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How the Kim cult of personality came to dominate North Korean life, By Fyodor Tertitskiy
The DPRK’s leader-worship may be the most pervasive in human history
Kim Il Sung’s cult of personality is perhaps one of the most recognizable things about North Korea. Stalinist in its inception, it was brought to Korea with Kim Il Sung by the Red Army and it blossomed.
In the early decades of North Korean history, there were periods when Kim Il Sung-worshiping waned in its intensity. The first of these periods came, perhaps surprisingly, in the early stages of the Korean War, when the greatness of the Leader became a secondary topic to military successes.
After 1951, the cult began to develop again, arguably surpassing that of Stalin in North Korea by the middle 1950s. For example, Kim Il Sung’s name was already spelled in bold in 1955, and Stalin’s never was.
The de-Stalinization policy of Nikita Khrushchev briefly overrode this. For some time after the Soviet leader’s “Secret Speech,” the personality cult was again toned down. The Rodong Sinmun even published a few articles criticizing the concept of personality cults, and the North Korean political dictionary of 1957 said that “the concept of personality cult has nothing to do with Marxism-Leninism and causes great harm to the strengthening of the Party ranks and the deed of the Revolution.”
Slowly recuperating between 1959 and 1966, the cult experienced a huge boost in 1967. It was after Kim Il Sung’s May 25 Instructions that it became as pervasive as it is now, and it was in the early 1970s when most of its traits were finally established.
For the next half of the century, the cult has seen the addition of two new figures – Kim Jong Il and Kim Jong Un – but its nature mostly remained the same.
Kim Jong Il, well known for his ideological creativity, added new details to the cult, mostly aimed at further glorification of Kim Il Sung after he died.
Kim Jong Un, in contrast with his father, seems less interested in ideological affairs. He quickly adjusted the cult to make Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il equally great figures in 2012, and it remained virtually unchanged ever since.
THE SACRED NAME
“The Great Leader respected comrade Kim Il Sung taught the following” being crossed out in a correct way.
Kim Il Sung, Kim Jong Il, and Kim Jong Un’s names are treated as sacred in North Korea. No other person can hold the same name as them. The order to Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il ’s namesakes to change their names was issued in 1974 (according to some reports, the ban on Kim Jong Il’s namesakes came later – in 1980) and Kim Jong Un’s in 2011.
When it came to the latter, according to estimates by South Korean intelligence, there were several dozen Kim Jong Uns living in Pyongyang when the order was passed, and about 600 people in the entire country.
Every time the names appear in print or writing, one must accentuate them with different spelling using a bold or a bigger font. When one crosses out a sentence containing one of the names, the name of the Leader is not to be crossed out – rather it should be put in a frame with a squiggle showing that the name was written by mistake.
Even Korean grammar is altered to accommodate the cult, with sentences routinely being butchered to put Kim’s name in a dominant position.
The cult is not just reflected in written texts, but it extends even to such an unusual thing as karaoke subtitles. Of course, many songs in the North are dedicated to the Kim family and mention their names. Karaoke typically has subtitles, which change color as the person sings the song. However, this rule does not apply to the sacred names – as one can see here, they are always in red.
Finally, the Kim name even affects the way Chinese characters are taught in the DPRK schools. While in South Korea the students usually start learning with the simplest characters like “one, two and three” (一,二,三), in the North they begin with “gold”, “sun” and “achieve” (金,日,成). Such complexity is totally understandable if you remember that these three are pronounced as, respectively, Kim, Il, and Sung.
THE SACRED TITLES
“Comrades, when you dream, you must dream of comrade Kim Jong Il, when you do something, do the things comrade Kim Jong Il likes, when you walk, walk on the road comrade Kim Jong Il shows you”
North Korea has a vast system of honorary titles to be used to refer to all three Kims. While mixing them up is not a crime and even inventing one’s own is allowed, normally one is supposed to memorize the standard ones and use them.
It seems that in some cases, before being presented to the outside world, the titles are being sort of tested in inner track publications. For example, Kim Jong Il’s title “Dear Leader” (친애하는 지도자) and “Great Leader” (위대한 령도자) were used in inner track publications before appearing in Rodong Sinmun in 1981 and 1994 respectively, while, for example “Highly Renowned Leader” (영명하신 지도자) never mover to outer track, apparently being rejected in the inner track test.
Normally, a Leader’s name cannot be used without a title. One of the few exceptions to the rule is the name of the Collected works – following the Soviet traditions – these are simply “Collected works of Kim Il Sung” (or Kim Jong Il).
