North Korea: One Nation under Kim

In a comprehensive article on the comprehensive 1984-like propaganda efforts of North Korea, Anna Fifield reports on some underlying themes:

Tatiana Gabroussenko, an expert on North Korean literature who teaches at Korea University in Seoul, said that by not allowing people to form their own opinions, North Korea infantilizes its citizens.

“North Korea molds children socially,” Gabroussenko said. Books for different generations have different styles but the same message and characters, sometimes involving South Korean “stooges” or American “beasts.”

“In the children’s version, a child will be fighting Americans by throwing pepper in their eyes and making them sneeze and cough,” Gabroussenko said. In the adult version, weapons, rather than condiments, are used.

“The message ‘We are one nation’ implies that you can’t rebel against your father, you can’t rebel about your government, that it’s important to stick together,” she said.

North Korea’s totalitarianism may be unique, exceeding even that in the Soviet Union and Cuba, though perhaps reminiscent of Maoist China. So one must be careful not to draw too many analogies between the Kim cult and the efforts of political leaders anywhere else.

Still, it’s worth noting that the themes of unity, “we are one nation,” and “it’s important to stick together” are employed by both democratic and non-democratic states. Incumbent presidents call for unity and decry divisiveness, in the United States and elsewhere. Recall how President Bush and his allies accused their opponents in 2001-8 of “erod[ing] our national unity,” of “divisive comments [that] have the effect of giving aid and comfort to our enemies by allowing them to exploit divisions in our country,” of “questioning the president’s leadership, …constantly throwing up hurdles to keep us from doing what we have to do to protect the American people.”

President Obama too declares that “we’re all in this together,” we must act “as one nation, and one people,” while charging that his critics “scare and mislead the American people” and “scare Americans with half-truths and outright lies.” His Department of Education produced lesson plans for American schools in which children would be asked such questions as

How will [President Obama] inspire us?

What is President Obama inspiring you to do?

Why is it important that we listen to the president and other elected officials?

Political leaders seek to present themselves as the embodiment of the nation, so that criticism of the official or his policies is divisive and unpatriotic. Combine that with language about “national unity,” “one nation,” “national purpose,” “national greatness,” and you have a recipe for the imperial presidency. You don’t often see the political opposition calling for unity around the national leaders (except in times of genuine threats to the nation’s existence or freedom); oppositions by definition want to change the nation’s leadership. 

The “all in this together” trope has been criticized many times in these pages, by Roger Pilon, Gene Healy, Ed Crane, and no doubt others. I took on the nationalistic collectivism of Obama and John McCain in 2008.

North Korea is unique. No democratic nation, and hardly any undemocratic nation, has such a comprehensive system of cult worship and brainwashing. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t collectivist themes that turn up in widely varying political systems.