Tradition and Modernity in North Korea

Tradition and Modernity in North Korea

The extent to which the Confucian values of the Chosn Dynasty continue to exert an influence on North Korean society in the 1990s is an intriguing question that cannot be adequately answered until outside observers can gain greater access to the country. The regime practices a very strict regimen of "revolutionary tourism" for those few people allowed to visit the country, so observing everyday life and gleaning opinions and attitudes are impossible. The average tourist views countless monuments to Kim Il Sung, revolutionary theatrical performances, model farms and factories, large, new apartment complexes, and scenic splendor, but hears little of what the people really think or feel. Confucianism clearly does not serve as a formal ideology or social ethic (being condemned because of its history of class exploitation, its cultural subservience to a foreign state, and as a contradiction of the chuch'e ideology). Yet its more authoritarian and hierarchical themes seem to have made the population receptive to the personality cult of Kim Il Sung.

This authoritarian strain of Confucianism has apparently survived, transformed by socialist and chuch'e ideology. It appears that P'yongyang has chosen to co-opt some of the traditional values rather than to eradicate them. For example, the education system and the media strongly emphasize social harmony. But the nature of education beginning at the preschool level and the limited amount of time parents are able to spend with children because of work schedules subordinates parental authority to that of the state and its representatives. Some aspects of filial piety remain salient in contemporary North Korea; for example, children are taught by the state-controlled media to respect their parents. However, filial piety plays a secondary role in relation to loyalty to the state and Kim Il Sung.

Kim Il Sung is not only a fatherly figure, but was described, in childhood, as a model son. A 1980 article entitled "Kim Il Sung Termed Model for Revering Elders" tells of how he warmed his mother's cold hands with his own breath after she returned from work each day in the winter and gave up the pleasure of playing on a swing because it tore his pants, which his mother then had to mend. "When his parents or elders called him, he arose from his spot at once no matter how much fun he had been having, answered 'yes' and then ran to them, bowed his head and waited, all ears, for what they were going to say." According to Kim, "Communists love their own parents, wives, children, and their fellow comrades, respect the elderly, live frugal lives and always maintain a humble mien." The "dear leader," or Kim Jong Il, is also described as a filial son; when he was five years old, a propagandist wrote, he insisted on personally guarding his father from evil imperialists with a little wooden rifle.

The personality cult of Kim Il Sung resembles those of Stalin in the Soviet Union in the 1930s and 1940s and Nicolae Ceau escu in Romania until his overthrow in 1989. But in North Korea, special attention is paid to the theme of Kim's benevolence and the idea that North Koreans must repay that benevolence with unquestioning loyalty and devotion, recalling old Confucian values of repaying debts of gratitude. Kim's birthday, April 15, is a national holiday. His eightieth birthday, celebrated in 1992, was the occasion for massive national celebrations. The state-run media similarly depicts Kim Jong Il in a benevolent light.

One enthusiastic Japanese writer related in a 1984 book how the younger Kim, learning of the poor living standards of lighthouse keepers and their families on a remote island, personally arranged for various life-style improvements, including water storage tanks, television sets, special scholarships for the children, and "colorful clothes, coats and caps of the kind that were worn by children in P'yongyang." In the writer's words, "the lighthousemen and their families shed tears of gratitude to the Secretary [Kim Jong Il] for his warmhearted care for them." The writer also described the "bridge of love," built on Kim's order in a remote area in order to allow thirteen children to cross a river on the way to school. He emphasized that the bridge had absolutely "no economic merit."

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