Duk Dynasties: Kim Jong Un,
the Duck Commander Robertsons,
and Park Chung Hee’s Daughter
“Money. Family. Ducks.”
--A&E promotional tagline for Duck Dynasty
The Korean language radical “duk” (also transliterated deok, tok, teok, but pretty much pronounced like the English word ‘duck’) connotes benevolence and virtue. No doubt, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea’s official media, party rhetoric, educational programs, and public spectacles have welded these qualities onto the ruling family, creating a duk dynasty now entrusted to the bizarre man-child Kim Jong Un.
In light of the latest round of DPRK threats, which have escalated to intimations of nuclear annihilation (of what is not clear: The Republic of Korea [ROK]? Japan? Guam? Alaska? The uninhabited middle of the Pacific Ocean?), we in the United States (and elsewhere) correctly lament our ignorance about what makes Kim Jong Un tick. Or quack.
Our attempts to do so tend to fall into two camps. On the one hand, we characterize Kim Jong Un as an untested leader in over his head, desperate to prove his bona fides, his toughness . . . an almost pitiable victim of the anxiety of influence, battling for his own identity against the covering cherubs of dictator father and dictator grandfather. On the other hand, we see him as an uncanny clone, repeating patterns established by his forbears. The long-term pattern is simply to squeeze the country’s people, to the point of starvation if necessary, in order to build up an oversized, unneeded military and a complementary arsenal of oversized, unneeded [but sellable] weapons. The short–term pattern involves undertaking a provocative action, threatening even more dire actions, making expensive demands, agreeing to terms, then breaking the agreement. It’s a pattern of extortion, wherein money and, perhaps to a lesser extent, international ‘respect’ are paramount.
The problem with these camps is that they are at best simply descriptive and at worst misleading. They certainly don’t indicate what we (or any country in the DPRK’s sights) should do – not just to defuse any particular nuke-rattling episode but more importantly to change the patterns completely. Thinking of Kim Jong Un as a symbolic patricidal castrato or as a robotic enactor of a family script, frankly, isn’t very helpful. Because no country seems to have reliable human intelligence on DPRK ground (if one doesn’t count Dennis Rodman), I here suggest another lens or two through which to contemplate the unpredictable and potentially dangerous cipher that is Kim Jung Un.
Duk Dynasty (North) and Duck Dynasty
“There are two kinds of people who don’t have beards.
Women and children. I am neither.”
-- Phil Robertson
Devotees of United States reality TV are familiar with the show Duck Dynasty, a wildly popular series chronicling the mild misadventures of the proudly “redneck” Robertson family from Louisiana, a family that’s made lots of money crafting duck calls but stays true to its rural roots. Like Kim Jung Un’s family, the Robertsons deal in weapons of war (Robertsons: humans vs. ducks [and occasionally beavers and frogs]; Kim Jong Un and ancestors: humans vs. the galaxy). Like Kim Jung Un’s family, the Robertsons are deeply patriarchal; what’s more, the wives are more attractive than the husbands.
Top: Kim Jong Un and his wife Ri Soi Ju, identified as a former ‘entertainer’
Bottom: Various Duck Dynasty husbands and wives
Like Kim Jong Un’s family, the Robertsons span three generations, and the younger generations respect their elders and hope to follow in their footsteps. [A variant may be Kim Jong Un’s family tradition of enforcing ‘three generations of punishment,” according to which an offender is sent to a prison work camp along with his/her parents and children, there to languish forever until the entire family line is erased. The Robertsons seem satisfied with tricking teenagers into doing chores around the family homestead.]
Comparing Kim Jong Un, his father Kim Jong Il (DPRK leader: 1994 – 2011), and his grandfather Kim Il Sung (DPRK leader: 1948 – 1994) to the Duck Dynasty Robertsons discloses a few more differences that may help intelligence agencies in East Asia and Euro-America gain additional insight into the current Korean impasse.
Patriarch Phil Robertson’s quote about beards, which heads this section, indicates one potentially important difference. The Robertson men know they are men, even if they are hen- (duck-) pecked while hunting or forced to shop for a daughter’s prom dress. Kim Jong Un is parodied, usually outside of the DPRK but sometimes even within its restrictive borders, as an asexual baby, which might be a problem, dynastically speaking. Furthermore, Kim Jong Un’s reputed wife reputedly just had a baby that reputedly is a girl (thus, reputedly, why the birth was not trumpeted from the Diamond Mountains to the Yalu River). Indeed, in the uncompromisingly masculinist culture of the DPRK, having a first child be a girl is more or less disastrous, and could make the new-daddy dictator even more bellicose than usual, for obvious Freudian and continuation-of-the-dynasty reasons. In contrast, the Robertson children/grandchildren include a muscular phalanx of male children.
Duk Dynasty (North) and Duck Dynasty, Holiday Version
We got elves that are ten foot tall, and bulletproof.
