I read this morning that Kim Jong-Il had died, and the news filled me with terrible sadness. Not because I have any affection whatsoever for North Korea's Dear Leader, but because his passing marks the death of my favourite internet blog, João Rocha's Kim Jong-Il Looking At Things.
Reassuring rumours suggest there will be a swift and orderly succession to Kim Jong-Un Looking At Things, but this does little to allay my grief. I've never looked at Kim Jong-Un looking at things, and I have no reason to think he looks at things well. The best piece of Professional Looking I've seen Kim Jong-Un manage has been a vacant stare into space, with the sort of permanent blankness behind the eyes that suggests some drastic emotional mis-wiring, a look KJU coincidentally shares with several other children of dictators (see Syria's Bashar Al-Assad and Iraq's Uday Hussein).
But he'll get practice. Pictures of political leaders looking at things are ubiquitous worldwide. It's universally accepted as a very economical way to create good press – no matter how ignorant, incapable or imbecilic the politician, you can't fault someone for showing an interest – and literally all the politician has to do is look at things. It's brilliantly simple, and they can look at lots of things very quickly to minimise costs. The late KJI was at the peak of his game, with a signature look (both in the sense of what he wore, and in the way he looked at things) that was laughable, daft, and outdated, but also incredibly strong: jumpsuits, outsized women's sunglasses, or big square spectacles under a receding bouffant haircut. He's so influential, it's hard to look at other people looking at things without seeing the references to Kim Jong Il. Just look at this slideshow of Obama looking at things – in several of the pictures he's even wearing KJI's glasses in an unconscious nod to the master of the art.
I loved this blog because it mixed something absurd with something terribly serious. Just as with Muammar Qaddafi in Libya, many outside North Korea like to believe KJI was comical, crazy and hard to take seriously. In some ways, they both were, but for the purposes of propaganda, having such an image is no bad thing. In fact, for the rulers of a totalitarian state, the crazier and more absurd your propaganda can make the world seem, the better.
Let's take a moment to look at some things. To start with, look at the naked statement of contempt and power in the title of KJI's 1983 book, The Teacher of Journalists. Now look at the statement made by the state-sponsored Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) this morning, that "ten million soldiers and the people are in indescribable grief after receiving the sad news that comrade Kim Jong-il has died... At this point, faithful belief, optimism and a determined pledge for victory are taking firm root in people's hearts." This broadcast informing the nation of the Dear Leader's death, also helpfully reminded everyone of the number of soldiers in the country and begged the question: How could everyone be in indescribable grief before they had even heard the news? And of course there is that other absurdity, the suggestion that the news agency can describe precisely what is inside people's hearts. This is not reporting, this is instruction – this is journalism as taught by Kim Jong Il.
Let's look at something else. By now, most people you know with an internet connection have already watched footage of the public mourning in Pyongyang. Scenes of unbelievable, exaggerated hysteria, but with care taken to ensure that order can be seen among the mourners (some groups are dressed uniformly in black, others in rows, immobilised by grief). There are two messages here, one for those who believe the mourning to be real, the other for those who know it to be faked. Interspersed among the more convincing performances (which, admittedly, might be genuine) are samples of obviously terrible ham-acting. My favourite, because she is the most affecting, is the very young girl in the pink puffer jacket, at 2.23 in the video. There is nothing real about the way she weakly slaps the ground, or the way she screams but does not cry. The message this sends to North Koreans is this: even tiny girls, possibly your own children, are under the control of the State, and just as she is mourning because she has been told to and because everyone else is, you will do the same, and by doing the same you will be just as abject and ridiculous and vulnerable as this little girl.
And that's the purpose of absurdity in propaganda. It's not supposed to seem altogether real. It's not supposed to persuade you of anything, or tell you any news. It's supposed to humiliate you. The message, which you are forced to swallow, is of your leader's open contempt for you as a human being. And with no leader to strike back at, you can only reconcile yourself to being made an object of contempt by finding yourself, on some level, to be contemptible and weak.
I was introduced to this idea by an article by Daniel Kalder in the Guardian, where he quoted Anthony Daniels and his book The Wilder Shores of Marx. Daniels writes that within "an established totalitarian regime (propaganda should) do as much violence to the truth as possible. For by endlessly asserting what is patently untrue, by making such untruth ubiquitous and unavoidable, and finally by insisting that everyone publicly acquiesce in it, the regime displays its power and reduces individuals to nullities. Who can retain his self-respect when, far from defending what he knows to be true, he has to applaud what he knows to be false – not occasionally, as we all do, but for the whole of his adult life?"
Pretty depressing, really. But on the bright side I'm starting to think that perhaps Kim Jong Un could pull together an iconic personal image. Look at his hair before he worked on state business, and compare it to his hair as he almost, just possibly, could be beginning to look at things. I'd say it's well on the way to being an excellent politically humiliating haircut, especially given the laws in place on the rest of the male population. He looks a bit nervous about how exactly he should look at things too, but that's fair enough: he has big, ludicrously-stacked shoes to fill.