This Saturday is party day in North Korea. Well, actually, Party party day.
Kim Jong Un’s regime celebrates Saturday the 70th anniversary of the foundation of the Korean Workers’ Party, the Communist organization that remains the linchpin of his authoritarian state.
There will be a huge parade through Kim Il Sung Square in Pyongyang, home of the party headquarters, complete with goose-stepping soldiers, dancing children, tanks and missiles mounted on carriers.
It’s shaping up to take on a much larger scale than previous parades. And it’s all about making Kim Jong Un look good.
“For Kim Jong Un, it’s another way to emphasize his connection with his grandfather and to increase his power,” said Andrei Lankov, a historian who teaches at Kookmin University in Seoul.
The third-generation leader in the world’s only Confucian Communist dynasty, Kim has something of a legitimacy problem.
For one, he’s young — probably 32 or 33 — in a society that reveres age. Plus, he’s got none of the mythology that surrounded his grandfather Kim Il Sung, an anti-imperialist revolutionary fighter, or his father Kim Jong Il, born on the spiritually important Mount Paekdu under a bright star, or at least that’s how North Korean legend tells it. (In reality, he was born in a camp in the Russian Far East.)
No, Kim the Third went to a fancy Swiss school, is obese in a country of food shortages, and never served in the military, as required of every other citizen.
As a result, he’s been fashioning himself as something of a reincarnation of his grandfather, the man who founded North Korea and presided over it during relatively good times. Kim Il Sung is remembered fondly even by many people who have escaped to South Korea. Rumor has it that the youngest Kim has even had plastic surgery to look more like his granddad.
Kim Il Sung founded the Korean Workers’ Party after the Korean Peninsula was divided in the wake of World War II, amalgamating two leftist groups, getting rid of his rivals, and installing himself as unquestionable leader.
Author Bradley Martin wrote about the formation of the Workers’ Party after World War II in his book on Kim Il Sung, “Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader.”
“Although North Korea quickly had put into place the apparatus of the police state, Kim’s personal power was still far from absolute,” Martin wrote, describing how Kim Il Sung merged two leftist parties to create the Workers’ Party, with himself as leader.
“Kim himself said the new party needed unity and iron discipline, which required a ‘merciless struggle against all with opposing inclinations,’ ” Martin wrote. “By the fall of 1948, he had methodically undercut his rivals, removing them entirely or shunting them aside to secondary posts. For the first time, he had no peers.”
The party’s power is all-encompassing. The North Korean constitution states that the country “shall conduct all activities under the leadership of the Korean Workers’ Party.”
While Kim Il Sung was very much a party man, Kim Jong Il elevated the military during his 17-year-reign, promoting a “military first” policy that emphasized the army above all else and ordering the country’s first long-range missile and nuclear tests.
But since he took over at the end of 2011, Kim Jong Un — officially first secretary of the Korean Workers’ Party and chairman of the party’s Central Military Commission — has been reverting to his grandfather’s approach and has been assiduously resurrecting the party’s power.
Kim Jong Un and his cronies have demonstrated a commitment to “revitalizing the party as an important instrument of governance” during the transition from the second to third generation, Ken Gause, an expert on North Korea’s leadership, wrote in a chapter on the party in “North Korea in Transition: Politics, Economy, and Society.”
As with most things about North Korea, we don’t know why that is the case. But analysts suspect that this is part of his effort to claim legitimacy by modeling himself on his grandfather.
“Kim Jong Un always wanted to position himself as a successor to his grandfather, Kim Il Sung, the founding father of the state and the party,” said Lankov, who knows a thing or two about communism from having grown up in the Soviet Union then studied at Kim Il Sung University in Pyongyang. “Actually the party was the brainchild of the Soviet colonels, but it’s presented in North Korea as the creation of Kim Il Sung.”
At a Workers’ Party conference in 2011, shortly before Kim Jong Il’s death and after Kim Jong Un had been anointed as heir apparent, Kimilsungism-Kimjongilism was proclaimed as “the only guiding idea of the party.”
Yeah, Kimilsungism-Kimjongilism. That’s a thing in North Korea, revolving around the “revolutionary thought of the great leader, Kim Il Sung” and his “Juche ideology.”
Juche — usually translated as “self reliance” — is a peculiarly North Korean philosophy, which doesn’t really extend beyond the idea of not relying on the outside world. This is deeply ironic for a country that owes its existence to the largesse of the Soviet Union and now to aid from China.
Indeed, the idea is so thin that Brian Myers, an expert on North Korean literature, likes to point out that the entry in the North Korean encyclopedia for the Juche tower, an obelisk-shaped Pyongyang monument to the idea, is twice as long as the entry for the Juche philosophy itself.
But North Korea operates as a police state and continues to exist because the populace is indoctrinated into this philosophy and denied information about other forms of thought. From a young age, children are made to join the Socialist Youth League, and the elite become party members.
For that reason, Kim Jong Un needs to present the party as unshakable.
The official news outlets have been full of reports about visitors from places including Spain, Iceland and the Philippines — many of them from “friendship associations” of socialist sympathizers — arriving in Pyongyang for the anniversary celebrations.
There’s a delegation of the Japanese National Liaison Council of Societies for the Study of Kimilsungism-Kimjongilism, and the secretary general of the African Regional Committee for the Study of the Juche Idea has arrived.
Also in town: Liu Yunshan, No. 5 in China’s Communist Party. This is a big deal given that relations between the neighbors have been frosty since Kim took over four years ago and that Kim didn’t attend China’s big parade last month.
There has been a lot of speculation about whether North Korea will mark the anniversary with more than fireworks: it has warned it will launch a satellite, widely seen as cover for its long-range ballistic missile program. That would enable the regime to crow about its military might and try to generate more pride in North Korea.
But analysts at 38 North, a Web site run by the U.S.-Korea Institute at SAIS in Washington, have been scouring satellite imagery and see no signs of any preparations for a launch this week.
The fact that Liu will be in attendance makes a launch even less likely, said Lankov. “It would be a major embarrassment for the Chinese if this happened, so the Chinese will be making sure that nothing improper takes place.”
Still, this is North Korea. So nobody is really sure what’s going to happen.
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This article was written by Anna Fifield from The Washington Post and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.