Deifying the Dear Leader
For a clue as to what may be motivating the North Korean regime's recent provocations, one need look no further than Kim Jong-Un's American counterpart in the Dear Leader deification sweepstakes. Barack Obama is another man without meaningful accomplishments elevated to a leadership position for which he was utterly unprepared and unqualified. Just as the American political establishment and media made fools of themselves producing an illusion of significance around this most insignificant character, so North Korea must do the same for its chubby cherub-cum-demigod.
Remember the Greek columns at Obama's 2008 Democratic convention speech? What was the purpose of that culturally jarring anachronism? Of course, absurd as it seems, it was meant to suggest an impression of Obama as a man larger than his moment, a leader astride Western history -- perhaps even the man to take Western civilization, begun in the shade of such columns, forward to its final destination. (This latter impression turns out to have been exactly correct, though not in the way intended by Obama's myth-making machine.)
Leftist authoritarianism admits of numerous variations, for those interested in splitting hairs over the nuances of oppressive degradation. One of the most consistent elements, however, displayed across the entire progressive spectrum, is the absurd contradiction between the stated goal of obliterating class distinctions in the name of equality, and the extreme demand for something akin to religious fervor surrounding the figure of one or more revolutionary heroes and leaders. You will never find more, or more oversized, public iconography related to political leaders, both founding and current, than in authoritarian states built on progressive lies about human equality. (In case you are wondering how Euro-socialism fits this description, I refer you to the insights of Franz Kafka; the specifically European sect of progressivism channels its religious enthusiasm not into a single leader or hero, but into the nanny state's special divinity, the bureaucracy.)
The omnipresent mythology of the "great leader," the "people's champion," and the "revolutionary hero" turns out to be essential to the maintenance of a regime propped up on promises that can never be fulfilled due to the predictable and permanent failure of oppressive collectivist death cults to provide for the general welfare. (Go figure!) There will be no prosperity, artistic flowering, or higher consciousness achieved under the advanced stages of micro-regulating authoritarianism. (The exception would be art produced as a form of subterranean rebellion against oppression, until such rebellion is crushed; I recommend the best of Chinese and Iranian film from the 1980s and '90s as exemplary of this, and of how the voice of freedom and morality is silenced by the state.)
And even with all the practical power collected in the hands of the ruling elite, a complete social and economic collapse cannot be sustained without a saving mask of state pseudo-religion. This is due in part to the extremes of self-preserving behavior to which starving men will naturally be driven if they are not otherwise propagandized. But there is also another element, too easily neglected by those of us who look at the world's "dear leaders" -- democratically elected or otherwise -- and see only the disdain for their countrymen connoted by their oppressive rule. This other element is vanity, elevated to superhuman levels by the thin air of power's high altitude. The tyrant, as Plato taught, is a miserable man, driven day and night by inescapable fears, insatiable lusts, threat of assassination, suspicion of every ally, and, perhaps modernity's unique twist on this theme, knowledge that the failure of his promises and the misery of his people, which cannot be hidden, stand as a constant rebuke in the world's eyes.
The issue is not conscience. The tyrant is precisely the man who has overcome ordinary moral qualms to the greatest extent possible among humans. Obama himself exemplifies this consciencelessness to a high degree. (See here.) Rather, the tyrannical man, driven by false pride and delusions of grandeur, wishes to be seen as magnificent and superior, while his real world outcomes inspire only increasing levels of hatred and mockery. This is the great paradox of power lust: no one needs to be more obsessively concerned with appearances and reputation than a man who achieves heights of power that would seemingly immunize him against concerns of appearance and reputation.
Last week on her radio show, Andrea Tantaros asked me whether I agreed with the New York Times' assessment that Kim Jong-Un's recent threats have been mere "blustering." My answer was, and is, that he is not merely blustering, but that his intentions may be different from what is easily apparent to an outsider. The North Korean regime takes the mythologizing aspects of communist totalitarianism to absurd extremes, fostering a kind of childish fantasy world picture of its leader as its chief means of pacifying its suffering slaves. Jong-Un's father, for example, is officially described as having performed feats of otherworldly greatness, such as composing the greatest operas of all time and learning to walk at three weeks old. The problem, however, is that the newest Kim was elevated to power "prematurely," i.e., before he had been properly groomed for the role by means of a well-fabricated list of accomplishments worthy of a man who must suddenly be held up before his sheltered people as literally a superior being -- a kind of demigod worthy of worship as much as of obedience.
