Sunday, December 13, 2009

The symbols on North Korea's new currency

Frank Rudiger, a noted Korean Studies academic I've shared a few discussions with, writes a piece in the Nautilus Institute's Policy Forum Online on the important symbolism on the new North Korean currency. An excerpt:
Kim Jong-il's picture has for many years hung next to the images of his father in every home and office in North Korea. However, so far there was no Kim Jong-il statue in North Korea, no Kim Jong-il street, no Kim Jong-il plaza, no Kim Jong-il university, no Kim Jong-il Art School, no Kim Jong-il theatre. And there was no reference to Kim Jong-il on the country's currency.

The latter has been changed now, and we can expect the other "no's" to follow. This is far from being a meaningless formality or another bizarre image from a strange country. It breaks with a logic that has been the foundation of Kim Jong-il's power ever since he officially resumed control of North Korea in 1997 after a three-year mourning period. Kim Jong-il has always made it very clear that he leads because legitimacy has been transferred to him by Kim Il-sung. Challenging him would automatically mean questioning the authority of the Eternal President, which is unthinkable in North Korea. This has worked well; it protected Kim Jong-il and ensured that his claim to power was uncontested despite the fact that his personality differs from that of his father, and despite the many hardships the North Korean people had to endure during his leadership. However, as the issue of succession emerged, catalyzed by health issues, this strategy became a problem. He faced a dilemma. Kim Jong-il can only bestow legitimacy upon the next generation if he possesses enough of his own authority; but this he can only acquire if he first gives up the protection by his father. North Korea needs a strong leader(ship) who can check the centrifugal powers of economic malaise and outside pressure. A successful transfer of power to Kim Jong-eun, or to a committee, would require Kim Jong-il to create his own, independent legitimacy first. The development of the atomic bomb is an achievement that could substantiate such a claim. Now, the ideological implementation follows.

Kim Jong-il is stepping out of the shadow of Kim Il-sung. He takes a great risk by exposing himself in such a way; but this is inevitable if he ever wants to be able to transfer power actively - either to his son, or to a collective. Technically, the new North Korean currency is an attempt to bring the economy back under control. But the picture of the elderly Kim Il-sung, the first-ever appearance of Kim Jong-il, and the reminder that these two leaders form a unity and that the Party is above the military also indicate that a power change in North Korea is drawing closer.
When I have some time, I hope to write more on this later.

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