As Donald Trump has embarked on an 11-day trip through East Asia, the nuclear standoff between the US and North Korea will likely dominate the news agenda over the next couple of weeks. Trump himself has threatened to respond to North Korean sabre rattling with “fire and fury,” and – in a speech to the United Nations in September – described the regime’s leader, Kim Jong-un, as “rocket man […] on a suicide mission.”
However, this characterisation of Kim Jong-un as an irrational madman could not be further from the truth. One way of showing this is to highlight just how much strategic thinking and planning the regime invests in the production of photographic images as a means to generate political legitimacy.
Certainly, from a Western perspective, the imagery produced by the North Korean propaganda machine may seem archaic and even comical (for example, people like to poke fun at the fact that a lot of photographs show Kim Jong-un “looking at things”). Yet, in the North Korean context, the regime’s imagery carries universally understood meaning and has the ability to foster support for non-democratic rule.
To fully grasp the rationality behind the photographs circulated by the regime in Pyongyang, one needs to understand that North Korea’s brand of communism combines Marxist-Leninist thinking with Korean mythology (as illustrated, for example, by the Chollima horse) and local cultural values – in particular, the Confucian emphasis on the family as the foundation of society.
On the latter point, Avrav Agov writes:
The veneration and worship of the Kim family is perhaps the North Korean system’s strongest link to the Confucian familial legacy. Kwon and Chung point out that “the Great Leader became the beating heart of revolutionary polity as a historical entity, the genesis of which, in turn, became equivalent to the leader’s biographical history.” Every citizen becomes part of Kim’s “personified sovereign body,” while one’s economic existence became part of a “superorganic household economy headed by the leader.” The slogan “We are the general’s family” (changgunnim siksol) epitomized North Korean households. The song “We Celebrate our Supreme Leader’s Longevity and Health” for Kim’s 60th birthday in 1972 expressed the ethos of the North Korean state as a “superorganic family” and Kim Il Sung as a parental figure of the nation.
To develop and maintain this key ideological pillar, the North Korean regime has actively cultivated a father-like persona for its leaders – be it Kim Il-sung (1948-94), Kim Jong-il (1994-2011) or Kim Jong-un (2012-). The latest power transfer within the Kim family posed a particular challenge, however, as Kim Jong-un was only 30 years old – in other words, not quite old enough to fulfil the parental role handed to him by the ideological script.
Aiming to bridge the age gap, the regime resorted to visual tricks and made Kim Jong-un look like his grandfather, Kim Il-sung – in particular, through the choice of haircut and clothing. (There are also rumours that Kim Jong-un had plastic surgery to enhance the resemblance even further.)
Moreover, just like his grandfather and father, Kim Jong-un is frequently depicted as a caring and knowledgable parental figure who guides the "family" (i.e. the nation) in all areas of political, economic, social, and military activity. The constant flow of images of Kim Jong-un "looking at things" - such as factories, farms, army units or schools - is thus a carefully calculated strategy, which shows that assumptions about the total irrationality of the North Korean regime are completely unfounded.