The Militaristic Rituals of North Korea


North Korea fired off some missiles the other day, raising tensions significantly in the Pacific region. They reportedly fired five missiles, with one failing to launch and three of the other four coming provocatively close to Japan. The act was universally condemned, and it has put the Trump administration on very high alert.

The North Koreans offered their own rather provocative explanation for the test: it was training for a strike on U.S. bases in Japan. This supposedly keeps the U.S. off balance because were there to be an active military confrontation with North Korea, the U.S. would be depending on the operational integrity of those very bases.

However, there is a far deeper explanation for the tests, beyond geopolitical strategy. The anthropologist Sonia Ryang makes the argument that the political cult of Kim Il Sung, the original leader of North Korea, is key to understanding the cultural logic that runs throughout the entirety of North Korean social life. 

Since its founding in 1948 via the partitioning of the Korean peninsula by the Soviet Union in the north and the U.S. in the south, North Korea has been sustained nationally by the development of a cultic myth regarding the lineage of the original leader, Kim Il Sung. Ryang notes that during the 1970s and 80s, there was in effect an apotheosis of Kim Il Sung in the various political rituals, art, and literature in North Korea. In this mythology, Kim Il Sung transforms into an eternal leader and lord protector over North Korea, which is exemplified by the rule and reign of members of his lineage, the first being Kim Jong Il, and now his son Kim Jong-un.

What appears crucial to all of this is the distinctively racial nature of the myth that surrounds Kim Il Sung. And this comes from a study published back in 2010 by Brian Reynolds Myers entitled The Cleanest Race: How North Koreans See Themselves and Why it Matters. Myers argues that North Korean society is not so much a Marxist or communist society as it is Japanese Fascist. Korea was occupied by Japan for most of the first half of the 20th century, and Myers argues that this is key: whatever Marxist and communist structures are in place in North Korea, we have to see such structures under the rule of a reigning political ideology that has more in common with Emperor Hirohito than it does with Lenin. This would account for the mythology of the eternal divine nature of Kim Il Sung, comparable to the Shinto Emperor.

Now the way North Korean mythology unfolds is that Koreans are an innocent and morally virtuous people, but they are militarily weak and are therefore susceptible to invasion by foreigners, who are inherently evil. And this vulnerability is resolved by the charismatic guidance and protection of the eternal leader, Kim Il Sung.

And so, what is the significance of the missile test launches? They are extensions of the ritualized mythology that binds the North Korean people together as a distinct population. Such military exercises serve to reveal that the nation continues to be guarded and protected by the eternal Great Leader.

Moreover, the racial component to the mythology requires a continuous posture of militaristic hostility towards the U.S., the symbol par excellence of foreign invaders. These rocket launches are extensions of the ritualistic life of North Korea that binds the population together as a unified race protected by an Eternal Leader from the invading tendencies of inherently evil foreigners.

So I’m not particularly concerned about this act of provocation, since I see it as more or less par for the course of a nation rooted in the kind of racial mythology that comprises North Korean society. But one of the obvious implications of this racial ideology is that there will never be peace with North Korea among any nations in its region.

Nevertheless, the important point to all of this is that the recurrence of North Korean missile testing is not merely a matter of geo-political strategy as so many commentators and pundits surmise; it is an intrinsic element of a ritualized mythology that binds and protects the North Korean race from inherently evil foreign invaders. Public displays of military might remind North Koreans that they continue to be under the protection and perpetual blessing of their Great and Eternal Leader.