Tag Archives: discourse

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.”

The elements of a robust discourse

These thoughts on the elements of a robust discourse emerged from many attempts at explaining why theory matters to a policy oriented audience of nuclear experts:

The need for a new set of concepts through which to understand nuclear security has become increasingly apparent.  Neither nuclear terrorism, nor the proliferation of nuclear weapons to states outside the nuclear nonproliferation regime can be effectively countered by the logic of the existing deterrence paradigm. Previously robust, changes at the operational level have eroded the self-reinforcing nature of the existing paradigm. Deterrence theory has no answer for nuclear terrorism, and nonproliferation policy provides no guidance on how to relate to India, Pakistan, and North Korea, all of which have established nuclear weapons programs, and as such are not eligible for recognition under the Nonproliferation Treaty.

The deterrence paradigm took more than 15 years to mature. At the RAND Corporation, scholars found a unique kind of institutional support for an active theoretical debate, which yielded implementable strategic policies, and effective operational and technical systems. These systems in turn influenced the theoretical ideas, leading back to revised strategic policies. Thus, as a fully mature discourse, the deterrence paradigm included robust debate and activity at a the concrete, operational level, at the level of applied ideas as realized through the strategic policies that directed those actions, and at an abstract level of theoretical analysis through which we comprehend the nature of human interactions with social and material environments, articulate what is politically possible, and make value judgments about what is desirable.

Unlike deterrence, disarmament was never a fully mature discourse. Disarmament, defined as the abolition of nuclear weapons, has existed in the shadow of deterrence as the major competing paradigm since the 1950’s. While the discourse of deterrence operated at all three levels (operationally, politically, and theoretically) the discourse of disarmament was and is primarily an operational discourse. There was never a fully mature theory of disarmament, and therefore no effective strategic policy for how to achieve the desired operational outcome of zero nuclear weapons. Even today in the midst of a renaissance in disarmament politics, disarmament has not matured into a fully robust paradigm.

This brief comparison between deterrence and disarmament is meant neither as a defense of deterrence, or advocacy of disarmament, but rather as an illustration of the importance of fostering a fully robust nuclear paradigm to counter new nuclear threats. Debate needs to thrive at the level of theory, policy and operations in order to produce actionable steps to stable outcomes.