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.”