No Revolution Here: Beyond Kim Jong Il's Cult of Personality

By Lee, Kristine | Harvard International Review, Summer 2011 | Go to article overview

No Revolution Here: Beyond Kim Jong Il's Cult of Personality


Lee, Kristine, Harvard International Review


In late February, dozens of helium-filled balloons drifted on southerly winds into North Korea. The seemingly innocuous incident drew a fierce response from Pyongyang, as North Korean officials threatened to target and kill those responsible for releasing the balloons.

The "perpetrators" were members of the South Korean military who were leading a massive propaganda campaign to channel messages denouncing totalitarianism into the country. South Korean military personnel and human rights activists worked together to fill each balloon with thousands of leaflets, cassettes, and video tapes containing unnerving information about President Kim Jong Il's private life, news of the populist uprisings in the Middle East, and messages drawing attention to their lack of basic freedoms. The absolute lack of civil society in North Korea, however, augments the challenge of conveying a coherent populist message to the people. Further limiting the North Korean people's exposure to external ideas is Kim Jong Il's usage of elaborate military posturing to divert the attention of the international community from North Korea's domestic problems to its hyper-militarized secu rity apparatus.

South Korea's populist provocations came in the wake of the North Korean military's shelling of South Korea's Yeonpyeong Island last November, as well as its torpedo attack of a South Korean naval vessel, the Cheonan, earlier in the year. The propaganda balloons released leaflets at approximately the same time that nearly 13,000 US troops and 200,000 South Korean forces were due to begin an annual series of joint air, land, and sea military exercises around the Korean peninsula. While these military7 exercises were certainly not welcomed, Pyongyang's official news agency responded with particular enmity to the propaganda campaign.

The North Korean government seems to have a profound understanding of the threat that psychological warfare poses to their current regime. One senior South Korean official likened the leaking of information into the country to a virus penetrating its "iron curtain," behind which there is scarce knowledge of anything besides malnutrition, political persecution, inflated prices, and meager food rations. The currency devaluation that Kim Jung Il implemented in the fall of 2009 was ostensibly an attempt to stimulate a foundering state-run economy. In reality, it resulted in one of the worst economic disasters that the country has experienced since its so-called "Great Famine" of the mid-1990s--a time in which more than 900,000 North Korean citizens are reported to have starved to death. Recent reports from the Bank of Korea in Seoul have indicated that North Korea's economy is still hurting from the 2009 currency revaluation, as it is reported to have contracted by 0.9 percent in the past year with few signs of recovery at the horizon.

Despite ongoing economic grievances and reports of growing resentment toward Kim Jong Il, there has been a marked lack of social unrest in North Korea. Based on the scanty information available to the outside world, it seems as though all of the elements of social unrest are aligned: widespread hardship, popular anger over the currency revaluation, and political uncertainty stemming from Supreme Leader Kim's expected installment of his third son, Kim Jong Un, as his successor in 2012. …

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