What lies beneath the spectacle of North Korea

 abc.net.au  2/15/2018 1:19:19 AM   Matter of Fact host Stan Grant

Updated February 15, 2018 12:16:46

One of the first things I noticed when I reported from North Korea was the traffic cops: they were all women.

They were beautifully turned out; perfect uniforms, heavily made up: it was performance.

Same as the buses ferrying office workers dressed in suits, brief cases in hand, to the underground rail.

They arrived on cue each time the bus of foreign media passed by.

It was hard to know what was real and what was contrived: the paranoia of the hermit kingdom can do that; it is designed to.

The North Korean regime understands the power of the image: military parades; statues and murals in tribute to the leadership; revolutionary art depicting the adoring masses.

North Korea has had its own mass games: Cirque du Soleil on steroids, it has been called.

One hundred thousand people in a display of propaganda: music, dancing, acrobatics in a stadium billed as having the highest seating capacity in the world.

The Arirang Games took its name from a story of lovers torn apart: in its way an allegory of the two divided Koreas.

Now, we have the Winter Olympics: the two Koreas for a moment together, with the possibility of a more lasting diplomatic breakthrough.

Or is it just a North Korean propaganda coup?

Pyongyang turns on the charm offensive

The Olympics have already facetiously been dubbed the Pyongyang Games.

"The gold medal for the best propaganda performance at the Winter Olympics must go to Kim Jong-un … Is Mr Kim playing South Korea? Of course he is. His strategy is to drive a wedge between the US and its ally," writes Roula Khalaf in this week's Financial Times:

This is a well-worn tactic. North Korea has played bait-and-switch for years, entering negotiations then walking away, buying time while it develops its nuclear weapons program.

Think of this: North Korea now has the weapons and the means to deliver them to potentially wreak disaster as far away as the United States, or Australia. He has threatened to turn Asia into a "sea of fire".

He has had his uncle executed — shot by anti-aircraft guns and then incinerated — denouncing him as a "traitor" a "dog" and "human scum".

He had his brother murdered in a bizarre plot: two women poisoning him in Kuala Lumpur airport.

Yet, for all of this, the world has seemed enchanted by a North Korean charm offensive — namely cheerleaders and Mr Kim's sister, Kim Yo-jong, his envoy to the games.

She has been photographed smiling with South Korean leader Moon Jae-in.

South Korean media has even dubbed her "princess" and likened her to President Donald Trump's daughter Ivanka.

Ms Kim herself has the title of deputy director of the Propaganda and Agitation Department. She has clearly done her job well.

The masters of spectacle

The North regime captures the essence of politics as "spectacle" — a term coined by French theorist Guy Debord in his 1967 book The Society of the Spectacle.

Debord traced its rise to the 1920s linking it to fascism and the eastern bloc when society, he wrote, becomes a "rigged game".

What better stage than the Olympics?

Sports scholars Alan Tomlinson and Christopher Young write, "Sports events celebrating the body and physical culture have long been driven by political and ideological motives".

The Kim regime in North Korea have been masters of spectacle.

Music has been used to soothe the masses and spread the message.

The country's founding father, Kim Il-sung, composed his own opera, titled Blood Sea.

His son and heir Kim Jong-il said "music must work for politics, and music without politics is the same as flowers without scent".

It is no surprise the current leader, Kim Jong-un, has updated the theme forming his own all-girl band, the Moranbong Band, which performs at all officials functions playing songs of war, victory and self-reliance.

What lies beneath

North Korea is foolishly lampooned, in reality the leadership is shrew. Korean scholars Heonik Kwok and Hyung Ho-chung have written that the Kim family knows how to "build an aura of captivating, charismatic power."

Now, Mr Kim is working that trick on the rest of the world. Why wouldn't he? The West too has been captured by politics as spectacle.

Debord saw the beginnings of this in the 1960s where "the status of celebrity offers the promise of being showered with "all good things" that capitalism has to offer". We surrender the autonomous life, he wrote, "in return for an apotheosis of image".

When a TV reality star is in the White House, it isn't difficult to see how Mr Kim and his attractive, smiling sister can make us forget the nuclear threat, and the plight of those millions trapped in a brutal, secretive world.

Those millions we don't see behind the cheerleaders and glory of the Olympics.

Matter of Fact with Stan Grant is on the ABC News Channel at 9pm, Monday to Thursday.

Topics: government-and-politics, unrest-conflict-and-war, winter-olympics, world-politics, australia

First posted February 15, 2018 12:05:56

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