In other iterations, the Leader’s name is nearly fused with his standard title. For example, while Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il’s biographies simply precede all others, the articles dedicated to other things related to them are placed not under the letter K(ㄱ) – the first in the word “Kim”, but under the letter “wi”(위) – the first in word “widaehan”(great, 위대한) – all articles about Kim Il Sung must contain the title “Great Leader”.
THE SACRED BIRTHDAY
April 15 and February 16. These are the two most important days in the North Korean calendar, being the birthdays of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il. Kim Jong Un’s birthday – January 8 – is still downplayed by the state media.
Apart from the celebration being much more massive than, say, the DPRK Foundation Day, the very numbers 415 (fourth month, fifteenth day) and 216 (second month, sixteenth day) were given a special status in the North.
The first cryptic reference in Rodong Sinmun hinting at the special status of Kim Jong Il came in 1972, when Kim Il Sung run for the Supreme People Assembly in the district 216. The numbers of Kim Jong Il’s personal cars started with 216.
The code numbers for the Navy, Air Force, and Strategic Forces are “Unit 415”, “Unit 216” and “Unit 108” respectively. The latter stands for Kim Jong Un’s birthday, showing that it is coming into the discourse, too.
For some time, the official exchange rate of the North Korean won to the United States dollar was 2.16:1, showing that the cult even extended itself to purely economic affairs.
The birth years of the Leaders meant that the Zodiac was gone from the DPRK culture, as Kim Il Sung (b. 1912) and Kim Jong Un (b. 1984) were born in the years of rat and Kim Jong Il – officially – in the year of the horse (1942). While prominent in South Korea, Zodiac animals are not mentioned in DPRK publications.
And, finally, comes the calendar. The calendar the world uses comes from the birth date of Jesus Christ, as calculated by the 6th-century monk Dionysius Exiguus. The calendar in use in the DPRK replaced Jesus with Kim Il Sung as a central figure. His birth year 1912 is Juche 1. However, 1911 would not be something like “1 BK” – when referring to the age before the humankind was glorified with the coming of Kim, the Western calendar is used exclusively.
THE SACRED IMAGE
Portraits of Kim Il Sung, Kim Jong Il, and now, Kim Jong Un, are extremely important things in the North. Each household must have a standard set of portraits hang on a wall, where nothing else is allowed to hang. Portraits are hanged in offices, factories, cars of Pyongyang metro, on the streets, virtually everywhere.
In many occasions, portraits serve a role not that dissimilar from icons in Catholic and Orthodox Christianity – they substitute the Kims. When children receive their breakfast in school, when one is healed in the hospital, when one votes, and on many occasions – one is supposed to bow to the portraits, to thank the Fatherly Generalissimos for their grace.
Despite being mass-produced, each and all of them are considered sacred objects. One may be executed for spoiling it, even unintentionally. A common narrative in North Korea is hailing people who died saving the portrait from some natural disaster or even those who preferred saving the portraits to saving their own children. Even thieves do not dare to steal these portraits – they know that the punishment for this will be death if they are caught.
A paper with a printed portrait of Kim cannot be recycled for other purposes and cannot be even crumpled – the only acceptable way of getting rid of it is to burn it. The idea that putting a holy object in a fire is okay while throwing it away is not is present in many cultures of the world.
THE SACRED STATUES
The first statues of Kim Il Sung were unveiled during the Soviet administration. Since then, thousands of new ones have been erected, mostly after1967. Each statue becomes an object of worship, with the locals’ duty being taking them flowers and bowing to them regularly.
Kim Jong Il’s statues started to rarely appear at the end of his rule, most in military units but became ubiquitous after his death in 2011. Currently, a standard set would feature them both standing next to each other and smiling.
Although the Kims’ statues are of overwhelming majority, occasionally one can find a statue dedicated to other North Korean and even foreign nationals. A notable example would be a statue of Zhou Enlai in Hamhung that local Chinese citizens occasionally take photos with.
THE SACRED HISTORY
A son of a teacher, Kim Il Sung dropped out of middle school and served a short prison term before becoming a middle-ranked partisan commander in Manchuria. After the guerilla movement was completely devastated by the Japanese army, he fled to the USSR, where he served in the Red Army in the rank of captain and where Kim Jong Il was born.
Chosen to lead North Korea by a series of lucky coincidences, Kim was nothing more than a Soviet puppet for years – before his cunning allowed him to break free from Moscow’s control. Even then, he became merely one of the leaders of a bloc of many communist countries.
