[Earlier this year we alerted readers to a “Political Tour” to the DPRK, which was to include Economy Professor Ruediger Frank as a guide. CanKor Brain Trust member Ruediger Frank has now returned from that tour. The following article, first published by our partner-site 38North, includes some of Frank’s initial impressions, these having to do with what might be signs of an ideological shift. Find more articles by Ruediger Frank here. Please follow our link to the current article on the 38North site. –CanKor]
Until the death of Kim Jong Il in December 2011, the big question affecting nearly every aspect of North Korean affairs—domestic or international—was who would be his successor. Now that this issue has been resolved by the selection and promotion of Kim Jong Un, the focus has shifted to the nature and sustainability of the new leadership. The four mega-events in April 2012 were supposed to provide insights: a Worker’s Party Conference, a session of the Supreme People’s Assembly, a missile/rocket/satellite launch, and the long-prepared celebrations of Eternal President Kim Il Sung’s centenary birthday. We could indeed observe dramatic changes, particularly in the DPRK’s ideology—a field that Kim Jong Il in 1995 described as the key frontier in the defense of socialism (Korean style).
This article is based on my personal observations during a visit to North Korea from April 10-16, 2012, as well as official DPRK material, and addresses the question: Are recent ideological changes just a regular progression in a linear, continuous development, or do they mark a major disruption?
New Developments in Ideology
It did not take long to notice the first of these seemingly dramatic changes when I arrived at the Sunan Airport in Pyongyang. I am not talking about the new terminal(s) or the masses of foreigners who flooded into the hopelessly overwhelmed country. Rather, it was the badges worn by North Koreans that caught my attention. These badges portraying a smiling Kim Il Sung have long been a subject of curiosity and, at times, ridicule by foreigners. Questions about their shape and size (do specific badges indicate importance?), rules for wearing (do they even put them on their swimsuits?), and availability (they can’t be bought, they can only be bestowed upon you) have been the subject of many tourist conversations, in particular over beer in the evening. But for someone like me who has been to North Korea frequently since 1991, I hardly notice the badges anymore. Neither do the North Koreans. For decades, the badges have been a part of the system’s iconography, just like the various Kim Il Sung statues in Pyongyang and across the country.
Figure1: North Korea’s New Leadership Badge (photo by Rudiger Frank)
And now this: an unusually large badge with not just one, but two faces! Father Kim Il Sung and son Kim Jong Il, happily united against the background of a dynamically flying red flag. This theme—father and son replacing what used to be reserved for Kim Il Sung only—repeated itself on numerous occasions throughout my journey. Among the most widely noticed examples were the two statues on Mansudae Hill in Pyongyang, unveiled in a grand ceremony on April 13. Read the rest of this entry »