Symbol and Sovereignty in North Korea

Symbol and performance have long been recognized as crucial to statecraft. Unlike some features of modern statecraft, which tend to be understood as "Western," the significance of symbol and performance in reinforcing state authority, reproducing state power on a given landscape, and mediating between the state and its domestic and international audiences has been observed in many broad cultural contexts. North Korea is a state whose "hermit" tendencies have produced an extreme degree of emphasis on symbolic performance as a mediating layer in the production of sovereignty. Perhaps nowhere is symbol and performance so conflated with "reality" as in North Korea. Considering some of its patterns of symbolic performance, such as those in diplomacy and foreign policy, reveals how the North Korean state remains strongly informed by pre-modern Confucian China and Korea. Considering other symbolic patterns that North Korea shares, interestingly, with early modern Europe—patterns involving the reproduction of domestic authority over territory—reminds us that historic precedents do not always denote paths of influence and may instead point to the cultural transcendence of certain symbolic practices of statecraft.