This is not how the Great Leader wanted to be perceived. Thus, when he achieved absolute power and especially since he moved on to establish a truly totalitarian state in 1967, he moved to heavily rewrite his official biography – and, by consequence, the history of the country as well.
In the new version, Kim Il Sung exercised an aura of leadership since his very early age. He founded his first anti-Japanese organization when he was only 14. He was the man to lead the entire anti-Japanese movement in Manchuria. It was his Korean People’s Revolutionary Army which defeated Japan in 1945, with the Allies, including the USSR, playing a small and auxiliary role in it.
It was he who led the country on the way of the national constitution to the greater glory. And it was he, not some guy in Moscow or Beijing, who was the leader of the world’s progressive movement, hailed by all the people from all the nations.
Stalin of the former Soviet Union, Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai of China, Sukarno of Indonesia, Ho Chí Minh of Vietnam, Tito of Yugoslavia and other countries’ leaders – they all said that the visit of the Great Leader is the most joyful holiday and it was the greatest honor to them that they could be together with the Leader – announced DPRK press.
THE SACRED VISITS
Each visit of the Supreme Leader to any place – be that a school, a factory or anything else – is a major event with a lot of ideological consequences.
All his remarks are recorded. Remarks are then processed into a detailed plan to be implemented, which is then hanged on walls and duly observed by all the workers.Finally, between 1967 and 2011, the Supreme Leader was the only one whose visits could have been reported in the state press. Shortly before Kim Jong Il’s death, this right was extended to members of the Politburo’s Standing Committee.
THE SACRED FLOWER
The man who actually began the story of these flowers was the Indonesian President Sukarno, during Kim Il Sung’s visit to the country in 1965. In order to please his guest, Sukarno presented a flower to him, saying that it would be named after him.
In 1965, Kim Il Sung’s personality cult was not yet as strong as we know it. Therefore for some years, this episode remained a historical obscurity, until the 1980s, when the flower was remembered.
The first time it was mentioned in the state press was on September 3, 1981. An article “Korea blossoms like Kimilsungia” (김일성화처럼 활짝 피여난 조선) signed by the head of the State Department for Agriculture and Forestry of Bangladesh Amirul Islam Kalam was published on page 6 of the Rodong Sinmun.
The real cult of the flower started in the mid 1980s, when Kimilsungia became an integral part of celebrations of Kim Il Sung’s birthday.
By that time, Kim Jong Il had already been formally announced as successor and he required a flower, too. Like Kimilsungia, Kimjongilia was bred by a foreign botanist – Kamo Mototeru (加茂元照) from Japan.The flowers become an integral part of the DPRK personality cult. Both Kimilsungia and Kimjongilia are grown across the country. Various state organizations, such as the Education committee, criminal police, Railroad bureaus, ministries, factories, cities’ people’s committees, and even the Central Bank are required to maintain a Kimilsungia-Kimjongilia greenhouse.Thus, it is quite likely that Kimilsungia and Kimjongilia will outlive the Kim dynasty – maybe even for few centuries.
THE SACRED TOUCH
All things and objects honored with the Leader’s presence are immediately sanctified. People who “were honored by meeting the Great Leader respected comrade Kim Il Sung or the Beloved and respected Supreme Commander Kim Jong Il in person and were thus provided with great political trust and care” have their kyechung upgraded to “awarded with an audience.”Finally, there is a number of special shelters, called Veneration Rooms (모심실), designed specifically for preservation of statues, plaques, portraits and other objects of the cult. The Central Military Commision of the Party has ordered that in a case of war, the very first act would be to start moving them all to Veneration Rooms – before, say, evacuating civilians.
THE SACRED DEATH
Both the deaths of Kim Il Sung in 1994 and of Kim Jong Il in 2011 were major events and so were their state funerals. But yet again, this happens nearly everytime a head of state dies in office. Yet, apart from the scale of mourning, there are a few things related to post-mortal veneration of the Leaders which look truly unique.
THE CULT IS EVERYWHERE
It is not easy to find a sphere of life in North Korea where the personality cult does not manifest itself. You write an article about a mathematics? Include a quote from the Leaders. You are a sportsman? All your victories are thanks to the Leader, don’t forget to mention it all the time. On the other hand, if you are the actor who plays the Leader, then no, your name won’t be the first one in titles. Rather, it won’t be mentioned at all.