How, then, to produce such accomplishments now, at the outset of his rule? For the reputation designed for him today will, in theory, be the stuff of school room propaganda for the coming generations.
Consider that much of the regime's hold on power stems from its permanent disinformation campaign to the effect that the world is continually threatening the North Korean people, and that only the regime stands between them and certain death at the hands of the traitors (South Korea) and aggressors (America and Japan). And remember that the dear leader's presence and power are depicted as a gift to Korea from heaven. Let us try to think as the rulers of the world's most closed society would think under these circumstances.
North Korea knows that she cannot win a war against the U.S. and South Korea. And yet she is pushing every button one would push if one wanted to precipitate the outbreak of such a war, perhaps by provoking a pre-emptive attack. In all likelihood, the North Koreans feel relatively certain that they will win this game of chicken -- that their enemies will simply pull back a little, and allow the simmering pot to cool. When this happens, having played the game of brave challenger to the end, right to the brink of war, the regime will be able to describe the scenario to its oppressed people this way: Our new Dear Leader, the Courageous Kim Jong-Un, defended our nation against the threat of the aggressors and traitors. He drew a line in the sand, and dared them to strike the first blow, at the risk of unleashing his unearthly vengeance. And when the world saw that the Dear Leader was ferocious and fearless, they stood down. The American capitalist superpower stood down. The traitorous Korean rebels stood down. The Japanese schemers stood down. The Dear Leader defeated the world!
That is a legend which could maintain a neo-theocratic regime for generations. Perhaps not as good as promising to slow the rise of the oceans and to heal the planet, but Obama's handlers are much nervier and better paid than Kim's. (In fact, some of Obama's people may be guilty of plagiarism, or else they have previously worked for Jong-Un's dad, given that one of Jong-Il's biographical tidbits was his ability to control the weather with his mind.)
If you are inclined to wonder why, given the North Korean population's lack of access to outside information, the regime does not simply claim to have defeated the world, without actually risking its future as it is doing now, you might return to the issue of the tyrant's ego. Propaganda is the authoritarian's best weapon against his oppressed people. But such excessive desire for authority must be rooted in an excessive sense of one's own real merit. To a tyrant, there must be something disappointing, even shameful, about relying entirely on lies that one knows to be lies. The best propaganda is that which has just enough basis in reality to be believable even to the lie's beneficiary himself. This requires clever ego-stroking propagandists within the hubristic man's inner circle, who know how to lie to the people and to the leader at the same time -- equivalent to Iago or Goebbels.
And, as is more than evident from the examples of Obama, Hugo Chavez, Pierre Trudeau, and other elected socialists, believing one's own myth is a special talent among leading progressives. To put it another way, they want to believe so badly that it almost begins to feel true. And while perhaps unable to control the weather with their minds, their boldness in pursuit of their own ego-gratification seems to be able to control the political climate among a good portion of their local populations who happily join them in believing their myths.
So how to answer Kim Jong-Un's threats and provocative actions, which have now reached a level at which even a few of my Korean acquaintances here on the south coast have begun to squirm a little, a rarity in a country used to ignoring the North's "bluster"? My favorite response so far has been that of the South Korean military, which, in the days immediately following the North's February nuclear test, unveiled a guided missile which, they bluntly explained, could target any window of the North's command headquarters at any time of their choosing. That strikes at the regime's ruling vanity on two levels, since the North's various missile test violations have been notorious for their inaccuracy.
It is difficult to see where this latest game will end. Obama is a lot like Kim Jong-Un, and therefore as unpredictable in his behavior as he is irrational and egomaniacal in his motives. As usual, the projection of weakness and incompetence is giving heart to freedom's enemies. Margaret Thatcher is dead. Ronald Reagan is dead. What's left for the tattered remnants of the free world? John Kerry? Dennis Rodman? I'll take my chances with Park Geun-hye, South Korea's new president. She's no Iron Lady, but she could not be any less confidence-inspiring than the alternatives.