--Uncle Si Roberson
These pictures give rise to some interesting speculations. First, both Kim Jong Un and Uncle Si Robertson are publically depicted with elf ears, the former image being a recent hack into DPRK official media, and the latter being from a Duck Dynasty holiday special. Elves are considered to be helpful, industrious, and cute, descriptors that don’t apply to Kim Jong Un or Uncle Si and thus suggest that the truth is exactly the converse. A difference is that Kim Jong Un did not sign on to his elfin-Mickey Mouse-Buddha image, whereas Uncle Si was a willing participant. This picture reminds us (as if the non-ironic embrace of The Worm did not) that Kim Jong Un has no sense of humor, particularly when it comes to himself. Apparently, he’s fully bought into his civic deification, which makes diplomacy highly problematic. How do you negotiate with a god?
Second, both Kim Jong Un and Uncle Si dream of a superhero army. The difference is that Uncle Si’s regiment of bullet-proof elves is fun-fantasy militarism; Kim Jong Un’s is distressingly real but also may partake of elements of fantasy (get real: If the DPRK actually does launch a nuclear weapon, what do you think the consequences will be? Let’s start with a huge smoking sink hole just north of the DMZ, goosestepping and accordion-playing troops notwithstanding). What does this tell us? Kim Jong Un both depends on the military – the spine of the whole family Duk Dynasty – and fears losing control over it. Without military backing, Kim Jong Un is yesterday’s kimchi. And he knows it. If the elves revolt, where does that leave (Santa?
Kim Jong Un’s Aunt Kim Hyong Hui, Kim Jong Un, and his Uncle Jang Song Taek
Third, there’s the matter of uncles. Uncle Silas Robertson – brother of patriarch Phil, uncle of Willie (CEO of the family business), Jase (loveable slacker brother of Willie), and other brothers who sometimes appear on the series– is a relatively renegade family member, a Vietnam Vet (we won’t even go there: to the mercenary help provided by the ROK to this United States’ Asian fiasco) who speaks his mind and insinuates himself into most family matters yet who is lovingly tolerated by his relatives. Kim Jong Un also has an influential uncle: Jang Song Taek, husband of his aunt Kim Hyong Hui, a woman said to be extremely influential and also reported to be extremely sick. In any event, Jang is the main DPRK liaison to China, the country without which North Korea would have no food, no fuel, and no allies. Thus Kim Jong Un’s dependence on his uncle-in-law is, to say the least, major. It’s rather like the younger generations of Robertsons’ dependence on Uncle Si, whose wacked-out star power is obviously the main reason that the A&E network keeps making and airing Duck Dynasty.
But back to holidays: tomorrow (as I write, on April 14, 2013) is the mega DPRK holiday, the anniversary of patriarch Kim Il Sung’s birth (and life and legacy). If anything scary were to happen, it might happen tomorrow, on April 15. Prediction: it won’t . . . beyond, perhaps, another missile test. (Yawn – old news. The real issue on the table is whether the DPRK has developed ‘deliverable’ missiles, in which nuclear warheads are successfully size-calibrated to the missiles themselves and made effective by up-to-date satellite guidance technology.)
Duk Dynasty (North), Duck Dynasty (South and Southeast),
Duk Dynasty (South)
Boys, I will hurt you physically and meta-physically.
--Uncle Si Robertson
Even though it’s a reality TV show, and therefore exists in an unreal space between actual and scripted life, Duck Dynasty also exists in a real media space, one occupied by other semi-similar shows. Therefore, its popularity and (dare we say) impact are in part a function of its difference from other such programs. One ‘competitor’ is Swamp People, which chronicles families of alligator hunters but frankly isn’t very compelling: there are fathers and sons, hunted beasts, family dinners . . . but none of it really connects, in the way that Duck Dynasty channels an earlier TV family drama sweetness in which paterfamiliases, even if clueless, always show that they have their families’ best interests at heart, particularly when they say grace that asks blessings for all family members, no matter what imbecilities may have ensued before dinner. Good night, Uncle Si. Good night, Brother Willie. Good Night, Mother Kay. Walton Mountain has migrated to the Louisiana bayous.
Honey Boo-Boo and Kim Jong Un: separated at birth?
But another Duck Dynasty media rival is Here Comes Honey Boo-Boo, a reality TV show about fairly disgusting Georgia rednecks. Whereas DD actually does promulgate ‘traditional’ family values, HCHBB flaunts their inversion. Its family members are crass and grotesque, and there’re no traces of self-respect or grace to confer some sort of likeability. The star of this non-duk-dynasty is a pudgy elementary school-age would-be-child-beauty-pageant-star. Stranded as she is among truly icky family members, Honey Boo-Boo has no chance (at least on reality TV) to become a reasonable human being. This would be as opposed to the Duck Dynasty youngsters, who seem relatively normal and remarkably well-behaved.
My point is fairly simple: perceptions (even self-perceptions) do not exist in a vacuum. Just as the Duck Dynasty younger generation is seen against the scrim of other ‘redneck’ reality TV show families, so is Kim Jong Un seen against the scrim of other Korean peninsula duk dynasties.
Until recently, that scrim would have been fairly singular: that of Kim Jong Un’s own family – his father Kim Jong Il and his grandfather Kim Il Sung. But last year, the scrim has expanded. It now includes Park Geun Hye, the new president of South Korea.
