&#91VIEWPOINT&#93Image and reality in North Korea

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&#91VIEWPOINT&#93Image and reality in North Korea

The beautiful North Korean cheerleading squad at the recently ended Daegu Universiade games makes us think about our society.
One of the most shocking episodes was the cheerleaders’ reaction when they saw a banner with the North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il’s picture hanging in the street in the rain. The cheerleaders were on the bus when they spotted their revered leader’s portrait. They asked the driver to stop the bus, and dozens of North Korean beauties started to run, followed by young South Korean guards. What made the cheerleaders bolt from the bus? They could not allow Mr. Kim’s picture to hang in the rain and let his face get wet. What should we make of their teary eyes?
This might be just another comical happening, but it was eerie at the same time. I was reminded of a story my mother told me long ago. My mother, who was in North Korea when the country was freed from Japanese occupation, experienced and witnessed many shocking incidents, and she used to tell me the strange tales. She said that after liberation, propaganda posters for Kim Il-sung were everywhere. Naturally, the posters had his picture on them. One day, one of the posters was found damaged; someone had cut out Mr. Kim’s eyes. After combing the whole town, the investigator caught a mere kid. The boy was executed for his innocent mischief.
When my mother told me this tale, I only half-believed her, thinking it was impossible. Now that I have seen the weeping North Korean girls carrying the banner on television, I started to believe that what my mother told me could really have taken place. The girls did not even dare to fold the banner, holding umbrellas over it to save it from the rain. The boy must have been guilty of desecration.
As a professor of Western civilization, I have taught students about French kings. What made a French king the ruler of the country? Was it military power or wealth? On top of other qualities, what gave a French king the right to the throne was his sacred existence. He was not merely a ruler of the mundane world, but was God’s agent sent to deliver the divine will. That is why French kings were anointed with sacred oil from the Cathedral of Reims at coronation ceremonies.
The sanctity of the king was best displayed through royal parades. People believed that the king had a divine healing power, and a huge crowd gathered to touch the king whenever his procession came to town. Because the crowd could not be allowed to personally touch his body, the king threw coins to the cheering citizens. They thought anything the king touched also had the same sacred power. Did this foolish ritual take place only in the medieval period? The coin ceremony was most popular in the 19th century in France. It seems that people’s sense had developed more slowly than one might think.
In the hermit kingdom, a similar propaganda system is still effective, and the leader’s charismatic quality and fabricated image strongly appeal to the citizens. The cheerleading squad was exhibit A. They were a live example of a society strictly controlled by the ruler’s image. Since the division of the peninsula five decades ago, the two Koreas took different paths and evolved into completely different societies. Now, the discrepancy between the two is so large that just hoping for unification will not bring the divided country together. We feel it all the more necessary for both sides to prepare for unification.
What do we do now?
We would have to experience more strange scenes. People say we do not see the changes we had hoped for, but it is too early to judge now. It is much better that we see athletes and singers visiting each other than armed infiltrators and spies as in the Cold War era. Let’s hope that both Koreas break away from false images. Images might have a strong captivating power but they are, after all, unreal. The extremely fragile images will fall apart with one crack.

* The writer is a professor of Western history at Seoul National University. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.

by Jou Kyung-chul
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