Several times a week, all North Koreans, with the exception of children and inmates, attend regular meetings about the Leaders’ greatness. There is a multitude of songs, poems and books hailing them being produced in the country. The two top orders of the country are the Kim Il Sung Order and the Kim Jong Il Order. The central square of Pyongyang is the Kim Il Sung square.
The cult is also an expensive thing to maintain – especially for such a poor nation as North Korea. Statues, portraits and other holy objects cost money, and time wasted on ideological meetings could have been used to do real work to improve the nation’s economy.
This is now much more than just a means to accommodate the ego of the ruling Kim. The cult has remolded North Korean culture, literature, education, economy, patterns of life, historical studies, and even some aspects of military service.If one needed to describe the DPRK in one sentence, then, perhaps, “the country of the cult” would be the closest one.
China reiterates support for DPRK’s “new strategic line” at Ri, Wang meeting, By Hamish Macdonald
Talks are the fifth between the two foreign ministers this year
The Chinese government on Friday reiterated its support for North Korea’s strategic shift towards domestic economic development during a meeting between the country’s two foreign ministers in Beijing.
Kim Jong Un in April announced at the 3rd Plenary Session of the Seventh Central Committee of the Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK) that North Korea would no longer test nuclear weapons and instead would turn its focus on building its “socialist economic system.”
Friday saw Wang reiterate China’s support for that plan, as well as Beijing’s commitment to improve ties between the two countries.
“The Third Plenary Session of the Seventh Central Committee of the Workers’ Party of Korea has made a new strategic line decision, which fully conforms to the fundamental and long-term interests of the North Korean nation,” a Chinese foreign ministry readout issued following the talks said.“China firmly supports the DPRK’s development path in line with its national conditions and supports the DPRK’s efforts to maintain stability, develop the economy, and improve people’s livelihood.”
Friday’s meeting sees the North Korean foreign minister continue up a week-long diplomatic tour, which has in the last few days taken him to Vietnam and, later, Syria.And in a year dominated by diplomatic engagement, North Korea and China have maintained high-level contact throughout, with Friday’s talks representing the fifth time Wang and Ri have met.
Both ministers pledged to continue to engage and promote bilateral ties moving forward, with 2019 representing the 70th year of bilateral relations between the two.
Wang also said that China and North Korea should continue to work towards denuclearization and expressed hopes the U.S. and DPRK would maintain dialogue to this end.
“The DPRK’s commitment to the denuclearization of the peninsula and the maintenance of peace and stability on the peninsula has not changed,” Ri was reported as saying in the press release.“It is hoped that the DPRK and the United States will establish the necessary mutual trust and work in tangency.”
Ri also met with Chinese President Xi Jinping briefly on Friday with the foreign ministry publishing an additional readout, largely containing diplomatic pleasantries. However, Xi also took time to comment that he would hope to see reciprocity between the U.S. and DPRK moving forward. “It is hoped that the DPRK and the United States will move in the same direction and take care of each other’s legitimate concerns, so that the peace talks on the peninsula will continue to make positive progress,” the foreign ministry readout said.
Recent months have seen little progress made towards denuclearization, with the U.S. and DPRK reaching something of an impasse since a Singapore summit between DPRK leader Kim Jong Un and U.S. President Donald Trump in June.
A significant sticking point, North Korea has made clear, is the maintenance of sanctions against the country, which the U.S. insists must stay in place until denuclearization. North Korea, on the other hand, has labeled sanctions an impediment to trust building, which it sees as a pre-requisite for moves towards disarming. China, in turn, has pushed for economic cooperation and has also called for sanctions to be removed following North Korea’s diplomatic engagement efforts this year.
Recently, NK Pro reported that China has recently been upgrading infrastructure along the Sino-North Korea border in what appears to be preparations for increased trade.
Kim Yong Nam wraps up two-week-long trip to Cuba, Mexico, Venezuela: KCNA, By Dagyum Ji
DPRK’s titular head of state concludes major diplomatic tour with second round of meetings in Havana
North Korean titular head of state Kim Yong Nam wrapped up an over two-week-long trip to Latin America with a second visit to Cuba before returning to Pyongyang, the DPRK state-run Korean Central New Agency (KCNA) reported on Friday.
The trip saw the DPRK delegation made two separate visits to Cuba, as well as to Venezuela and Mexico. The 90-year-old Kim, whose full title is President of the Presidium of the Supreme People’s Assembly, was accompanied by vice-chairman of the Central Committee of the Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK) Pak Thae Song and vice foreign minister Ho Yong Bok.
