North Korea's cult of personality
The North Korean cult of personality surrounding North Korea's ruling family, the Kims, has existed in North Korea for decades and can be found in many examples of North Korean culture. Although it is not officially recognized by the North Korean government, there are often stiff penalties for those who criticize or do not show "proper" respect for the regime. The personality cult began soon after Kim Il-sung took power in 1948, and was greatly expanded after his death in 1994.
While other countries have had cults of personality to various degrees (such as Joseph Stalin's in the Soviet Union), the pervasiveness and extreme nature of North Korea's personality cult surpasses that of Stalin's or Mao Zedong's. The cult is also marked by the intensity of the people's feelings and devotion to their leaders.:25
The cult of personality surrounding the Kim family requires total loyalty and subjugation to the Kim family and establishes the country as a one-man dictatorship through successive generations. The 1972 constitution of the DPRK incorporates the ideas of Kim Il-Sung as the only guiding principle of the state and his activities as the only cultural heritage of the people. According to New Focus International, the cult of personality, particularly surrounding Kim Il-sung, has been crucial for legitimizing the family’s hereditary succession. And Yong-Soo Park noted in the Australian Journal of International Affairs, that the "prestige of the Suryong [supreme leader] has been given the highest priority over everything else in North Korea."
Kim Il-sung developed the political ideology of the Juche Idea, generally understood as self-reliance, and further developed it between the 1950s and the 1970s. Juche became the main guide of all forms of thought, education, culture and life throughout the nation until Kim Jong-il introduced the Songun (military-first) policy, which augments the Juche philosophy and has a great impact on national economic policies.
At the 4th Party Conference held in April 2012, Kim Jong-un further defined Juche as the comprehensive thought of Kim Il-sung, developed and deepened by Kim Jong-il, therefore terming it as "Kimilsungism-Kimjongilism" and that it was "the only guiding idea of the party" and nation.
North Korean authorities have co-opted portions of Christianity and Buddhism, and adopted them to their own uses, while greatly restricting all religions in general as they are seen as a threat to the regime. An example of this can be seen in the description of Kim Il-sung as a god, and Kim Jong-il as the son of a god or "Sun of the Nation", evoking the father-son imagery of Christianity. According to author Victor Cha, during the first part of Kim Il-sung's rule, the state destroyed over 2,000 Buddhist temples and Christian churches which might detract from fidelity to Kim.:73 There is even widespread belief that Kim-il Sung "created the world" and that Kim Jong-il controlled the weather. Korean society, traditionally Confucian, places a strong emphasis on paternal hierarchy and loyalty. The Kims have taken these deeply held traditions and removed their spiritual component, replacing them with loyalty to the state and the ruling family in order to control the population. Despite the suppression of traditional religions, however, some have described Juche, sociologically, as the religion of the entire population of North Korea.
According to a report by New Focus International, the two major North Korean news publications (Rodong Sinmun and the Korean Central News Agency) publish around 300 articles per month relating to the "cult of Kim". The report goes further and suggests that with the death of Kim Jong-il, the average North Korean citizen is growing weary of the vast amount of propaganda surrounding the Kims.
The personality cult surrounding Kim Il-sung is by far the most widespread among the people. While there is genuine affection for Kim Il-sung, it has been manipulated by the government for political purposes.
The cult had its beginnings as early as 1949, with the appearance of the first statues of Kim Il-sung. The veneration of Kim Il-sung came into full effect following a mass purge in 1953. In 1967, Kim Jong-il was appointed to the state propaganda and information department, where he began to focus his energy on developing the veneration of his father.:39 It was around this time that the title Suryong (Great Leader or Supreme Leader) came into habitual usage.:40 However, Kim Il-sung had begun calling himself "Great Leader" as early as 1949.
