is an ethno-nationalistic ideology that still serves as the main source of legitimacy for Kim's ruling family in Pyongyang. While it tolerates foreigners to an extent, it does not allow them to mix genetically.

The gods of North Korea are born under stars, on volcano tops and foretold in mythical literature. It doesn't really matter that most were born and educated abroad; history is a set of lies agreed upon, and there "they" write the lies. If ever there were a patriarchy to be found in the modern world, here it is.

Yet once the crying has finished and we go back to diplomacy, Donald's, and detente, have we thought what it means to meet Chairman Kim?

When President Trump meets Chairman Kim he is labeled a fool and completely unaware of the history, importance and danger of the North Korean regime. If President Moon Jae-in does it, he is a harbinger of peace and progressiveness, touted as someone who sees beyond partisan politics and borders.

Yet Kim remains the same.

Getting close to Kim Jong-un can boost a politician's domestic position. However, one fears they are just photo shoots for the rich and famous most of the time.

Real diplomacy has been happening for many decades. Most European states have an embassy and an ambassador in Pyongyang. There, day by day, the people live and work next to each other: arguing over internet connections, gas, electricity, travel permits, and the exchange rate.

These are not opportunities for leaders to legitimize their own position, pay for Nobel Peace Prizes, or use the North as a tool for their own success. Instead, it is diplomacy carried out by professional civil servants who have to do a job that will never get in the newspapers.

In return, the North Koreans live and work in many of the world's capitals. While some like Thae Yong-ho and Jo Song-gil eventually defect and leave the DPRK in search of an elite life south of the border, many of them build strong and lasting relationships with their international counterparts.

We should not be fooled about the reality of what North Korea is. Their flaunting of international law is well known and, if the recent documentary "The Mole" is to be believed, it continues behind closed doors of European embassies.

But for now, it's an intriguing part of the international community and looks like it will be so for years to come.


Dr. David Tizzard (datizzard@swu.ac.kr) has a Ph.D. in Korean Studies and is an assistant professor at Seoul Women's University. He discusses the week's hottest issues on TBS eFM (101.3FM) on "Life Abroad" live every Thursday from 9:35 a.m. to 10 a.m.




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