Creating the Leader-centred Modernity: the birth of the successor in North Korea

Change log
Roy, Ria 

This dissertation examines the history of political succession in the professedly socialist state of North Korea. Against the backdrop of the collapse of the Soviet Union and the general disillusionment with socialist ideals, I examine how North Korea self-consciously bypassed the transience of the charisma of the leader predicted by Max Weber. Opposing the common view that academics in North Korea are hermetically sealed off from Western influences, I use original North Korean sources to examine how the intelligentsia, who were in fact well versed in Western political thought, engaged in a pan-societal project of creating a ‘successor’ for over three decades before the first succession in 1994. In particular, this dissertation examines how North Korean intellectuals’ pursuit of a Marxist-Leninist political, moral and social vision, one bearing the educational legacy of the Japanese Empire, carved out a pioneering space for a successor, in a manner quite unlike their Soviet and Chinese counterparts. This diverges from the previous treatment of the North Korean leadership succession as simply a return to a dynastic succession.

This dissertation includes four chapters, divided into three themes: the origins of the North Korean intelligentsia; the making of the cultural sphere; and the birth of the successor. In Chapter 1, I focus on the birth of Kim Il Sung University, founded in 1946, and the origins of the intelligentsia in North Korea. Starting with the ‘twin birth’ of Seoul National University (the former Keijō Imperial University) in the South and Kim Il Sung University in the North in the same year, I trace the post-colonial origins of the intelligentsia who moved from the South to the North shortly after the United States Army Military Government in Korea (USAMGIK) issued its plan for restructuring Seoul National University. In Chapter 2, I examine the foundation of the Academy of Sciences in 1952 during the Korean War. The Academy of Sciences marked North Korea’s symbolic integration into the academic nexus of the Soviet revolutionary bloc. In Chapter 3, I focus on the sacralization of politics and the revolutionary themes adumbrated in the cultural sphere of North Korea, as the state weathered the reverberations of the 20th Party Congress in the Soviet Union. In Chapter 4, I examine the rise of Kim Jong-il in the cultural scene. In the absence of a legal-rational legitimation of the successor in the professedly socialist revolutionary state, I explore how the state skilfully ensured that the notion of the ‘successor’ would be first born in the cultural sphere, and then subsequently transmitted to the political and legal spheres. Eventually, I demonstrate how North Korean scholarship engaged with the rise of the successor from the early 1960s, preceding the first formal succession in 1994, by three decades.

By exploring the relationship between the intellectuals, political leadership, and the academic debates that took place in North Korea, I explore how the very quest for an egalitarian, revolutionary ideal paradoxically transitioned into an illiberal modernity centred around the primacy of the leader and the novel space of a successor in the revolution. I hope my work contributes to our understanding of the history of socialism, political resilience, illiberal modernity, and political religion, shedding light on the challenges of both the past and the present.

Nilsson-Wright, John
authoritarianism, Cold War, cult of personality, global history, intellectual history, modern East Asian history, modern Korean history, North Korea, revolutionary bloc
Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)
Awarding Institution
University of Cambridge
Gates Cambridge Trust