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North Korea

Beyond Charismatic Politics

Heonik Kwon and Byung-Ho Chung

This timely, pathbreaking study of North Korea’s political history and culture sheds invaluable light on the country’s unique leadership continuity and succession. Leading scholars Heonik Kwon and Byung-Ho Chung begin by tracing Kim Il Sung’s rise to power during the Cold War. They show how his successor, his eldest son, Kim Jong Il, sponsored the production of revolutionary art to unleash a public political culture that would consolidate Kim’s charismatic power and his own hereditary authority. The result was the birth of a powerful modern theater state that sustains North Korean leaders’ sovereignty now to a third generation. In defiance of the instability to which so many revolutionary states eventually succumb, the durability of charismatic politics in North Korea defines its exceptional place in modern history.

Kwon and Chung make an innovative contribution to comparative socialism and postsocialism as well as to the anthropology of the state. Their pioneering work is essential for all readers interested in understanding North Korea’s past and future, the destiny of charismatic power in modern politics, the role of art in enabling this power.
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Rowman & Littlefield Publishers
Pages: 232Size: 6 1/2 x 9 1/4
978-0-7425-5679-9 • Hardback • March 2012 • $46.00 • (£31.95)
978-1-4422-1577-1 • eBook • March 2012 • $43.00 • (£29.95)
Heonik Kwon is professorial senior research fellow at Trinity College, University of Cambridge, and previously taught social anthropology at the London School of Economics. Author of several prize-winning books, including Ghosts of War in Vietnam and The Other Cold War, he currently directs the international project “Beyond the Korean War,” which investigates the history and memory of the Korean War in local and global contexts. Byung-Ho Chung is professor of cultural anthropology and director of the Institute for Globalization and Multicultural Studies at Hanyang University, South Korea. He has visited North Korea as well as China’s borders with North Korea on numerous occasions for humanitarian purposes. He also has conducted research into issues and concerns relating to the educational and social integration of North Korean refugees in South Korea.
Chapter 1: The Great National Bereavement, 1994
Chapter 2: Modern Theater State
Chapter 3: The Barrel of a Gun
Chapter 4: Graves of Revolutionary Martyrs
Chapter 5: Gifts to the Leader
Chapter 6: Moral Economy
Kwon and Chung provide invaluable insight into the role and means of charismatic politics in North Korea. They effectively argue that the regime has used elements of a theater state and family state to build and sustain its legitimacy through arduous political and economic times. The use of the arts to convey and celebrate civic virtues and to associate these virtues with Kim Il Sung, then Kim Jong Il, and now Kim Jung Un is a recurring theme. The homage paid to Kim Il Sung's wife, Kim Jong Suk, is seen as an effort of the regime to present the succession process as natural and necessary. The authors link Kim Il Jong's military-first policy to efforts to cloak himself with his father's charisma and the banner of the continuing revolutionary struggle against imperialism. While the authors acknowledge the regime's success to date, they question how much longer this family state can be sustained by actions of a theater state. They appear to imply that it may be necessary to follow China's course in the 1980s for the regime to survive. This work is highly recommended for scholars of North Korean politics and substantial graduate school collections on Northeast Asia. Summing Up: Highly recommended.

At the dawn of Kim Jong Un's reign, professors Kwon and Chung deliver a penetrating . . . argument for how North Korea remains adamantly isolated and surprisingly stable. Beginning their analysis in 1994 with the Great National Bereavement triggered by the death of Kim Il Sung, the authors backtrack to evaluate the means by which the Great Leader created the personality cult that has persisted through the reign of his late son, Kim Jong Il, and grandson, Kim Jong Un. Massive parades displaying military might, frequent publicity trips made by the successive leaders throughout the country, and enormous (and numerous) public artworks depicting the lineage ensured 'a transition of power based on hereditary charisma' and son'gun, North Korea's governing political and social ideology that prioritizes the military before all other segments of society. While the book was completed before Kim Jong Un's formal ascension in December 2011, Kwon and Chung offer valuable insights into the evolution of a philosophy and nation determined to look inward and carry on in the 21st century as a neo-Confucian state built on the concepts of loyalty to a perceived sovereign (ch'ung) and filial piety (hyo). Given the message broadcast to spectators and the rest of the world at a recent festival—'Do not hope for any change in me!'—North Korea seems poised to stay the course whatever the costs.
Publishers Weekly

Kwon and Chung undertake a carefully constructed study of the evolution of North Korea since Kim Il Sung’s rise to power. What is now distinct about the North Korean state that the 'Great Leader' founded is not its dictatorship, the power of the military, or the political system set in place. Rather, it’s that North Korea is the only nation-state with a 'charismatic revolutionary leader' at its apex that not only survived the Cold War but created a dynasty, now passed to the third generation, unlike its Soviet and Chinese counterparts. With many references to Clifford Geertz’s studies of symbolic anthropology, the authors explore how North Korea succeeded—in this respect—where other postcolonial dictatorships have failed. They find an intensifying use of symbols, especially expressed in art and architecture, a kind of 'theater state' that has risen to counter the absence of the apparent genuine heroism and charisma present at North Korea’s founding. VERDICT . . . [S]hould be of interest to all serious North Korea watchers.
Library Journal

It is customary to refer to North Korea as the 'hermit kingdom' and then recount various Orwellian horrors in what is undeniably an uber-totalitarian state. Yet, as this original, engrossing, but deeply unsettling study illustrates, North Korea, in a very perverse sense, 'works.' That is, beginning with the founding of the North Korean state by Kim Il Sung, the regime has maintained itself and managed dynastic succession, avoiding the internal turmoil and violence that have occurred in other Communist states. Of course, the regime has survived with the use of massive political repression and control. But Kwon and Chung assert that the 'success' of the regime is due to more than the usual totalitarian thuggery. The successor of Kim Il Sung, his son Kim Jong Il, created a 'theatre state,' using a skillful manipulation of art, mass media, and political cadres to foster an aura of benevolent, paternalistic charisma. . . . This is a timely work, since the recent death of Kim Jong Il will test the stability of the regime.

North Korea: Beyond Charismatic Politics is a ‘whole’ book—thoroughly researched, lucidly argued, comprehensively scoped, and fluent in its interdisciplinary synthesis. One would be hard-pressed to find another work more recommendable as a single-book scholarly introduction to North Korea.
Critical Asian Studies

This is an exceptional study that opens the curtain on the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (North Korea).
Journal of The Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies

The first book to bring a truly sophisticated cultural analysis to the understanding of authority and ideology in North Korea, this is a ground-breaking, fascinating, and masterful work of scholarship. Kwon and Chung’s study changes our perception not only of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea but of charismatic politics in the twentieth century.
Charles K. Armstrong, Columbia University

The best study we have of the ideology and founding myths and realities of the North Korean state—or 'family state,' as the authors call it. Drawing upon a wide range of anthropological and sociological theory, the authors situate North Korea as both a typical postcolonial nation and a remarkable and highly self-conscious case of willed national exceptionalism. Most exceptional is its leadership system, now entering its third generation, which the authors see as a modern, if unusual, example of charismatic politics, rather than a revival of Korea’s long history of neo-Confucian monarchy. The authors both explain the strength of this leadership’s survival capacities in a postcommunist world and question whether its moral and ethical failures do not demand, in essence, a new and radically different North Korean revolution.
Bruce Cumings, University of Chicago; author of The Origins of the Korean War