Wednesday, February 14, 2007

"Leaning on the everlasting arms..."

Like a Mother
"Worrying about even one soldier's health."
The Art of Propaganda
(Image from DPRK Studies)

Last night, I went for the first time to a Royal Asiatic Society lecture and heard Brian Myers present an original and thought-provoking interpretation of North Korean propaganda.

The title, "Child-Race in an Evil World: Understanding North Korea Through its Propaganda," doesn't quite capture all of Myers's lecture. This title expresses about half of what Myers had to say, and on this half, Myers showed North Korea's debt to Imperial Japan's racial propaganda. As noted in the RAS newletter:

That propanganda had ushered the Koreans into a morally superior Japanese-Korean or "imperial" race. In 1945 the Koreans simply ushered the Japanese out of it. They continued to regard themselves as uniquely virtuous by dint of a pure and ancient bloodline, but that bloodline was now theirs alone, the Dangun myth achieving orthodoxy at last.

The way in which the North Koreans vilified Americans as an inherently vicious race reflected the continuation of a tendency to view the world in racial and not Marxist categories. But where the imperial race's virtue had been touted as a protective talisman, the Koreans now believed their virtue to have rendered them as vulnerable as children to an evil world.
Children, however, do need a mother, a loving, caring, giving mother, and this was the more surprising part of Myers's lecture for me. I didn't write down any of his points (though I noticed Frank Plantan taking copious notes), but I can present Myers's main point. To wit: forget Marxism-Leninism, forget Stalinism, forget Confucianism, forget Juche. None of that works for an understanding of North Korea. To comprehend North Korea, recognize that its leader -- first Kim Il-sung, now Kim Jong-il -- is the mother who lovingly cares for her children.

Myers pointed to images like the one above as confirmation of his claim. Other images can also support this view.

The cleverness of such propaganda is that it renders criticism impossible. What Korean son could ever criticize his mother? The mother who tied his shoelaces in the cold snow? The mother who draped a warm cloak over him asleep at his desk. No, if North Korea has failed, it has failed because its children have failed their mother.

However, I see some complications in this. The image above could also be seen as a religious icon -- Jesus embracing one of his disciples after the resurrection or the father embracing his son in the parable of the prodigal son -- and we know how significant Christianity was in the northern part of the Korean peninsula before the Kim Il-Sung regime suppressed it. Might the regime have co-opted some of Korean Christianity's religious imagery? Myers's report on the North's view of non-Koreans as inherently depraved, only doing 'good' things for ulterior reasons, reminded me of a hypercalvinist view of the depraved preterite, and on this point, one should keep in mind that Christian missionaries to Korea were primarily Calvinists.

Another complication arises when one looks away from a propaganda image's central focus. One image (which I haven't located online) shows Kim Il-Sung on horseback. He looks steady, composed, even relaxed and kind -- consistent with his maternal image -- but the horse that he rides reminded me of Napoleon's wild, dynamic warhorse in Jacques-Louis David's famous painting Napoleon Crossing the Alps. The message is a mixed one. Your mother, perhaps, but look at the horse that she's riding!

I'd encourage you to visit the Propaganda Picture Gallery at DPRK Studies and draw your own conclusions about North Korea's propagandistic art.



At 3:42 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

So, North Korean propoganda is actually American! Wow! Who would have imagined!

At 4:11 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

The mother imagery? Or the religious imagery? Sorry, I couldn't quite catch your meaning.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 6:47 PM, Blogger A.H. said...

Intriguing post. Last night on Channel 4 there was a well researched report on Christian North Koreans in exile. There is (I would agree with you a religious iconography within the Propoganda pictures, though muted). There is undoubtedly a strand of maternalism running throughout, but it is a maternalism filtered through the patriarchal gaze (as in Nazi Germany). Motherhood is masculine...protective by the gun, not love; by the male word against the male word (anti-Japanese). Interestingly, by adopting this mother-son pose towards the military, it doesn't feminize, but avoids exactly this. If you think of Japan and its Samaurai, the male-male bonding that "gave way" to the homoerotic--the same contradictory iconography enters Nazi propoganda too: the male-male bonding becomes suggestive of something that the war-machine does not want: bonds between men. By keeping the relationship within mother imagery, as you say, something much more wholesome is suggested. Warfare is simply a furthering of the mother's protective instincts and this is what comrade shows to comrade. Tyranny is often good at suggesting gentleness. It is cleverly done!

At 7:59 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Thanks, Eshuneutics, and good to hear from you again.

When I told my wife of Myers's thesis, a light seemed to go off in her head. "Yes," she agreed, "the images that I saw when I was young always made him look so kind."

Now, she's South Korean, so I suppose that she didn't see many images, but she agrees that there's something feminine.

Your point about the occlusion of the homoerotic is interesting. By making the Great/Beloved Leader maternal, the propaganda avoids the insinuating any homosexuality. Interesting.

I wish that I had a copy of the lecture's text, for I'd love to blog a more substantial post.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 5:02 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

No, No -- you implied that American Calvinism was the source of all this communist nonsense. It makes a lot of sense. As a subject of her Majesty, I have long suspected both.

At 5:20 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Ah, I see. Yes, perhaps -- but I should emphasize that the Calvinist missionaries were North American (i.e., Canadian and American) rather than just American (i.e., from the States).

Myers disagrees on this point, but I'll present his reply in a following blog post.

Jeffery Hodges

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