Fetishism North Korea Style

Kim Jong Eun mourned Kim Jong Il in Pyongyang.

Kim Jong Eun mourned Kim Jong Il in Pyongyang.

My initial response to the media coverage of North Koreans wailing in public demonstrations of mourning over the death dictator Kim Jong Il was that it appeared bizarre to the point of being almost unintelligible. I’m familiar with ritualized wailing, but media coverage of it is still jarring:

This behavior has received a lot of media attention in America, and in other parts of the world too I assume, perhaps because it is so difficult for Americans to interpret. The most common reaction is to think that the North Koreans can’t possibly be serious, and yet some of these people are pretty convincing:

The mystery deepens once you combine the ritualized wailing with reports about the role of myth making propaganda in ensuring a smooth transition of power to Kim Jong Il’s son, Kim Jong Eun, as explained in the WSJ (link to full article here):

“Myth-building in North Korea is a serious business. Analysts say it is critical for the regime to ensure that the personality cult of the Kim family remains intact and its rule unchallenged.”

My personal favorite is the one about North Korea’s founder, Kim Il Sung, who was, “said to have made a hand grenade from a pine cone to blow up an American tank.” The claim that natural wonders have occurred in conjunction with significant events is also good:

“…when Kim Jong Il was born, propagandists reported that the sky was filled with lightening and thunder, as well as a rainbow.

As recently as Wednesday, Korea Central News Agency reported many natural wonders observed around the country, such as the sky turning red and a huge snowstorm suddenly stopping, as the people mourned their dead leader.”

The mystery started to unravel when I read the following quote from a North Korean defector: “‘The regime has to keep doing it, regardless of whether people believe it or not, because they need to establish the legitimacy of the family…”

The key lies in the fact that whether or not people actually believe in the myth of the Kim dynasty is irrelevant. As long as they continue to act as if they believe, the legitimacy of the regime remains in tact. This is exactly the same dynamic I point to in my analysis of nuclear fetishism.

I often use the example of a king to illustrate the practice of fetishism. A king is a king only in so far as his subjects submit to his rule. Yet, the claim to divine ordination passed through the hereditary characteristics of royal blood makes the power of the king appear inevitable–as if he would be a king even outside his relation to his subjects.

North Korea is one of the few true nation-states left on earth that still has an entire social and political system build on a racialized concept of social hierarchy in which divine right is supported by founding myths. Kim Jong Il is North Korea’s national fetish object. The sense of wonder that outsiders experience as they witness the ritualized practice of public mourning is entirely consistent with the experience of fetishism. What people like me don’t understand when we watch these ritualized practices is that for the people engaged in them, whether they believe or not is not entirely relevant. What is important is that as a collective experience their behavior is both powerful and normal.

The vision of a world in which nuclear weapons no longer functioned as the United States’ national fetish object would be characterized by a similar sense of bewilderment at the ritualized practice of nuclear deterrence. It would be populated by people who learned about the history of nuclear deterrence and thought, “It’s so crazy that they actually thought those weapons made them safer.”

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4 Responses to “Fetishism North Korea Style”

  1. Matthias January 16, 2012 at 11:15 PM #

    “North Korea is one of the few true nation-states left on earth…”

    Anne I sometimes really wondern if that is true. Let us have a look at the obvious example of the american president. What is the difference between Obama und King Kim the third? He is also a fetish. Especially Obama stands in for the wrong believe of his believers, that he will change things. I even think Obama believes that he does change things, like the king who thinks he is really a king. He is crazy. Let us shortly make a jump from our believe, that by voting every four year we are really influencing anything and express our will and could in principle change things or at least the person we vote for will make the thinsg right as he and his commercials on television said. Or we evemet him and are completely flustered by his charming charisma and believe him. Let us jump into the mind of the north korean, who believes that their leader will change all things for the better. From there it must be weired to see western people do seem to really belive that making a cross every couple of years is making them “free” from elites, nomenclatura, lobbyism etc. They also even express their sadness if one of the presidents dies (jfk) and morn for him, although they should know, that in the end the president is just a wheel and exchangable in the system of capitalism.

    Just a thought.

    P.s. I hate Steve Jobs, he gave the ipad keyboard no cursor keys!!!

  2. Anne January 31, 2012 at 6:57 AM #

    Ah Matthias…

    As always, you are one step ahead of me. Yes, democracy is yet another instantiation of the fetishistic illusion of having resolved the underlying contradiction between force and power endemic to any social enterprise. I like your reading of Obama’s pursuit of and belief in the motto of “change” through the lens of the pursuit of a fetishistic illusion. Yet, Obama himself has changed the form of the American presidency in its particulars. North Korea is a nation-state built on the unity of of race (nation) and state, whereas Obama as president exists only in the repudiation of an essentialized notion of race. On what level does the image of Obama as a post-racial president matter? Or is that an illusion as well?

  3. bathrooms February 10, 2012 at 1:57 PM #

    Thanks for the post I actually learned something from it. Very good content on this site Always looking forward to new post.

  4. Matthias February 14, 2012 at 9:38 PM #

    Anne, you are right about the post-racial change in the presidency I guess. Although in a certain sense his election might be still a reflection of the american guilt and it is not a normalized true post-racial presidency. But the next black or mexican or asian president might be post-racial. With regard to that I think it is also speaking loudly, that Hillary was not the first non-standard president. But the presidency changed, that is definitively true. The question for me was always, what exactly is the president and this in turn is only a small part of the question, what is America?

    Something completely different:
    The word race always reminds me of the moments filling out forms in the american bureaucracy. At several points I had to answer the question which race I am. Am I caucasian, latino, asian, black etc. But isn’t this question essentially a racist question, even if posed for good reasons like equality?

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