Dennis No Solution to Cultural Chill of Youth
The purge and execution of Jang Song Taek was meant for multiple audiences, but has anyone considered how it was received among North Korean youth? While the United States policy elite seem focused on what Jang’s atomization will mean for North Korean nuclear doctrine, the tangible impact of Jang’s execution continues to ripple through the youth in Pyongyang and the provinces beyond.
This is consequential, for Kim Jong Eun wants to create a durable power structure that both enhances nationalistic feelings and bolsters the idea that life in North Korea is in fact sustainable. As such, members of society under the age of 35 are the most important consumers of nationalism and political lines that promote some version of renewal and positive change.
Youth was seen as one of Kim Jong Eun’s few natural advantages when he came to power. Chinese media outlets stated that the friction caused by internal convulsions of the Chosun Workers’ Party could be justified if it were necessary for a new (and presumably more liberal) younger generation to come to the fore. North Korean propaganda has emphasized the role the youth should play in a kind of ongoing IT revolution, all the while reinterpreting Kim Jong Il’s youthful activities as harbingers of “Songun politics” and militarized technical prowess. The regime also created and permitted the Moranbong Band to perform in regular televised spectacles akin to rock music shows in front of indoor stadium audiences, intimating that the Kim regime had a more materially prosperous (and potentially culturally liberal) future in store.
But even before Jang Song Taek was humiliated, stripped of his heavy red badge and killed, Kim Jong Eun and his older cronies were turning North Korean society in a more conservative direction. Rodong Sinmun has been warning against “cultural poisoning” from outside, hedging against anything like a “Color Revolution” in the North, and furiously promoting Kim Jong Eun as the answer to every question. In the musical sphere, Kim’s tastes have turned toward Army ensembles and the Art Troupe of the Kim Il Sung Socialist Youth League. Regional New Year’s concerts, as well as the repertoire chosen and created for the Kim Jong Il death anniversary, featured very little promising content or innovation.
The Moranbong Band, a key symbol for North Korean youth of a limited cultural opening that ought to accompany rising prosperity, has performed but once in public since rumors erupted in August of a purge of Pyongyang’s relatively small classical music scene. At its last concert, the group was paired with the heavily orthodox voices and hands of the State Merited Orchestra and Chorus, a group which would not have been out of place in the Soviet Union under the “High Stalinism” of the early 1950s.
Western travelers to North Korea privately assure us that the Moranbong Band has not been purged and is in fact lounging around the ski resort at Masik Pass. Nevertheless, the lack of public shows by the group, along with the disappearance of foreign tours for North Korean ensembles and the scuttling of some ensembles altogether, indicates that all is not well.
But who needs a girl band with electronic instruments when foreign friends can serve as symbols of change? Enter Dennis Rodman, whose image, should we be optimists, is fused with pre-existing North Korean notions of cultural opening to the West. Rodman’s visits are part farce, but they are also of a piece with serious previous U.S. and Western European efforts in cultural diplomacy towards North Korea, and should be considered important as a barometer for how open Kim Jong Eun is willing to be. Rodman was again allowed to take the microphone, but in fact his team appeared to interact with a very small number of North Korean youth; those who had already reached the highest possible level in their practice.
To be sure, thousands of spectators thronged to Rodman’s January 8th basketball exhibition, and seats were filled with a sizeable number of North Korean youth (as well as just about every foreigner in a city not renowned for its entertainment options). The Moranbong Band, in an old recording, provided the soundtrack for the state media recap of the January 8th visit. The fact that Kim Jong Eun actually attended the event was an improvement upon his father’s practice: Kim Jong Il didn’t go near the New York Philharmonic when they visited the city in 2008.
Kim Jong Il’s brief moments of openness, however, were in some ways far greater than those of his son. Kim Jong Eun has never met an American Secretary of State, for instance. And Kim Jong Il appeared to allow the members of the New York Philharmonic greater scope in their interactions with North Korean students than Rodman was ever allowed; the Dear Leader also allowed the U.S. flag to be displayed and the national anthem to be performed at the orchestra’s concert. Dennis Rodman, it ought to be noted, was not singing “The Star Spangled Banner.” To suggest that Rodman thus indicates some propensity toward greater cultural opening within North Korea, boldly undertaken in the wake of a harsh purge, would thus be incorrect.
The reality is that the inclusion of “youth work” as a problem in his uncle’s December death indictment indicates that Kim Jong Eun remains focused on locking down the loyalties of the youth, by intimidation if necessary. The broad masses of North Korean youth are not about to undertake some fundamental turn towards the United States, Europe, China, or South Korea on the basis of a single event. Youth over 17 are reportedly writing criticisms of Jang Song Taek, attending obligatory mass rallies where loyalty to the regime and eternal vengeance against its enemies must be pledged, and learning new songs which commit their country eternally to rule by the same family. (The speed of the songs’ spread, as well as the importance of learning them and internalizing their messages, cannot be underestimated.)
At the same time, the ideologue Jon Yong Nam is once again giving speeches at mass meetings, having emerged as a survivor of the purge and the head of the aforementioned Kim Il Sung Socialist Youth League. Back, too, is the ancient Kim Ki Nam, an active promoter of the amped-up personality cult of the Kim family who got busy blasting inscriptions of Kim Jong Eun’s glory into mountainsides immediately after Kim Jong Il died; he is the kind of man who could agree with a death sentence for someone who disrespected such an inscription.
Obviously fearful of an East German-style collapse, the facilitators and promoters of the cult of Kim will continue to steer North Korean culture in a very conservative direction, and they will keep careful control over the youth. Choe Ryong Hae’s experiences as a Youth League leader at the end of the Cold War, along with his evidently solidified political position and recent state media editorials, confirm as much. North Korean youth may have looked to Dennis Rodman for a bit of fun, but their political survival will depend on their ability to swallow yet another upswing of the retrograde leader-worship that penetrates public life.