North Korean officials — who previously visited Cuba en route to Mexico — met First Secretary of the Communist Party of Cuba (CPC) Central Committee Raúl Castro Ruz on Tuesday in Havana, KCNA reported on Friday.
The DPRK delegation stopped by the country en route to Pyongyang, the coverage added. Citing a recent visit by Cuban President Miguel Díaz-Canel to Pyongyang, Kim used the meeting to express his confidence that “bilateral friendly relations would ceaselessly develop,” KCNA said.
Castro, in turn, wished North Korean leader Kim Jong Un success in “leading the struggle of the Korean people who turned out in the implementation of a new strategic line.”
The state-run Cuban News Agency (ACN) on Wednesday said the two sides discussed international issues and “expressed satisfaction for the advances of bilateral relations” between parties and governments.
Kim Jong Un reportedly sent a message to Castro through the DPRK delegation, ACN added, without providing further details.
North Korean vice-chairman Pak Tae Song, DPRK ambassador to Cuba Ma Chol Su, and Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez Parrilla — present at November’s talks in Havana — also attended Wednesday’s meeting.
Kim Yong Nam previously met Cuban President Díaz-Canel on November 29, having arrived in Havana a day prior, with the two sides discussing “political dialogue,” plans for cooperation between the two countries, and other issues of mutual concern, KCNA reported.
Kim also met Cuba’s first vice president of the Councils of State Salvador Valdés Mesa, who led the Cuban delegation and visited Pyongyang on the occasion of the 70th founding anniversary of the DPRK.
The North Korean delegation then traveled to Mexico, for the inauguration of new President Andrés Manuel López Obrad.
Kim Yong Nam later met López at the Presidential palace, KCNA belatedly reported on Friday, conveying a greeting and a gift from Kim Jong Un.
Mexico and North Korea previously had a serious diplomatic falling-out in 2014, after the DPRK-owned ship the Mu Du Bong ran aground on a reef near the Mexican port of Tuxpan in July that year.
That diplomatic divide appear to have deepened following the Mexican government’s expulsion of DPRK ambassador Kim Hyong Gil in September last year – a response to Pyongyang’s sixth nuclear test.
Friday saw KCNA report that Kim had also delivered Kim Jong Un’s greetings to Bolivian President Evo Morales and Dominican Republic President Danilo Medina Sanchez, without providing further details.
He was also reported to have held talks with the Cuban President and Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro Moros on the sidelines of the inauguration, held on December 1.
KCNA did not, however, make reference to a meeting at that event between Kim and South Korean foreign minister Kang Kyung-wha.
Seoul’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) on Sunday announced that the minister had met and briefly held a conversation with Kim at a welcoming luncheon.
The ROK foreign minister reportedly told Kim that she expects a visit by DPRK leader Kim Jong Un to Seoul to come “expeditiously, to strengthen the dynamic force for a peace settlement on the Korean peninsula.”
In return, Kim Yong Nam responded that the two sides should work together continuously to improve inter-Korean relations, the ROK MOFA said in a written statement, adding that the talks took place in an “amicable atmosphere.”
The DPRK delegation previously met Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro and National Constituent Assembly (ANC) President Diosdado Cabello and signed multiple agreements in Caracas as part of the first leg of the tour.
Maduro also delivered a gift to the North Korean leader at the meeting, according to the KCNA report, adding North Korean officials had stayed in the city between November 26 and 28.
Kim Yong Nam previously visited the country in September 2016 to attend the 17th NAM summit, accompanied by North Korean foreign minister Ri Yong Ho.
Last year saw the U.S. Trump administration put pressure on Latin American countries to sever relations with Pyongyang, with Vice President Mike Pence in August urging regional players to “break all diplomatic and commercial ties to North Korea.”
Polling the North Korean people: insights from the open-source data, By NK Pro
Figures from the Institute for Peace and Unification Studies offer some surprising insights
NK Pro is the ultimate resource for professionals working on North Korea, offering specialist DPRK news and analysis, bespoke research tools, and unique data sets.
Kazakhstan continues to report large oil shipments to North Korea: ITC, By Leo Byrne
Three month total of oil shipments now exceeds USD$100 million
Kazakhstan reported an oil export to North Korea valued at USD$44 million in September, a USD$5 million increase from the previous month, the ITC trade map shows.
The exports bring the combined value of three months of shipments to over USD$100 million, far in excess of what neighboring China and Russia reported as their exports