North Korea in the Society of the Spectacle

North Korea recently announced that it was pausing in its drive to launching a missile attack against the island of Guam, a sovereign territory of the United States. This announcement should not come as a surprise since any sober analysis of the standoff between North Korea and the United States points to a situation where North Korea had far more to lose if war were to break out. Nevertheless, the leadership of North Korea (including Kim Jong-un, who was absent from view until very recently) went out of its way to rattle its substantial military sabre and put forth the image of a powerful state that can take on the world’s only superpower. Such posturing is not new—and in many ways does not rise to recent examples of heightened tensions between North Korea and South Korea/United States where South Korean military vessels were sunk and a South Korea border town endured a brief artillery barrage

Yet this episode of North Korean obstreperousness was different. Some of this was due to what appears to be a leap in capability in the power and range of North Korean ballistic missiles. But the main drama at play here is the existence of the Trumpire and the “brave new world” that the rise of this global assemblage of power represents. For all the talk about the megalomania of Kim Jong-un and his Stalinist grip on power in North Korea, Kim must also confront his own problem of gauging the spectacle of Donald Trump and the comments and controversies that accompany his statements as tensions between the two nations rise. Such a surreal battle of egos and wills is unique in the recent history of global affairs, and scholars and practitioners of foreign policy are having trouble analyzing the dynamics at play.

Once again, the ideas of Guy Debord provide some interesting and useful insights. Of particular use is the idea of the “concentrated spectacle,” an idea Debord used to describe the media and other imagery conjured up by authoritarian regimes during the Cold War like the Soviet Union and China. While the former state has ceased to exist and the latter state has transformed itself into a paragon of a new form of illiberal capitalism, North Korea, as the world’s last totalitarian state, offers a place for one to observe the concentrated spectacle in the same way one might observe the last of an endangered species in a zoo or animal preserve. Moreover, we can see an interesting interaction take place as the integrated spectacle of the Trumpire clashes with the concentrated of North Korea. How this clash will work itself out is what many politicians diplomats, scholars and observers are struggling to comprehend.

First, then, let’s review the notion of the concentrated spectacle and see how it relates to North Korea. As discussed in a previous post, the concentrated spectacle is the spectacle that is spun out of the imperatives of totalitarian control. At the heart of the power of the concentrated spectacle is the imagery of violence and the implements of coercion whose force lies less from their use than their sight and media representation. All of this power flows from the concentrated image of the dictator who occupies the exalted deified space in these totalitarian societies. As Debord argues, the concentrated spectacle “imposes an image of the good which is résumé of everything that exists officially, and is usually concentrated in a single individual, the guarantor of the system’s totalitarian cohesiveness. Everyone must identify magically with this absolute celebrity—or disappear.”[1]  This provides the explanation of some of the key images of the Eastern Bloc during Cold War (or of a place like North Korea today)—the ubiquitous pictures of Mao or Lenin or Stalin (or the Kim family), the grand military parades in the vast central squares of Moscow or Beijing, and the ultra-elaborate pageants of North Korea.

The threats and posturing of North Korea against the United States are thus not actual preludes to war, but the regime engaging the imaginations of its population through this spectacle.  And as with most cases where one finds a national government of dubious legitimacy, nothing fires up the imagination like the rhetoric and drama of an external threat. While the shows of overwhelming strength and boasts of easy victory may seem silly for outsiders, decades of state propaganda and highly regimented daily routines have created masses who need such spectacular boasting from god-like figures to both take the threat seriously but also be reassured the “dear leader” Kim Jong-un has everything under control. Of course, the regime will always stop of short of any real precipitous action—it may engage in the aforementioned skirmish, but it knows when push comes to shove it won’t be able to survive a bone fide war with the United States.

There is a temptation at this point to see the side of the United States in a similar light as previous historical eras when the diffuse spectacle was Debord’s operating paradigm for the spectacle in the west. This would be a mistake. The Trumpire of 2017 is an instantiation of the integrated spectacle where totalitarian administration and free market promotion come together to preserve the status quo. The conflict between North Korea and the United States isn’t one of the concentrated spectacle facing the diffuse spectacle, but of the concentrated spectacle facing the integrated spectacle. And because the integrated spectacle has the DNA of the concentrated spectacle within it, we do see some interesting parallels between the two regimes.

For one, the boasting of Donald Trump—epitomized by his threats to bring “fire and fury” to North Korea—reflect some of the same demagoguery as that of Kim Jong-un. Whatever one thinks of his politics, Trump has managed to tap into the  imaginations of millions of people who see him as the fearless leader from whom all good things come (good in this case may simply mean those things not associated with the Washington elite). They frequently visit those media sources that pay homage to the Trump presidency and ignore other sources of news that criticize his words and actions (often by labeling such information as “fake news”). While the people of North Korea are born into the hermetically sealed bubble of Kim Jong-un’s state media apparatus, Trump loyalists (as was discussed a bit in the last post), create their own sealed-off media universe and lock themselves within it voluntarily. The effects in terms of getting access to contrarian information is the same—a trust of the “dear leader’s” judgment implicitly and support of any decision he makes.

Yet there is another dynamic at play here that makes the spectacle at work in the west a bit more problematic. For many not placing themselves under the spell of Trump (and who are in most cases apolitical), the integrated spectacle nevertheless offers them the thrill of experiencing the drama and fervor of preparing to go to war. While much of the “mainstream” media is critical of Trump, they are still motivated to seek out or create engaging information and entertainment for the purposes of boosting ratings and revenues. The march to war, regardless of who is president and which country is in the crosshairs, is one of the surefire best ways to bring in these ratings. Indeed, the prospect of a missile attack on the island of Guam seems like the perfect “reality show” scenario for these news and media companies—here is a small sparsely populated island that no one really cares about (indeed, probably could not find on a map) but is nevertheless a part of the United States. The crisis allows the average consumer to become personally involved in the events (it’s the USA after all…nobody threatens my homeland!) but not actually have to fear any real lethal threat (except for the tiny population that lives on the island). If war does occur, the North Korean regime needs to stir the imaginations of the people for the primary reason that these same people will be called upon to fight, suffer and die defending the regime. For the residents of the United States, the need to stir the imaginations of the media-viewing public is done to ensure everyone tunes in when the shooting starts and watches the commercial inserted in the breaks in the action. Here is where Trump’s rhetoric serves an important role—it adds to the reality show/professional wrestling aspect to the conflict. Media personalities and pundits can scoff at the incendiary language of Trump, but these same media types will no doubt be riveted to cover and pontificate on events that result in a war breaking out that provides a chance for their stars to rise and their careers to be boosted.

Given this analysis, it is perhaps not surprising that North Korea would back down. For while North Korea may boast of military strength and victory in war, at the end of the day a war would be the end of that regime. For the United States, however, such existential dangers are not as readily present. While North Korea’s nuclear threat is real and should not be taken lightly, there are also a frighteningly large number of variables that skew toward seeing a conflict with North Korea take place for reasons that have little to do with foreign policy or international relations. The danger of Trump’s rhetoric isn’t that it might lead to a misunderstanding that triggers an accidental war, but that the rhetoric is the beginning of a deliberate move to engage in military conflict with North Korea. With the support of his cult of personality and the news media eager for compelling drama, a small (but very real) threat of a nuclear attack may not serve as a disincentive to attack. Thus, the logic of deterrence appears to collapse in the face of the spectacle.

[1] Debord, Society of the Spectacle, (New York: Zone Books, 1995), 42.

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