North Korea: Beyond Charismatic Politics

I have read many books about the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, those that were printed in the west from both anti-DPRK authors and as well as DPRK sympathizers, by authors who don’t resort to anti-DPRK sensationalism, and books which I had purchased in the DPRK itself. A book about the DPRK is almost always an entertaining read, even if I had to give the book a failing review. North Korea: Beyond Charismatic Politics by Heonik Kwon and Byung-Ho Chung failed to make a “friend of North Korea” such as myself the least bit interested in the country. I have never read a book about the DPRK that was as boring as this one. At 219 pages it was however a lot longer than it might at first seem. The library where I work received it in July of last year yet I put off reading it for months because the typeface was so small. Pages of solid bricks of text in tiny print without a paragraph in sight didn’t make the book look appealing, although some of the chapter headings certainly did (“The Great National Bereavement, 1994”, about the mass wailing that overtook the nation after the sudden death of Great Leader Kim Il Sung, “The Graves of Revolutionary Martyrs”, “Gifts to the Leader”).


Kwon and Chung analyze the politics behind the Kim dynasty since the creation of the DPRK. They talk about the power of the Kims’ charisma, and how national propaganda has had to reinvent itself in order to keep the charismatic element relevant. This was of particularly grave concern to the regime at the time of the famine that devastated the entire country in the mid-nineties:

“The centralization of power, because of its primary reliance on political cultural means and the mobilization of the population to this activity, came with an increasing negligence and ineptitude on the part of the state in the sphere of economic sustenance and growth. The cumulative effects of this failure in all spheres of state life other than the sphere of cultural production were made brutally clear by the tragic crisis of the mid-1990s, which devastated the single most important foundation of any modern state: the economic and moral integrity of its civil society.”

Beyond Charismatic Politics was belaboured with repetitious phrases embedded in lugubriously long sentences. I have to confess that I loathed reading this book where I couldn’t wait to finish it. Sentences quoted above and below, wherein the authors discuss the political expedience of rewriting history, were typical:

“The succession from Kim Il Sung to Kim Jong Il was ‘the communist world’s first hereditary transfer of power’ and began as early as the start of the 1970s. Contemporary North Korean accounts extend the origin of this process further to the outset of the 1960s and even as far back as the time of the Korean War (1950-1953). These claims represent the powerful efforts in North Korea, as in other socialist polities, to appropriate and rewrite history in the service of a specific political goal. These historical revisions are intended not merely to bring greater honor and dignity to the country’s iconic leader but also to appropriate the authority and majesty of the leader’s persona to facilitate a desired future–particularly, the continuity of the political order free from the risk of a rupture in the political life of the charismatic authority. In this respect, the evolution of North Korea’s statehood has been an epic struggle against the impermanent nature of charismatic authority and against the mortality of this authority, to which all other charismatic personas of the twentieth century eventually succumbed.”

I acknowledge that Beyond Charismatic Politics was an academic read more for a student of political situations and conditions, versus for a student of Korean history, which might explain why I was so turned off by all the politicobabble. Even so, I have read many such books about North Korea before which never made me feel like throwing it at the wall. Any book about North Korea is of course going to be full of political theory and analysis of the Kim regime. I would like to read a thoughtful review from a scholar of political science who favoured the book so I might appreciate if from a different perspective.

The chapter entitled “Gifts to the Leader” discusses the diplomatic act of presenting gifts to the Great Leader and Eternal President Kim Il Sung and the Dear Leader Comrade General Kim Jong Il. Leaders and diplomats from around the world, as well as delegations from international socialist institutions, and even private citizens the whole world over have presented the Kims with elaborate gifts. There must be a place to store them all, and the International Friendship Exhibition Hall was built to display thousands of these items in a dazzling and luxurious representation of international esteem for the Kim administration. I visited this exhibition hall and walked down its kilometre-long corridors as my tour group saw room after room after room of often garish and ostentatious examples of folk art. No wonder the Kims didn’t want to put such kitsch in their own homes. There is one such piece that has acquired mythical status among North Korea watchers. I had heard about it before I left for my trip yet had never seen a picture of it. My roommate during the trip warned our group about what we were going to see in the exhibition hall, this one kitschy item in particular, and that as hard as it might be we had to keep a straight face or run the risk of offending the authorities. One must not laugh in the International Friendship Exhibition Hall:

“The gifts to Kim Il Sung include a bulletproof automobile from Joseph Stalin; a large handicraft depicting a roaring tiger from Mao Zedong, sent in November 1953 in celebration of Kim Il Sung’s victory in the Korean War (these items are ‘tributes’ to Kim Il Sung made by Comrades Mao and Stalin, according to the labels next to the gifts); and a gigantic porcelain vase offered in 1978 by the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party specially for the opening of the Hall of Gifts. Most of the gifts are displayed according to their geographical region of origin. Gifts from Latin America include a silver machete and a machine gun from Nicaragua, decorative plates from Ecuador and a Peruvian university, an oil painting of an Andean market from Guiana, and a briefcase made of crocodile skin from Fidel Castro. A stuffed, standing crocodile holding a plate of wine glasses, a gift from the Sandinista leadership, is a favorite for many visitors to this section.”


I appreciated the trip down North Korean memory lane when the authors talked about the cult of gifts in the International Friendship Exhibition Hall in this one chapter, but I cannot recommend North Korea: Beyond Charismatic Politics to anyone but post-graduate scholars of North Korean politics.

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