Dhaka, Bangladesh
Why Kim’s horse ride shows him firmly in the saddle

Off the Track

Why Kim’s horse ride shows him firmly in the saddle

Dr. Theodore Karasik

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. 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.

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