Analyses

What connects shamans and generals? On the problem of verification of internal conflicts of North Korea

The number of confirmed executions and frequent disappearances of politicians remind us that in North Korea the rules of social Darwinism apply. Any attempt to limit Kim Jong-un's power may be considered hostile and ruthless.

Instytut Boyma 05.07.2019

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In North Korea, it is common to say that the leader is like the sun – when you are too close, you will burn up when you get too far, you will freeze. One (though not the only) reason for the stability of the Kim regime is the use of the universal terror method. Kim Jong-un, during his rule, follows the path set by his father and grandfather: he makes regular purges. The loudest of the purges concerned his uncle Jang Song-thaek and general Ri Yong-ho (not to be confused with the North Korean diplomat with the same name). Probably the most bizarre case, illustrating the power of Kim Jong-un, concerns Hyon Yong-ch. In 2012-2015, Hyon became a general, then a deputy speaker, again a general, then he was demoted to the rank of colonel general, to be promoted to general, to return to the rank of colonel general until he finally disappeared completely from politics. There are suspicions that he was shot, although it can not be confirmed one hundred percent. Similarly, as you can not be certain of the recent reports of the public execution of two fortune-tellers in Chongjin or purges after the unsuccessful summit of the DPRK-USA in Hanoi. In the case of North Korea, are we doomed to fake news?

Different faces of truth

Sensational media are often in a hurry to “kill” people who suddenly disappear from the public space of the DPRK. The best example is the recent high-profile case of Kim Yong-chol, vice chairman of the Central Committee of Korea’s Labor Party. World reports circulated that he was shot. Soon, the rumor was denied by the official North Korean media, which showed pictures from the concert, on which the general sits near the Supreme Leader. Information about his imprisonment, as well as the execution of Kim Hyok-chol (also denied) was given by the magazine Choson Ilbo, a veteran of disinformation on North Korea [1].

Choson’s other high-profile mishaps include the story of North Korean singer Hyon Song-wol. The artist belonged to the famous band Moranbong Band and is known for performing such works as General and soldiers (장군님 과 해병 들) and Woman – perfect horse (준마 처녀 – about a woman’s work leader). According to the South Korean newspaper, it was to be lost in 2013. In a short article Chosun presented his version of events [2], in which Hyon Song-wol was hurriedly shot along with ten other artists on the accusation of producing and distributing “obscene” (음란물) materials, as well as possessing the Bible, which is illegal in North Korea . Pornography and the Holy Bible usually do not go hand in hand, and therefore the author of the article considered the whole action as a scam, in which the real reason was to be the vague love relationships of the singer with Kim Jong-un. In addition, the love of the country’s leaders is another mystery.

“Choson has been wrong so many times, it’s hard to take this platform seriously,” told me B.R. Myers, who has been involved in propaganda of North Korea for years. The criticism of the journalistic dishonesty of this magazine is obviously correct, and books are written about the problems of the South Korean press. However, it is worth paying attention to how difficult it is to get confirmed information from North Korea. Usually, the media, when presenting novelties, are based on their “anonymous sources”. For obvious reasons, their identity can not be revealed and the mere fact of animity should not be a reason to reject the potential value of the given information. Chad O’Carroll, a longtime editor of NKNews, denied the murder of Kim Hyok-chol on twitter, citing his “unidentified source” [3].

Who actually provides information about the internal actions of the regime? They are the most common refugees living in China and South Korea. These people often, although they deny it in public, keep in touch with their family. Today, there is an extensive courier industry that smuggles messages (and money) to North Korea, and in some cases even a phone call through the Chinese network is possible. Other sources include foreigners working in Pyongyang, teachers or ethnic Chinese (hwagyo) living in DPRK, but with much greater freedom in traveling between both countries. As you can guess, the field for information distortion is enormous, especially considering the media nature of North Korea – the people of this country have learned that what can not be said can have additional meaning. Korea lives so gossip. Another problem is the so-called “bad will” (eg in the case of refugees reluctant to the regime).

Also, North Korean propaganda has its share in intentional sowing of disinformation. Numerous observers of KCNA websites (Korean Central News Agency) seem to forget that Koreans from the North, except for a small elite, do not have access to them, and internal propaganda often presents a completely different picture of the situation. The whole media strategy of North Korea is well reflected in the idea of ​​Mao’s si-xiang dou-zheng presented in 1929, meaning “war of thought”, which should be understood as gaining control over the public opinion by all means. In other words, the goal is to sanctify the means. Examples of such activities can be multiplied. When a couple of filmmakers, abducted in 1978 on the orders of Kim Jong-il, Shin Sang-ok and Choi Eun-hee escaped from the hands of the dictator in Vienna and obtained shelter at the American embassy, ​​the North accused them of stealing big money, denouncing the story of “kidnapping” “. Similarly, any relationship with the sinking of the Cheonan corvette in 2010 was denied. In 2016, in the case of Otto Warmaret, an American teenager sentenced to 15 years in prison and tragically deceased (murdered?) Pyongyang, as a proof presented a film on which allegedly Otto breaks the propaganda poster from the Yanggakdo Hotel. Many question the originality of the material, and a roommate from the hotel undermines the possibility of theft [4]. Interestingly, to this day, a large part of the South Korean society believes in the North version in the three described cases.