Hwang Jang-yop, the highest level North Korean defector, has noted that the country is completely ruled by the sole ideology of the "Great Leader". He further said that during the De-Stalinization period in the USSR, when Stalin's personality cult was criticized in 1965, some North Korean students studying in the Soviet Union also began to criticize Kim Il-sung's growing personality cult and when they returned home they "were subject to intensive interrogation that lasted for months" and "[t]hose found the least bit suspicious were killed in secret."
According to official biographies, Kim Il-sung came from a long lineage of leaders and official North Korean modern history focuses on his life and activities. He is credited with almost single-handedly defeating the Japanese at the end of the occupation of Korea (ignoring Soviet and American efforts) and with rebuilding the nation after the Korean War. Over the course of his life he was granted many titles of esteem such as "Sun", "Great Chairman", "Heavenly Leader" and others, as well as awards like the "Double Hero Gold Medal". These titles and awards were often self-given and the practice would be repeated by his son. The Korean Central News Agency (the official government news agency) continually reported on the titles and perceived affection granted to Kim Il-sung by world leaders including, Mao Zedong, Fidel Castro and former US president, Jimmy Carter.
All major publications (newspapers, textbooks etc.) were to include "words of instruction" from Kim Il-sung. Additionally, his name must be written as a single word in one line, it may not be split into two parts if there is a page break or the line of text runs out of room (example: Kim Il-sung, not Kim Il-...sung). North Korean children were taught in school that they were fed, clothed and nurtured in all aspects by the "grace of the Chairman." The larger elementary schools in the country have a room set aside for lectures that deal specifically with Kim Il-sung (known as the Kim Il-sung Research Institute). These rooms are well taken care of, are built of high quality materials, and have a model of his birthplace in Mangyongdae-guyok. The size of the images of him which adorned public buildings are regulated to be in proportion to the size of the building on which they hang. His place of birth has also become a place of pilgrimage.
Kang Chol-hwan wrote of his childhood in North Korea:
"To my childish eyes and to those of all my friends, Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il were perfect beings, untarnished by any base human function. I was convinced, as we all were, that neither of them urinated or defecated. Who could imagine such things of gods?"
In his memoir, Kim Sung-il tells an anecdote involving his father and grandfather that gives the rationale for this sanitized presentation of North Korea leaders to their followers. The memoir says that as a young pupil, Kim Sung-il's father was often sent to fetch wine for one of his teachers, who drank frequently, until one day his father saw the drunken teacher fall face-first into ditch. This led to a confrontation in which the young pupil shamed the embarrassed teacher into giving up wine altogether. Kim Sung-il's grandfather draws the moral of this story:
My grandfather's opinion was this: If pupils peep into their teacher's private life frequently, they lose their awe of him; the teacher must give his pupils the firm belief that their teacher neither eats nor urinates; only then can he maintain his authority at school; so a teacher should set up a screen and live behind it.
Biographer Dae-Sook Suh notes:
[t]he magnitude of adulation often borders on fanaticism. His photograph is displayed ahead of the national flag and national emblem; the song of Marshal Kim Il Sung is played ahead of the national anthem; the best institution of higher learning is named after him; the highest party school is also named after him; and there are songs, poems, essays, stories, and even a flower named after him.
The Kimilsungia is an orchid named after Kim Il-sung by Indonesian former president Sukarno. It was named after him in 1965 during a visit to the Bogor Botanical Gardens. According to a 2005 speech by Kim Jong-il, Sukarno and the garden's director wanted to name the flower after Kim Il-sung, Kim Il-sung declined yet Sukarno insisted saying "No. You have rendered enormous services to mankind, so you deserve a high honour." Domestically, the flowers (and the Kimjongilia, described below) are used in idolizing the leadership.
When Kim Il-sung died in 1994, Kim Jong-il declared a national mourning period for three years. Those who were found violating the mourning rules (such as drinking) were met with punishment. After his death he was referred to as the "Eternal President." In 1998 the national constitution was changed to reflect this. When his father died, Kim Jong-il greatly expanded the nation's cult of personality.