Park Geun Hye is the daughter of Park Chung Hee, the long-term ruler/dictator/president of South Korea (1961 -1979) . . . in other words, the banner-carrier of a duk dynasty of his own. As opposed to Kim Il Sung’s dynasty in DPRK, however, Park’s dynasty in ROK had been a dynasty of one. When he was assassinated, no heir ascended. Thus South Korea kept lurching toward mega-prosperous modernity, on a course started by Park Chung Hee, but managed by a succession of leaders not directly related to Park.
After decades of varyingly efficient and/or corrupt regimes, Park Chun Hee’s daughter was elected president of the Republic of Korea just a few months ago, an event that must present a chilling dilemma to Kim Jong Un. Seventy years of Korean history, embodied in larger-than-life [and dead] fathers and grandfathers, have come back to haunt him in the person of the new south-of-the-border president. Even more galling, she’s a woman, a “venomous swish of skirt” according to official DPRK sources.
Duk Dynasty (North) and Duk Dynasty (South)
“Now we’re talking, he’s fixing to blow something up.”
--Uncle Si Robertson
Today, the two twentieth-century Korean duk dynasties again confront each other.
Grandfather Kim Il Sung balked the Japanese occupation of Korea, joined Mao’s Chinese Resistance during World War II, and then tried to lead his country to non-imperialist independence. He also led his country into the costly and ultimately useless Korean War; he was president of the DPRK for almost five decades. He is widely seen as a Korean patriot, nation builder and freedom-fighter. In at least part of the Korean peninsula.
Father Park Chung Hee was an officer in the occupying Japanese army during World War II. He rose in the military (in the U.S.-backed forces) during the Korean War; later, through a military coup, he became president of the Republic of Korea, a post he held for almost two decades. He is widely seen as a Korean patriot, nation-builder, and freedom-fighter. In at least part of the Korean peninsula.
These two leaders’ rules overlapped by almost twenty years, spanning the 1960s and 1970s. Since this period was the height of the Cold War, not to mention the time of the Viet Nam war, the contrasting Korean strongmen gained a perhaps inflated geopolitical importance as conveniently adjacent proxies for Soviet and Euro-American rivalry. Almost the same age, Kim Il Sung (born 1912) and Park Chung Hee (born 1917) also carried out a vicious personal game of Spy-vs.-Spy, each trying to have the other assassinated, adding personal animus to ideological and political conflict. [Note: it seems that Park Chung Hee died at the hands of a dissident South Korean faction opposed to his dictatorial rule, not of a faction allied with North Korea, although the historical record is not completely clear.]
Obviously, both Kim Jong Un and Park Geung Hye are burdened by ancestral peninsular history. Both current leaders would want to preserve and enhance the duk virtues of their political inheritance and show themselves worthy of their present positions, of course, but there are also old – and personal – scores to settle. Park Geung Hye was elected on a fairly conservative platform, with the exception that she pledged to strengthen peaceful relations with her neighbor to the North, apparently to gain dominance through economic means. (It’s not coincidental that one of the DPRK’s first moves in the current crisis was to shut down the joint Kaesong economic zone, funded by the South and staffed b the North.) In contrast, Kim Jong Il has tried to gain dominance through military means, or at least the hyperbolic threats of such.
The entry to the Kaeson complex last week
The countries’ most powerful allies are relatively paralyzed: China because it definitely does not want regional destabilization accompanied by a massive influx of impoverished refugees; the United States because it definitely does not want to participate in another war, anywhere, and its ally South Korea does not want a massive influx of impoverished refugees.
Thus, the present fate of the Korean peninsula lies in the hands of political neophytes who, at the same time, bear almost unimaginably heavy, and lethal, legacies. How they extract themselves from this suffocating historical box is yet to be seen. To the extent that other countries can be helpful, we/they should recognize the disturbingly parallel personal histories of these new leaders and understand that their decisions will be as influenced as much by the past as by the needs of the present and by visions for the future.
I never realized that death could occur, but I ain’t a quitter.
Photo: dead dictators in state --
top left, Park Chung Hee; top right:
Kim Il Sung; bottom: Kim Jung Il
[Note: The Korean language is notoriously slippery in transliteration. Although its phonetics have been ‘in place’ since the 14th century, when King Sejong commissioned a remarkably sophisticated and linguistically accurate indigenous syllabary, Western ways of representing the language have fluctuated and continue to do so. For example, the large city of Busan used to be written, in English, as Pusan; the common Korean family name of ”‘Ri“ is also commonly written as ‘Ree,” “Rhee,” “Li,” or ‘Yi.” Further, given names (which follwo the family name) are variously presented as two names (as in Anglo-American first- and middle- names), or as hyphenated names, or as one composite name (as in Kim Jong Un, Kim Jong-Un, Kim Jongun). In this article, I’ve tried to conform with the most common current transliterations without much regard to consistency, as there actually isn’t much consistency yet in the way that the Roman alphabet deals with the Korean language.]