Attempts to manipulate can take place in the case of the last Kim Yong-chol case. North Korean media, as proof that nothing is happening to him, presented a rather strange picture, on which the general covers his face with his hands. Perhaps this is an attempt to humiliate the unfavorable media of South Korea? The whole matter should be read as a further part of the game from the USA. Finally, punishing Kim Hyok-chola and Kim Yong-chola, as well as potentially other people, would be punishment for a diplomatic failure in Hanoi. In this way Pyongyang warns “beware, we do not trust you and we can quickly return to the path of the sword.”

Fortune-tellers offside

In a small state, politics boils down to the Leninist principle of “who-whom.” The Kim regime is waging a constant war for the “souls” of its citizens. It tries to nip in the bud any chance of creating structures  which would have a chance to divide the authorities. Institutional religions were in a losing position. Although we do not know the exact statistics, it is estimated that in 1945-1951 North Korea could have escaped as many as 1.5 million people, mainly due to religious repression. Native beliefs have either been brutally subordinated to new politics (like cheondogyo) or treated as superstitions that must be combated.

In 1957, shamans along with their families were assigned to a hostile class. Many were deported to camps or subjected to endless re-education sessions. Campaigns directed against native beliefs have been repeated several times (it is worth mentioning that attempts to eradicate the “superstition” were also made by the Park Chong-hee government). Fighting shamanism, however, is not easy. He has no explicit doctrine, and the only institution is the shaman himself. This belief system, due to its syncretic character and lack of organization, has an advantage over Buddhism and Christianity. It is easier to hide and adapt even to unfavorable conditions. When I talked about religious issues with some runaway from the province of Ryanggang under the pseudonym “Pom”, she did not know who exactly is a Buddha, and she learned about Jesus only in China. It was only when I asked about shamans (무당) and fortune tellers (점쟁이) that I heard: “Many people consult with them the choice of date for an important event. My mother talked to them about the right time to escape from Korea. Some go to them after the loss of a loved one. ” Pom, like the rest of South Korean citiznes, would not call these practices religious.

The latest reports on public executions of Chongjin, a city in the north-east of the country, show how popular shamanic practices may be. According to Radio Free Asia, two fortune-tellers were shot on charges of spreading the “superstition”. Public executions, especially in big cities, are rare. People tend to disappear silently. If the RFA reports are true, it would be the first public execution in Chongjin for several decades. One should read them as a clear signal of a return to a sharp anti-religious policy and a warning for the inhabitants.

Korean fake news

What links shamans executions and purges at a high level? First of all, the difficulty in confirming all information. Keep extreme care in this topic. Secondly, the number of confirmed executions and relatively frequent disappearances of politicians remind us that in North Korea rules of social Darwinism apply. Any attempts to limit the power of Kim Jong-un, even in the form of belief in supernatural abilities of the shaman, can be considered hostile and treated absolutely. Thirdly, it is legitimate to ask how well the authorities in the DPRK consciously manipulate information? KCNA has a long tradition of deceiving the world.

References:

[1] http://www.mediatoday.co.kr/news/articleView.html?idxno=200326

[2]http://news.chosun.com/site/data/html_dir/2013/08/29/2013082900247.html

[3] https://twitter.com/chadocl/status/1134231104670425088

[4] https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/josh-rogin/wp/2017/06/15/otto-warmbiers-north-korea-roommate-speaks-out/?noredirect=on&utm_term=.de9c59389bbf

Roman Husarski

A graduate of film studies and far-eastern studies at the Jagiellonian University. Currently, a PhD student at the Institute of Religious Studies of the Jagiellonian University. As part of the bilateral exchange, in 2019/2020 he is a student at Chonbuk National University in South Korea. His field of scientific work includes: political science of religion, the mythological character of cinema, the ideology of North Korea and broadly understood Korean studies. In the 2016/2017 academic year, as part of the scholarship, he participated in an annual exchange with Hankuk University in Seoul. Privately, he is passionate about Southeast Asia and learning foreign languages. He runs a blog wloczykij.org.

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