In 1997, the Juche Era dating system, which begins with the birth of Kim Il-sung (April 15, 1912) as year 1, was introduced and replaced the Gregorian calendar. The year 2014 would thus correspond to Juche 103 (there is no year 0).
July 8, 2014 marks the 20th anniversary of Kim Il-sung's death. North Korean authorities have declared a ten-day mourning period which will run from July 1 to July 10. The anniversary involves lectures, study sessions, local choirs, etc., with children and workers being mobilized to take part in the various events. According to a resident of Hyesan,
"Nowadays people are having a hard time... as events related to the passing of the Suryeong are going on every single day in the Democratic Women’s Union and workplaces alike." However, “Nobody is complaining about it, maybe because ever since the purge of Jang Song Taek last year, if you picked a fight they'd just drag you away.”
In keeping with the modern mythologies that pervade North Korea's version of history, which is seen as critical to the cult of personality and political control, it is alleged that Kim Jong-il was born on Mount Paektu at his father's secret base in 1942 (his actual birth was in 1941 in the Soviet Union) and that his birth was heralded by a swallow, caused winter to change to spring, a star to illuminate the sky, and a double rainbow spontaneously appeared. These claims, like those surrounding his father, are apocryphal and continued throughout his life.
Starting in the early 1970s Kim Il-sung began to contemplate the succession question, albeit surreptitiously at first, but by 1975 Kim Jong-il was referred to as the "party center", or in connection with his father with references to "our great suryong (supreme leader) and the party center". In 1977, the first confirmation of Kim Jong-il's succession by name was published in a booklet which designated the younger Kim as the only heir to Kim Il-sung, that he was a loyal servant of his father and had inherited his father's virtues, and that all party members were to pledge their loyalty to Kim Jong-il. They were also urged to support his absolute authority and to obey him unconditionally.
Prior to 1996, Kim Jong-il forbade the erection of statues of himself and discouraged portraits. However, in 1996, schools were required to build a separate room for lectures dealing specifically with Kim Jong-il known as the Kim Jong-il Research Institute. They include a model of his birthplace. There are approximately 40,000 "research institutes" (total includes both Kim Il-Sung's and Kim Jong-il's) throughout the country.
Over the course of his life, the government issued numerous propaganda reports of the great accomplishments achieved by Kim Jong-il, such as that he could walk and talk before the age of six-months. The North Korean newspaper, Rodong Sinmun, reported that an "unidentified French fashion expert" said of Kim's fashion, "Kim Jong-il mode, which is now spreading expeditiously worldwide, is something unprecedented in the world's history"; and that he could control the weather based on his mood. The Korean Central News Agency has also reported, among other things, that according to eye witness accounts "nature and the sky unfolded such mysterious ecstasy in celebration of the birthday of Kim Jong Il."
After his death on Dec. 17, 2011, the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) said that layers of ice ruptured with an unprecedentedly loud crack at Chon Lake on Mount Paektu and a snowstorm with strong winds hit the area. A political paper by his son, Kim Jong-un, sought to solidify his father as the "Eternal General Secretary of our Party." Many had been seen weeping during the 100-day mourning period, which is typical of Korean Confucian society, and an analyst at South Korea's Korea Institute for National Unification determined that much of the public grief evidenced during the mourning period was a genuine expression of sorrow. Yet, there has been some doubt as the genuine nature and depth of the displays of grief.
Similar to the mourning period of Kim Il-sung, individuals who did not follow the 100-day mourning period regulations or were thought to be insincere in their grief were subject to punishment and in some cases may have been executed. A notable example of this was the alleged death of Kim Chol and other high-ranking officials. However, in the case of Chol, doubts have been raised as to the credibility of the original account with Foreign Policy stating that stories about violent deaths of North Korean elites tend to be "exaggerated" and observing the version of events disseminated by South Korean media was likely based on "gossip."
