Kim Jung-un’s Understanding of Self-Reliance

The North Korean leader shows humility by recognizing his failures while reaffirming his power.
Peter Isackson, Daily Devil’s Dictionary, Kim Jong-un North Korea, Kim Jong-un economic fail, North Korea economy, Edward Bernays public relations, Ralph Waldo Emerson Self-Reliance, Sigmund Freud psychology, Kim Jong-un popularity, US individualism

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Like Diogenes wandering through the streets of Athens seeking an honest man, The Guardian seems to have stumbled across the first political leader willing to recognize the disappointing reality of his own politics. Who is that rare honest leader? North Korea’s ruler, Kim Jong-un. The Guardian offers this headline: “North Korea: Kim Jong-un says economic plan a near-total failure at rare political meeting.”

Unlike his good friend Donald Trump, Kim has the luxury of not having to appeal to the masses for votes to hold on to power. And unlike Trump, he can afford to admit failure, even disastrous failure. Al Jazeera reports Kim’s admission that “the country’s economic development plan had fallen short in ‘almost all areas.’” Unlike Western leaders who blame the opposition for undermining their cherished programs, Kim, having eliminated or assassinated any pretenders, has no opposition to blame. That makes it less risky to admit his own failings. It also permits him to propose the solutions to those problems while being certain they will be carried out, though less certain about whether they will succeed or fail.


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The Yonhap news agency quotes its leader as saying that “The surest and fastest way to tackle the current multiple challenges facing us is to make every possible effort to strengthen our own power and our own self-reliant capacity.”

Today’s Daily Devil’s Dictionary definition:

Self-reliant:

Indifferent to the regard of others, free to operate with no consideration of one’s eventual critics and only suspicion of their intentions.

Contextual Note

Self-reliance has long been considered the preeminent virtue in US culture. The iconic 19th-century philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote a famous essay with the title “Self-Reliance.” He quoted lines by Beaumont and Fletcher, contemporaries of Shakespeare:

“Man is his own star; and the soul that can

Render an honest and a perfect man,

Commands all light, all influence, all fate.”

For Emerson, self-reliance concerned the virtuous individual who can, through self-direction, become “honest” and “perfect,” meeting Diogenes’ strict requirement. Kim’s idea of self-reliance is the opposite. It has nothing to do with individuals. But for all their radical opposition, history has revealed a link between the two. For Kim, it is the state that must be self-reliant. Individual North Koreans under his regime must behave in conformity with his laws and rules. To Emerson’s assertion, “Whoso would be a man must be a nonconformist,” Kim would respond, “Whoso fails to conform undermines the ability of the state to remain self-reliant.”

What do these totally opposed versions of self-reliance tell us about the world we live in today? They define two extremes on the spectrum of responsibility. Emerson assumes that the “self” in the expression “self-reliance” is an individual with the liberty to oppose the surrounding society. Kim assumes that “self” is the nation, in opposition to all other nations. Everyone must identify with the national self to assert and maintain its independence. Anthropologists sum this up as two easily recognizable cultural orientations: Western individualism versus Asian collectivism.

Emerson enjoined his readers to brave the opinions of others: “What I must do is all that concerns me, not what the people think.” Although it was far from Emerson’s intention, successive generations of Americans interpreted his dictum as an obligation to focus only on their interests and desires. During the 20th century, Americans increasingly viewed themselves as autonomous individuals largely indifferent to the opinions of others. This produced a trend toward solipsism and narcissism, never more evident than in the personality of Donald Trump. Emerson, the moral philosopher, would have been shocked. He assumed the existence of a social consciousness because of what he called the “divine idea which each of us represents.”

The subsequent romanticization of the idea of self-reliance, symbolized in the figures of Western pioneers and the lone cowboys, opened the floodgates to what would become the consumer society, ordered and managed by commercial interests. This led to an increasingly exacerbated form of consumerist individualism whose paradoxical effect was to create a new conformity in consumer habits that could no longer be challenged by a call to non-conformity. Nevertheless, Emerson’s expressed one idea that Kim might easily agree with: “Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind.” Emerson saw this as applying to every individual American. Kim applies it only to himself, as the unique “mind” of his nation.

Historical Note

In his 1947 essay “The Engineering of Consent,” Edward Bernays, credited with inventing the profession of public relations, noted that broadcast media had radically transformed American culture. “All these media,” he wrote, “provide open doors to the public mind.” Bernays believed he was giving a practical application of the theories of his uncle, Sigmund Freud, about the unconscious and the role of raw impulses in human behavior. Bernays had been applying his new “science” of public relations to both business and politics for decades. In his 1928 book, “Propaganda,” he described his strategies as the “conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses” and claimed that it was “an important element in democratic society.”

Freud would probably have disagreed with Bernays’ contention that “conscious and intelligent manipulation” of unconscious drives was a good thing. The founder of psychoanalysis famously wrote “wo Es war soll Ich werden,” which literally means “where it was I shall be.” American psychoanalysts have preferred another translation, “where the id was the ego shall be,” referring to Freud’s nomenclature that divides the personality into id, ego and superego. This suggested that the ego should control the id or even replace it. But Freudian purists, such as Jacques Lacan, claim that it should be read in a more mysteriously poetic vein as “I will come to where it was.” It’s more about having a look around the chaotic realm of the id than replacing it with the ego or using it for commercial purposes.   

If Bernays represents the real impact of Freud’s theories on American culture, as Adam Curtis has demonstrated in “A Century of the Self,” it may paradoxically justify this remark Freud made to Carl Jung at the outset of their trip to America in 1909: “They don’t realize that we are bringing them the plague.” What Freud could not himself realize was that two decades later, his nephew would turn that plague into a devious means of controlling the masses, converting them into passive consumers and provoking a form of voluntary conformism that would prove far more effective than the conformity enforced by despots like Kim Jung-un.

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Emerson buttressed his idea of self-reliance by an appeal to the moral laws philosophers deem self-evident. The far more pragmatic Bernays appealed to the American worship of the law to justify his approach. He saw a legal justification for propaganda in the US Constitution. The guarantee of freedom of speech in the Bill of Rights became, in his words, “the right of persuasion.”

Bernays made it clear that there is something common to all leaders in the age of media: “Any person or organization depends ultimately on public approval, and is therefore faced with the problem of engineering the public’s consent to a program or goal. We expect our elected government officials to try to engineer our consent — through the network of communications open to them — for the measures they propose.”

Even Kim Jung-un “depends ultimately on public approval,” though not in the form of an election. Kim engineers consent by decree. Whether their name is Thatcher, Reagan, Clinton, Obama, Trump or Blair, nations expect their leaders “to try to engineer our consent,” by exploiting what Bernays already called the “web of communications.” Bernays’ web of communications includes education, just as Kim’s does. It seeks “to bring about as complete an understanding as possible.” “Understanding” translates as approval of the programs the leaders promote, without having to “wait for the people to arrive at even general understanding.” People, for Bernays, are slow at understanding.

In 1953, Bernays designed the propaganda campaign that permitted the CIA to overthrow Guatemala’s popular, democratically elected president, Jacopo Arbenz. The team of Bernays, President Eisenhower and the Dulles brothers — Secretary of State John Foster and CIA Director Allen — engineered a faultless consensus that Kim Jung-un could only envy. Propaganda is the thing leaders can always rely on.

*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce, produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news. Read more of The Daily Devil’s Dictionary on Fair Observer.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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