Interview with Dr. Hye-sin Yun -- “The Kim Il-sung Discourse as a Modern Myth"
North Korea has long been notable for its maintenance of a political system rooted in a centralized personality cult into the modern era. Many studies have been conducted to investigate how North Korea’s personalistic cult was established, how it influenced the legitimacy of North Korea’s rulers, and how it was utilized to manage North Korean society. Following the publication of the article "The Kim Il-sung Discourse as a Modern Myth: The Classical Mythic Format and Ego-Oriented Modernity" in the Fall 2021 issue of North Korea Review, Dr. Hye-sin Yun has thoughtfully addressed a few questions that NKR hopes will be of interest to anyone with an eye for Kim Il-sung discourse and analysis of how he came to be the central figure in the North Korean mythological sphere.
Q: It has been argued that, save for North Korea, the modern era has seen an end to the direct influence of mythology on society. How do you think this narrative and discourse on Kim Il-sung as a modern myth is still relevant to understanding North Korean politics and society?
A: The Kim Il-sung discourse began to emerge in the 1940’s with the symbolic presentation of Kim Il-sung as “the Sun.” Organized praise teams came to attribute titles such as great leader, hero, long-awaited savior, and eternally living Suryong (leader/great leader), to Kim Il-sung. As a natural extension of this Kim discourse continues to serve as a governing agent within North Korean directing social and political discourse. Reaffirming the importance of the Kim discourse within modern North Korean society, the (Hyŏngmyŏngirhwach'ongsŏ kimilsŏngirhwajip 혁명일화총서 《김일성일화집》) was published during the Kim Jong-un regime. Furthermore the state of modern North Korean discourse regarding their leaders can be read at (http://uriminzokkiri.com/), which also provides some English materials.
Q: We had particular interest in the section that examines Kim Il-sung’s discourse through the lens of the classical mythic format. You explored Kim Il-sung discourse, emphasizing the distinction between traditional mythological features and modern ones. Could you perhaps expound on this and explain why North Korean authorities have developed the new human-oriented traits in his discourse?
A: North Korean’s believe in humanities ability to create rather than any traditional social power or religious belief. There was a particularly strong criticism of religious belief in the early North Korean regime. This sentiment was welcomed at the time by the people, who after liberation from Japan in 1945 had a strong desire for reform. Later, in the late 1950s, the human oriented characteristics were brought forth through the self-reliance posture of Juche sasang.
Q: It has been said that appearances of Kim Jong-un riding a white horse or at a campfire on Mt Paekdu are intentional replications of his family’s story. It is also notable that from the early stages of his succession, Kim Jong-un’s appearance closely matched that of his grandfather. Could these acts be connected as a practical application of mythic reproduction in current political discourse?
A: Unlike other forms of narrative, the nature of the myth is rooted in the ‘recurring creation’ by the people. Living according to the spirit expressed in the lives of noble heroes is sought in North Korea at the practical level. As for the format of leadership praise, authors adhered to the traditional narrative form, that is the myth. The mythic narrative pays special attention to the inherent good expressed by the sacredness and nobility of the central figure.
Q: It is held that myths can serve a functional role when both the producers and the core believers share narratives intended to legitimize their core ideals. What are your thoughts on Kim Il-sung discourse's prospects as a modern myth?
A: The overall mythic form will last, as it fits with humanity’s natural affinity for the narrative themes of awe, sacredness, and heroic adventure. However, the specific images commonly used in Kim discourse as the ideal–ego of Kim, such as the Sun, the stars, the General, the spiritually mysterious leader, could be diminished by logical or psychoanalytical criticism. The effect of the images confines the characteristics of Kim to a certain type of character. This aspect of Kim discourse will likely face criticism as it is not a natural or realistically fitting development.
We thank Dr. Yun for being gracious enough to answer some of our questions on her article and her ideas on the DPRK's personalistic cult surrounding Kim Il-sung as a modern myth. For more information about our publication and how to access it, please click the “Subscriptions” tab at the top of this web page.
*** The views expressed herein belong solely to the interviewee and do not necessarily represent the opinions of NKR or Yonsei Institute for North Korean Studies. ***