Several large-scale bronze statues have been erected alongside statues of Kim Il-sung. They include a 5.7-meter (19-foot) statue of Kim Jong-il and Kim Il-sung each riding a horse (the first large monument built after Kim Jong-il's death) and a 23-meter (75-foot) tall statue at Mansudae, Pyongyang. Following his death, numerous commemorative stamps and coins were made and slogans have been carved on the sides of mountains in honor of his would-be 70th birthday.
Kim Jong-un, the grandson of North Korea's founder, was largely absent from the public and government service until the mid-2000s (decade). In 2010 he began being referred to as the "Young General" and by late 2011 as "Respected General". Like his father, he lacks any formal military training or service. With the death of his father, state media began to refer to him as the "Great Successor." Although he is still a new ruler, the development of his own personality cult is well underway, with large numbers of posters, signs, and other propaganda being placed all over the country. Some commentators have noted that his striking likeness in appearance to Kim Il-sung has helped solidify him as the undisputed ruler in the minds of the people.
Kim Jong-un marks the third generation of Kim family dynastic leadership. According to Daily NK, people who criticized the succession were sent to re-education camps or otherwise punished and, after the mourning period of Kim Jong-il, government authorities began to increase their efforts on building the idolization of Kim Jong-un.
After Kim Jong-il's death the president of the Presidium announced the following:
"Respected Comrade Kim Jong-un is our party, military and country’s supreme leader who inherits great comrade Kim Jong-il’s ideology, leadership, character, virtues, grit and courage."
Shortly after coming to power, a 560 metres (1,840 ft) long propaganda sign was erected in his honor near a lake in Ryanggang Province which is visible from space. The sign reads "Long Live General Kim Jong-un, the Shining Sun!”
In 2013, the Workers' Party of Korea amended the "Ten Principles for the Establishment of a Monolithic Ideological System", which in practice serves as the primary legal authority and framework of the country, to demand "absolute obedience" to Kim Jong-un.
Kim Jong-un's uncle, Jang Sung-taek, was executed on December 12, 2013. His death was attributed, in part, to undermining the Kim family personality cult. His death has also been seen as a move by Kim Jong-un to consolidate his own cult.
Kim Hyong-jik, the father of Kim Il-sung, is often described as a leading figure of the Korean independence movement, a claim which most outside scholars do not hold.:727 According to biographer Dae-Sook Suh, efforts to describe Kim Hyong-jik as playing a major role in the anti-Japanese struggle "seem to be directed more toward upgrading the attributes of Kim [Il-sung] as a pious son." This attribution became important as Kim Il-sung used these stories to aid in his ascent to power.
Kim Jong-suk (Kim Jong-il's mother) is described as “a revolutionary immortal" and "an anti-Japanese war hero [who] upheld the original idea and policy of Kim Il Sung and performed distinguished feats in the development of the movement for the women's emancipation in Korea." She is typified as a model revolutionary, wife, and maternal figure, and North Korean society looks to stories of her as examples of how to live life.
Although she died in 1949 (only one year after the founding of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea), starting in 1974, in conjunction with Kim Jong-il's rise to power, she was increasingly praised and her accomplishments memorialized throughout the nation. A museum was built in her home town in her honor and she was called an "indomitable Communist revolutionary" by Kim Sung-ae who was Kim Il-sung's then present wife, despite being largely ignored until this point.
Monuments, images and cost
By 1992, there had been nearly 40,000 statues of Kim Il-sung erected throughout the country, and with his death in 1994 the government began erecting 3,200 obelisks, called Towers of Eternal Life, in every town and city. These obelisks espouse the virtues of the "Great Marshal" and, like the other monuments, citizens (and tourists) are required to present flowers and other tokens of respect to the statues during certain holidays and when they visit them. There are legal requirements associated with photographing statues of the Kims including one that states visitors must photograph the entire statue, not the head or any other individual part.
After the death of Kim Jong-il the government began to inscribe his name on each of the obelisks and build new statues in his image.
