It is a collective religious fervor that motivates the humankind to build remarkable architectures: ziggurats, pyramids, cathedrals, mosques, temples, etc. In Korea, however, there are only few architectures remarkable in size or in aesthetics. The Koreans have chosen to develop the intangible instead: one of many things that Koreans do ingeniously is developing the cult of personality. Please keep in your mind that the Koreans are traditionally secularists and the line between the secular and the religious realm has always been blurry. Since the late 14th century, the foundation of the Neo-Confucian monarchy Joseon, Korea’s traditional literature, music, and art have served one purpose: praising the ruler. The very first literary work written in Hangeul (Korean alphabets) was the Songs of the Dragons Flying to Heaven (1447), a hagiography dedicated to King Taejo.
Neo-Confucianism’s sophistic technique and systematic psychological manipulation are extremely meticulous. Its legacy is still tenacious in the “Korean mind.” Thus, it is not a surprise that North Korea has invented one of the world’s most elaborate personality cult systems. The North Korean personality cult was benchmarked by dictators across the globe such as Nicolae Ceausescu, Enver Hoxha, Hafez al-Assad, Saddam Hussein and Robert Mugabe.
Although South Korea is not a stranger to dictatorship, personality cult was a relatively rare concept in South Korean politics. I would suggest three reasons: one, the American influence under which South Koreans learned democracy and capitalism hindered personality cult to a considerable degree; second, South Korean politicians were wary of imitating North Korean politics under the strong anti-Communist sentiment; and third, practically, South Korean governments could not control the media as thoroughly as the Kim Il-sung dynasty did.
The henchmen of President Moon Jae-in are successfully implementing the personality cult. It is no longer secret that Moon is a North Korean sympathizer surrounded by the National Liberation leftists, most notably his chief of staff Im Jong-seok. The Korean Confederation of Trade Unions, South Korea’s biggest union that currently seizes the media, has endorsed President Moon and launched the semi-canonizing coverage on him since his inauguration. On May 11, for example, JoongAng Ilbo’s presidential coverage was “President Moon took off his jacket by himself.” Then the next day, “President Moon takes a coffee break after lunch.” The intention is to emphasize that President Moon is a folksy figure far from the traditional authoritarian style of Korean rulers. I would like to discuss another day whether the Moon administration is authoritarian. However, such an immense, incessant attempt to idolize a political figure is unprecedented in South Korean history.
Showing off the popularity of its president is the new administration’s bread-and-butter, perhaps the last resort, to hold power. Less than a year since the inauguration, President Moon’s foreign policy appears self-destructive while the future of the South Korean economy still remains uncertain. It is unclear which will be his Waterloo but it seems already clear that President Moon will continue to rely on the loyalty of his zealous supporters.
In this weird photograph, the lawmakers of the Democratic Party of Korea are holding banners praising President Moon.
The messages are, “Jae-in is number one!!”, “Ini, do whatever you want”. “Lord President, loyalty, loyalty, loyalty”, “90% of Approval Rate”, “I love you Mr. President”, “In Jae-in we trust”, et cetera. In a democratic society, what can be more chilling than a scene in which lawmakers, elected by the people, publicly shout at the president, “Do whatever you want”?
Lastly, I really wonder whether it is intentional or coincidental for Moon’s supporters to imitate the North Korean personality cult. Either way, it is not a good sign for the future of South Korea’s immature democracy.
It is easy to predict that Moon and his henchmen will continue to carry the banner of democracy; hopefully they will not benchmark the absurdity of North Korea calling itself the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.