Why Kim’s horse ride shows him firmly in the saddle
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s third horse ride up Paektu Mountain, the highest on the Korean Peninsula, attracted much attention, as well it should. “Photoshop,” some scoffed. Others teased about the equestrian similarities to Russian President Vladimir Putin or Turkmenistani President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov. However, mocking other cultures without understanding the context and the geopolitical implications can lead to policy mistakes.
Peaktu is the holiest of grounds under the North Korean concept of “Juche,” or self-reliance, the ideology that permeates the entire spectrum of North Korean society and guides political behavior at all levels. For Kim, and his family’s place within the concept of Juche, Peaktu is the summit of achievement and renewal. That is why North Korean media said: “His march on horseback in Paektu Mountain is a great event of weighty importance in the history of the Korean revolution.”
There is more history, lore and tradition to the mountain and the white horse. North Korea’s founder Kim Il Sung, Kim’s grandfather, commanded anti-Imperial Japanese fighters from a base at the foot of Paektu when Japan ruled the Korean Peninsula from 1910-1945. White horses rode into battle against Imperial Tokyo. White horses are symbolic of North Korea and are used by the Kim family to show their prowess. Lore suggests that it was on Paektu Mountain that a double rainbow filled the sky when Kim Jong Il, Kim’s father, was born.
The symbolism of Kim’s ride rests in geopolitics. First, at home, it was a symbol of resistance. He visited construction sites in nearby Samjiyon and complained about US sanctions. “The situation of the country is difficult owing to the ceaseless sanctions and pressure by hostile forces, and there are many hardships and trials facing us,” he said. “But our people grew stronger through the trials and found their own way of development and learned how to always win in the face of trials.” Resistance against US President Donald Trump over North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs illustrates Kim’s ability to use powerful symbolism to send a political message on the future of stalled arms talks.
Resistance against US President Donald Trump over North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs illustrates Kim’s ability to use powerful symbolism to send a political message on the future of stalled arms talks.
Dr. Theodore Karasik
The second significance relates changes of personnel and policy. On previous white horse treks up Peaktu the leader made major decisions such as the 2013 execution of his uncle and mentor Jang Song Thaek, torn apart by anti-aircraft gunfire. Last year, a ride up Peaktu marked the decision to embark on diplomacy with Seoul and Washington. These rides are occurring more frequently, and their images resonate. Kim’s leadership rests in this powerful cultural symbol that determines what comes next.
There is talk of North Korea demonstrating its ability to both project and protect itself. In early October, Pyongyang launched the Pukguksong-3, a “new type” pf submarine-launched ballistic missile. The test took place in the waters off Wonsan on North Korea’s east coast, and the missile landed in Japan’s exclusive economic zone off Shimane prefecture. If launched on a normal trajectory, the missile would have a maximum range of about 1,900 kilometers — enough to hit all of South Korea and Japan’s four main islands from the center of the Sea of Japan. Kim may be planning some type of symbolic space launch to make neighbors nervous, especially Japan and South Korea, who are at odds with each other on a host of cultural-historical issues that are affecting their defense relationship.
Pyongyang’s space program is closely related to its missile program, and is making significant progress with the launch of several satellites. When North Korea talks about space, the context is of peaceful programs and its right to be a space power. Adding a space launch now to demonstrate its world-class status would be timely. Such a new dimension in the geopolitical context would change the tenor and tone of security relations around Northeast Asia and change the contours of talks between North and South Korea.
Overall, the horse ride is an important marker that illustrates how culture can drive policy decisions. Such symbols, not just in North Korea but in other countries too, are significant drivers of policy, and these cultural drivers matter.
- Dr. Theodore Karasik is a senior adviser to Gulf State Analytics in Washington, D.C. He is a former RAND Corporation Senior Political Scientist who lived in the UAE for 10 years, focusing on security issues. Twitter: @tkarasik