Cartmanland, The Country (Or, Kim Jong Un’s North Korea and the End of Juche)

Maybe I’ve learned something from Dennis Rodman’s visit to North Korea after all, which is that I was probably incorrect when I denied that Kim Jong Un had enough power to make decisions that affect North Korea’s national priorities. Unbelievable as I find it to be, he really does seem to be in charge of something, and quite probably, everything.

What causes me to reverse my thinking on this important question? The fact that Rodman has made a ridiculous and brutish spectacle of a state that has invested so heavily in its image, both domestically and internationally. If North Korea cares enough to monitor this blog (last item), it certainly knows that.

For years, North Korea used staged “inspection” visits and “news” stories to portray its leaders as monastic, self-sacrificing, parental leaders who are devoted only to the welfare of their “children.” This imagery goes to the very core of the juche ideology, often mistranslated as “self reliance,” but really signifying something between Führerprinzip, shinmin no michi, and e pluribus unum on a meth binge. Under Kim Jong Un, juche has devolved to nothing more than l’etat, c’est moi, and North Korea’s national priorities now include dolphinariums, amusement parks, and ski resorts for the emperor’s personal pleasure.

In the Japanese analogue to juche, the emperor was above mortal man, and it was a shock to the Japanese people to see their emperor photographed with General MacArthur after the war ended. Today, the living god of North Korea eschews visits from diplomats who could bring him riches and his people happiness. Instead, he is photographed with a global laughingstock who debriefs waiting reporters in a tin foil hat, showing them pictures of himself and the man-child-god on the golf course.

In spite of the tin foil, the mind control rays still work superbly. Rodman also answers those who suggested — seriously — that he might actually perform some useful diplomatic function: “Ask them assholes,” referring to President Obama and the former Secretary of State.

Rodman also symbolizes Kim Jong Un’s worship of the coarsest elements of foreign culture, a shocking reversal of an ideology that has long propagated the unique purity of Korean culture and its superiority over all other cultures. (One can see this same dichotomy in South Korean society to a lesser extent, but North Korea has elevated xenophobia to religious dogma.)

Here is the key point: none of this ideological erosion appears to be leading to any practical benefit for North Korea’s power structure or national interests. It appears to be for no greater purpose than satisfying the immediate impulses of one person.

The Rodman visit is drawing almost universal ridicule and contempt abroad. Hardly a news story that covered it failed to note Rodman’s failure to secure the release of Ken Bae, or North Korea’s recent refusal to receive a visit from Robert King. Others linked to stories about the whereabouts of Camp 22’s former inmates. Rabbi Abraham Cooper adds that the visit is particularly bizarre and irresponsible as North Korea continues to supply chemical weapons equipment and technology to Syria. (NK News also publishes a new claim that North Korea has tested chemical weapons on prisoners.)

Rodman suggests that Jong Un wants to reform North Korea’s economy, but our latest installment of North Korea Perestroika Watch says otherwise:

Seoul-based website Daily NK exclusively revealed recently that Pyongyang has updated and confirmed its “Ten Principles for the Establishment of the One-Ideology System.” This move offers some of the strongest evidence yet that Kim Jong Un is steering a similar course to his father.” [WSJ, Korea Real Time]

The Chosun Ilbo has more evidence that Kim Jong Un is investing North Korea’s resources in satisfying his personal whims:

Three big prestige projects launched by new leader Kim Jong-un are bleeding North Korea dry, exacerbating hardships and squeezing their pockets, according to a South Korean government official.

They are the construction of a ski resort, an equestrian club in Pyongyang and the attempt to turn empty plots of barren land into lawns.

The official said the regime is forcing North Korean diplomats and workers overseas to remit US$300 each to Pyongyang for the construction of the ski resort. It has also told Chongryon, a large pro-Pyongyang Korean organization in Japan, to raise funds. People are being “encouraged” to send gifts to soldiers working on the ski resort, and they have little choice but to comply.  [Chosun Ilbo]

If Eric Cartman were the despot of a small country instead of a fictional character, I imagine that his rule would be a lot like this.

Historically, regimes run as personal vanity projects have not lasted very long. By every visible indication, Kim Jong Un is an impulsive, shallow narcissist. Aside from staged “inspection” visits, we’ve seen no indication that he’s learned in or concerned about statecraft. It still isn’t clear how much power he really holds behind the scenes, but it’s increasingly clear that he has enough to shape North Korea’s national fiscal priorities around his personal whims.

[This post was edited for grammar and spelling after publication.]


  1. I didn’t know about Shinmin no Michi. How charming: East Asia is the paddy field of the Yamato race. I bet the Chinese were happy to learn that.

    Your link to Wikipedia gives the correct spelling of Führerprinzip.

    Because I’ve never watched South Park, I’ve never heard of Eric Cartman. You’ve given me a little education in pop culture.

    Where is kushibo when we need him? I would like to read his evaluation of Kim Jong Un’s power.


  2. This whole thing is starting to resemble a Woody Allen movie.

    Except for the part about hundreds of thousands in gulags in N. Korea, and the weapons.