Images of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il are prominent in places associated with public transportation, hanging at every North Korean train station and airport. Every North Korean household is required to have a picture of both Kims hanging on a wall. Nothing else may hang on that wall and they are given special cloths to clean the images daily. Party cadres and military officials must keep three portraits, that of the two deceased leaders and one of Kim Il-sung's wife, Kim Jong-suk. The images are only allowed to be made by government approved artists at specific Mansudae workshops. Images found within newspapers or other publications are to be respected and one must not throw away, deface or otherwise misuse a page that contains an image. They are to be collected and returned. Adult North Koreans are also required to wear a lapel pin that features their image on the left side, above their heart.
There have been sporadic stories of people risking their lives to save the portraits from various disasters but few accounts have been verified. In 2012, a 14-year-old girl drowned while trying to save the images from her family's home during a flash-flood. The North Korean government bestowed upon her the posthumous "Kim Jong-Il Youth Honor Award" and her school will be renamed after her.
The Kumsusan Palace of the Sun was built as the official residence of Kim Il-sung in 1976. After his death it was converted into his mausoleum (and then that of his son's). It is reported to have cost between $100–900 million. Kumsusan is the largest mausoleum dedicated to a Communist leader.
The overall estimated cost of maintaining the personality cult varies greatly between published sources. A white paper by the Korea Institute for International Economic Policy placed the cost at 38.5% of North Korea's budget in 2004, up from 19% in 1990. However, other sources such as South Korea's Chosun Ilbo and the United Kingdom's Daily Telegraph estimate the cost in 2012 at between $40 million and $100 million respectively. Large scale construction projects for the Kim family has been blamed for the country's economic downturn in the 1980s.
In 2013, a new holiday was announced to be celebrated on February 14, which commemorates the date that Kim Jong-il assumed the title "Generalissimo of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea". Unlike celebrations surrounding other important figures throughout the world, the celebrations are mandatory, with numerous events planned (such as dances, sporting events, and parades), and citizens will place gifts of flowers at the foot of monuments. Birthday celebrations for the Kims also involve state media broadcasts of films about the lives and accomplishments of the leaders the night before the actual holiday. People are not allowed to talk or fall asleep until the broadcasts are over.
Between 60,000 and 220,000 gifts to Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il from foreign leaders, businesspersons and others are housed in the International Friendship Exhibition. The museum is a source of pride for the North Korean government and is used as evidence of the greatness and popularity of their leaders. The North Korean government places a large emphasis on international recognition in order to legitimize their rule in the minds of the population. Tours are arranged to the Exhibition Hall whereupon entering and leaving visitors must bow before images of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il.
- Imperial cult
- Issues in reporting on North Korea
- Charismatic authority
- Propaganda in North Korea
- Death and funeral of Kim Il-sung
- Death and funeral of Kim Jong-il
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- Culture of North Korea
- Human Rights in North Korea, publications
- The statues of Kim Jong-il
- Historical perspective on the cult of personality
- Armstrong, Charles (2013), The North Korean Revolution, 1945–1950, Cornell University Press, ISBN 9780801468797
- Burdick, Eddie (2010), Three Days in the Hermit Kingdom: An American Visits North Korea, McFarland, ISBN 978-0-7864-4898-2
- Alton, David; Chidley, Rob (2013). Building Bridges: Is There Hope for North Korea?. Lion Books. ISBN 9780745955988.
- Demick, Barbara (2010), Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea, Random House LLC, ISBN 978-0-385-52391-2
- Hassig, Ralph (2009), The Hidden People of North Korea: Everyday Life in the Hermit Kingdom, Rowman & Littlefield, ISBN 978-0-7425-6718-4
- Kim, Samuel S (2001), The North Korean System in the Post-Cold War Era, Palgrave Macmillan, ISBN 978-0-312-23974-9
- Martin, Bradley (2006), Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader: North Korea and the Kim Dynasty, St. Martin's Griffin, ISBN 0-312-32322-0
- Suh, Dae-Sook (1988), Kim Il-Sung: The North Korean Leader, Columbia University Press, ISBN 9780231065733