Authority and Emotions: Kim Jong Il and Religious Imagination in North Korean Literature
CitationKim, Sunghee. 2017. Authority and Emotions: Kim Jong Il and Religious Imagination in North Korean Literature. Doctoral dissertation, Harvard University, Graduate School of Arts & Sciences.
AbstractThis dissertation explores how Kim Jong Il, the supreme leader of North Korea (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea; DPRK) from 1994 to 2011, established his legitimacy based on constructs of his late father, Kim Il Sung’s, divine authority at the turn of the twentieth century. Focusing on North Korean historical narratives—produced and circulated under Kim Jong Il’s supervision—this study sheds light on the relationships among the idea of divine authority, the functions and purposes of historical narrative, and the people’s emotions expressed in North Korea’s historical writing.
Previous studies often described this historical writing—or what my dissertation explores as the fictionalized biography of Kim Il Sung, the father, and Kim Jong Il, the son—as propaganda for the authoritarian regime while underestimating the religious quality of the propaganda (and more specifically its roots in Judeo-Christian biblical narrative). Scholars in North Korean studies have ignored the roles played by the North Korean people’s imaginations of immortality, encouraged by historical narratives, and their emotions, caused by religious visions, during the great famine and economic difficulties in the 1990s.
The North Korean state’s ideological constructions—such as Kimilsungism, Kimjongilism, and the Juche idea of self-reliance—display features commonly associated with religion. Particularly in the 1990s, Kim Jong Il stressed this political religion by urging the people to read and discuss state-sanctioned history. North Korea’s leader deployed state-constructed historical prose to consecrate his father as a messiah of the Korean race, justify his own oppressive rule as his dead father’s yuhun (will), and encourage the people’s imagination of yŏngsaeng (immortality) as a way to heal their pain and grief suffered as a result of famine. Thus, I argue that the religious imaginations of immortality in North Korean historical writing helped the son Kim Jong Il control people’s emotions. He sought to suppress negative feelings (e.g., fear of death) and augment positive emotions (e.g., happiness with everyday life) by operating a propaganda apparatus that produced and circulated hagiographic fictions of his father and himself.
This study also examines the ways in which the state constructs of religious imaginations of immortality and the afterlife in North Korea presented extended working hours; overwork; industrial accidents; and deaths at factories, farms, mines, and construction sites. Despite the massive scale of famine-related deaths and grievous economic hardship in the 1990s, the Kim Jong Il regime managed to guide the people to cope with these tragic environments by transforming labor into meditation. Meditation is a practice or technique designed for self-regulation of the mind. It is practiced not for material gain but for spiritual enlightenment that generates feelings of tranquility, patience, and forgiveness. I propose that labor (work) can be a meditative practice, if it is incorporated into a daily routine. In North Korea, working—along with participating in various meetings and government-required demonstrations—created a temporal scansion that was intended to calm the North Korean people’s negative emotional states, such as anxiety, fear, and depression. I define temporal scansion as a recurrent pattern in people’s everyday lives that made them impervious to the shock and pain of frequently-occurring industrial accidents. The rhythmic cycle is a sine qua non for meditation. During the great famine, North Korean literature and historical writing attempted to depict workers who were overcoming their fear of death, transcending the self, and constructing their life-death continuums by following a temporal scansion that the regime imposed on their everyday lives. North Korean propaganda alleged that North Koreans could make their political life eternal by sacrificing their biological lives for the nation. Deaths at worksites were elevated to martyrdom and deceased workers were celebrated as martyrs.
In this state-constructed vision and state-mandated program of reading the state-sanctioned history, North Korean people successfully deal with negative feelings, such as anxiety and fear, by keeping their daily routine, transform their whole lives into service to nation and their leaders with the temporal scansion in everyday life, and have immortality because their experiences in the factories, mines, farms, and constructions sites where they worked live on forever in history.
Citable link to this pagehttp://nrs.harvard.edu/urn-3:HUL.InstRepos:41140225
- FAS Theses and Dissertations