Understanding North Korea from the inside out

  • March 18, 2019
Understanding North Korea from the inside out

Ria Roy speaks about her research into how the North Korean system legitimises its regime and its leaders.

The funeral was full of symbolism. It was a process of giving political legitimacy to the new leader. It was an example of decades of cult making.

Ria Roy

When she was doing her undergraduate studies in Japan, Ria Roy [2017] was also working as an interpreter. One of her jobs involved interpreting the North Korean leader Kim Jong-il’s funeral for NHK World, the international service of Japan’s national public broadcasting organisation. That meant Ria had to watch the whole funeral ceremony from beginning to end. It was a turning point for her. “It was so different, a huge spectacle of mourning. It was like seeing the death of a god broadcast on tv,” she says.  Although she had grown up in South Korea seeing regular news about North Korea, it was never from a North Korean perspective.

“The funeral was full of symbolism. It was a process of giving political legitimacy to the new leader. It was an example of decades of cult making.” For instance, she says, nature was said to be in mourning and the snow was described as grieving. The sound of birds singing was exaggerated for effect. “It was a process of mystification and deification,” says Ria.

It showed Kim Jong-il mourning his father, Kim Il-sung, in exactly the same way as his son was mourning him, suggesting a sense of continuity. “They looked the same, their names were almost the same. It is no coincidence,” says Ria. “The symbolism and spectacle is part of the funeral rituals. It stays in your head.”

That experience made such a huge impression on her that she decided to study it for her master’s in East Asian regional studies at Harvard.

Ria’s interest is in understanding the North Korean regime, its use of symbolism and its impact on its citizens.  “I am interested in the messages people receive every day and the image the regime wants to project. I want to know what makes sense to them. I want to understand it from the inside out,” she says. “I think we are not looking at North Korea the way we should.”

Her master’s thesis, Manufacturing charisma: the funeral of King Jong-il and its background, won a Joseph Fletcher Memorial Award at Harvard.

Ria is extending this work for her PhD at Cambridge, which she started last year, under the supervision of Dr John Nilsson Wright. “My PhD is delving deeper into how this kind of dynastic succession from one charismatic leader to another has been justified and made possible in a socialist regime,” she says. “There was a transfer of charisma from one leader to the next at the funeral. I am interested in this process and in what gives the system its resilience.”

The big questions

Ria has always been interested in bigger questions about how we live and think, and she grew up with a different perspective than many of her classmates. She was born in Seoul to a Korean mother and an Indian father.  Living in Busan, after elementary school, she and her sister attended an international school where classes were given in English.

As children from two different cultures they had stood out at elementary school in the mainly monocultural Korean school system.

Ria enjoyed all aspects of learning and was allowed to explore different subjects without any academic pressure from her parents. “We were like free-range chickens,” she says. She was particularly interested in philosophical questions. At the age of nine she started an animal rights campaign. She became a vegetarian and proceeded to become increasingly radical. At one point she would only eat fruit which had fallen from a tree. As a child, she used to have philosophical arguments about meat-eating with a family friend  who was a Buddhist monk.

Her secondary school followed the US exam curriculum and Ria took advanced classes in physics, calculus, literature and language. At school she also taught English to underprivileged children and fundraised for people with disabilities. When she left school she found herself in a difficult position because she was not able to apply to a Korean university as she had attended an international school. She and her sister therefore both did their undergraduate studies in Japan at Waseda University. However, this meant that when they finished and wanted to do graduate studies they were ineligible for scholarships in Korea.

In Japan Ria took a liberal arts curriculum, initially specialising in law, but her real interest was in more philosophical questions.

As she continued her studies she gravitated more towards political thought, doing her undergraduate thesis on art and obscenity. She remembers reading John Locke and feeling as if her heart were fluttering. She says: “I had never read anybody who approached things in the way he did. It was exciting.”

It was an academic awakening which she has carried with her to Cambridge where she continues to ask challenging questions about North Korea and to take a fresh perspective on one of today’s most vital topical issues.


Ria Roy

Ria Roy

  • Scholar
  • Korea, Republic of
  • 2017 PhD Asian and Middle Eastern Studies
  • Selwyn College

I was born of an Indian father and a Korean mother in Seoul, Korea. I grew up in Korea speaking three languages -- Korean, English and Bengali -- and frequently visiting India. This experience exposed me to strikingly different cultures and styles of thought, but it also meant that, although I was a native Korean speaker imbued with Korean culture, I was able to look at my society as an outsider, making me sensitive to the role that representations of national identity play in politics. I then pursued my undergraduate studies at the School of International Liberal Studies, Waseda University, Japan. During this time, I not only learned Japanese, but also developed an academic interest in studying representations, North Korea, and East Asian history. I then studied for my MA at Harvard University (Regional Studies – East Asia), where I examined the interaction of aesthetics, politics, language and literature in North Korea, focusing on the funeral of the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-il. In my PhD at the University of Cambridge, I am eager to delve deeper into the question of the manufacture of charisma in North Korea and to trace its transformation from a state committed to Marxist-Leninist views to one that propagates a semi-mystical view of leadership. As a Gates Cambridge Scholar, I hope to put my work on political representations in North Korea and Asia into a broader context and so to help provide knowledge that could be used for the benefit of people everywhere.

Previous Education

Waseda University
Harvard University

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