The Politics of Imitation

Kim Jong Eun launched his career as supreme commander of North Korea’s armed forces with a trip to No. 105 ‘Ryu Kyung Su’ Tank Division on the 1st. It was like looking at Kim Jong Il in 1995. At that time, rather than deliver the ‘New Year’s Message’ as Kim Il Sung had done every previous year, Kim Jong Il went to visit ‘Dapaksol Guard Post’.

The unremarkable artillery post was immediately etched in the minds of many as a key icon of ‘military-first politics’. North Korea’s propagandist media proclaimed, “The National Defense Commission Chairman, forcing his way down snowy roads to meet the troops, said, ‘I will trust in the military alone.’”

If the ‘Down–with-Imperialism League’ can be said to have represented the dawn of Kim Il Sung’s revolutionary history, then Dapaksol Guard Post was a turning point in that of Kim Jong Il. Indeed, despite a brief debate in the early 2000s, North Korea’s own revolutionary historical records state that the visit to Dapaksol was the moment when military-first politics formally began.

Thus, instead of the televised New Year’s Message there became the Joint New Year’s Editorial, a written piece carried by the three major publications of state (Rodong Shinmun (the Party), Chosun People’s Army (the military), and Youth Vanguard (the Kim Il Sung Socialist Youth League). And in the very first instance, this new piece was entitled, ‘Accept Highly the Great Party’s Lead and Press Strongly the March of the New Year.’

“Our Party and people’s greatest loss,” was how the death of Kim Il Sung was described within it, while “succeeding to the Suryeong’s last instructions” was emphasized as North Korea’s overarching aim. “Under dear comrade Kim Jong Il’s ideology and leadership the Party members and workers, people and soldiers carry absolute faith in the respected comrade Supreme Commander,” it proclaimed.

The authorities said that Kim would never dream of trying to reach the level of his father; however, it is assumed by many that Kim actually believed his appearance and delivery would fall well short of the standard set, and wanted to hide.

Likewise, then, Kim Jong Eun chose a military base for his own first solo official outing. One might say he had no choice given that he was Vice-Chairman of the Central Military Commission and newly minted Supreme Commander of the Chosun People’s Armed Forces, but it would not have been at all odd in truth if he had, as the supreme leader of North Korea, gone to an industrial location instead.

Regardless, he chose the military option. But there is a key difference between Kim Jong Il’s visit to Dapaksol Guard Post and Kim Jong Eun’s trip to No. 105 Tank Division. It is that Kim Jong Eun visited the pride of the North Korean military.

Ryu Su Kyung stands out among North Korean military heroes for having achieved results, in his case occupying Seoul. Ryu Su Kyung led the first tank forces into Seoul and raised the North Korean flag over the city; the tank which led the column into the city was number ‘105’.

Kim Jong Il had a special affection for No. 105 Tank Division, too. Even before his official succession he visited the division, in 1960 with father Kim Il Sung, his first official military visit. In 2008, even after his health problems, the visits did not stop.

According to North Korean media reports, on January 1st of 2009 the division was again selected as the first visit, and in 2010 it was visited twice. It is a place where the traces of ancestors remains intact, and was the very easiest choice for Kim to have made this time around.

Thus, we can sum up the post-Kim Jong Il North Korean regime stance in one phrase, the ‘politics of imitation.’But, much as he may imitate, Kim Jong Eun is unlikely to reach the political heights of Kim Jong Il.

When boiled down, Kim Jong Eun’s visit to No. 105 Tank Division is weak compared with the effort of Kim Jong Il. Kim Jong Il, thanks to his first visit to Dapaksol Guard Post, brought ‘military-first’ to life, forming a thick, mysterious wall around himself and a huge task for the South Korean authorities to figure out; Where is that unit located? And what was the purpose of the visit?

As successor, Kim Jong Il created his own approach and route, different to those of Kim Il Sung; in comparison, Kim Jong Eun’s plan is to be an extremely simple ‘imitation’ of his father. It is as simple as saying “I will visit the Division because my father and grandfather visited it once, too.”

Kim Jong Eun may run the show by appearing publicly at a few events, following the last instructions left by his father. You cannot say that being appointed General-Secretary of the Chosun Workers’ Party and National Defense Commission Chairman and attending Kim Jong Il’s and Kim Il Sung’s birthdays will be too much for him, just as you cannot say that planning a provocation for the upcoming South Korean general election while using the Lee administration’s refusal to allow condolence parties as a reason for bellicose rhetoric is a ‘new strategy’ either. This scenario has been going for decades and could be equally easily used by Jang Sung Taek or Kim Kyung Hee as well.

Ultimately, what the politics of imitation simply means is indirectly admitting to the inability to form a strategy of ones own for whatever reason, and this will surely come to hinder the application of dictatorship power.

Already, the young Kim Jong Eun is unable to disclose the truth about his lack of experience, birth and background. At some point in the imitation of Kim Jong Il’s ways there will come the demand that he rule in his own way. However, there is no guarantee that the main cadres will follow Kim Jong Eun as their leader when he does. Kim Jong Eun can go on safely with the system his father created for now, but it is a unique system and it cannot work forever without the creator. It is, itself, unstable, but so is the alternative.

In the meantime, South Korea’s policy should be relatively straightforward. The current weakness of Kim Jong Eun and his system is not due to North Korean policies created by the outside world or opposition groups within North Korea, but is something that the dictatorship system has given birth to. Even though the outside community wants to stabilize the Kim Jong Eun system, there is no suitable way for them to actually do this.

While delivering a clear message that if Kim Jong Eun were to conduct a 3rd nuclear weapons test or provocation towards the South he would suffer greatly, we require instead a policy to improve humanitarian aid programs and North Korean human rights in general.