After quick stops in Seoul and Beijing, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry touched down in Tokyo on Sunday to meet with Japanese officials and discuss North Korea’s recent threats. Kerry reiterated U.S. support for its Asian allies, saying Washington would “do what is necessary” to defend Japan and South Korea from any attack. Softening his tone slightly, he suggested that the U.S. could be willing to talk with the North, but only if Pyongyang takes steps toward giving up its nuclear-weapons program. “We need the appropriate moment, appropriate circumstance,” he said. That looks a long way off. On Sunday, North Korea dismissed the overture, calling it a “cunning ploy.”
The 101st anniversary of the birth of the country’s venerated founding father, the late dictator Kim Il Sung, on April 15 is a pointer to the regime’s current state of mind. The day is the single most important holiday of the year — so much so that, in 1997, the regime abandoned the Christian calendar, opting instead for one that begins with his birth in 1912. The celebrations are typically used to bolster the Kim dynasty and promote its military-first doctrine. Last year, Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un, Kim Il Sung’s grandson, marked the occasion with a (failed) rocket launch and a military parade. This year’s festivities take place after months of bellicose rhetoric and an ongoing threat of a missile test. There has been no launch yet, though residents of the capital were treated to flower shows featuring model missiles bedecked in Kim Il Sung’s signature bloom, Kimilsungia.
To understand North Korea’s current posture, it is important to look at the Kims, for it is from their family mythology that much flows. The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea may have been established as a Soviet client state, but in the 60 years since the signing of the 1953 armistice agreement ending the Korean War with the U.S.-backed South, the country has morphed into an isolationist, totalitarian monarchy with a sharp, near theocratic edge. “Kim Il Sung is at the core of North Korea’s value system,” says Cho Han-bum, a senior researcher at the Korea Institute for National Unification. Indeed, the birth, life and death of Kim Il Sung serve as something of a national creation myth, with the Kim men cast as godlike protectors of a country under perpetual siege. “The supreme fiction of North Korean propaganda,” wrote Philip Gourevitch in the New Yorker in 2003, “is the Kim dynasty’s account of the Korean War: attacked, defended, triumphant, unassisted.”
A country surrounded by fearsome enemies needs saviors, and North Korea’s court historians have spent decades crafting such men. During his rule Kim Il Sung was called the Great Leader, the Father and the Great Sun. When he died, he became Eternal President. His oddball son Kim Jong Il was no slouch himself, going by Dear Leader as well as Party Center and, upon his death, General Secretary for Eternity. In North Korea, their likeness is treated with the reverence typically accorded religious iconography: portraits are given pride of place in homes and schools; Kim pins were mandatory for decades. “Kim Il Sung took the cult of personality to a new level,” writes journalist Barbara Demick in her 2010 book, Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea. “What distinguished him in the rogues’ gallery of 20th century dictators was his ability to harness the power of faith.”
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Now the heir must take his place atop the pyramid. To do so Kim Jong Un, who is 30 or so, appears to be channeling his look-alike grandfather, more so than his dad. This makes sense: older North Koreans remember the early Kim Il Sung era — before the collapse of the Soviet Union and the famine of the 1990s — as a better time. In March, young Kim announced a “new strategic line,” saying he will simultaneously rebuild his country’s economy and expand its nuclear arsenal. The framing channels his grandfather, says John Delury, a North Korea expert who teaches Chinese history at Seoul’s Yonsei University. “Some of this talk of being on the brink of another Korean War is invoking his grandfather,” he says. “This is Kim Il Sung redo.”
What we can glean from this, perhaps, is that North Korea’s leadership still wants or needs to portray itself as a country on the defensive, fighting off imperial aggressors against all odds. “Kim Jong Un has not achieved anything to show the public,” says Bong Young-shik, a senior researcher at the Asan Institute in Seoul. “The current crisis is kind of a manufactured first step for the North Korean leadership to create an image of a great leader.” So long as the crisis doesn’t spin out of control.
— With reporting by Audrey Yoo / Seoul