Kim Jong-un, the heir apparent to North Korea’s troubled throne, remains an enigma. The mystery surrounding this young man has thrown a veil over what the international community –and South Korea- can say for certain about the question of succession in North Korea. Of especial importance to this issue is the matter of propaganda. Propaganda will be essential for the successful and peaceful handover of power, so it is telling to examine the degree to which a visible campaign in favour of Kim Jong-un can be found. Of equal importance is the examination of the propaganda campaigns that granted both Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong-Il such remarkable lasting power. Are the formidable powers of North Korea’s propaganda machine being utilised to the same extent on Kim Jong-un’s behalf? If not, why not? And what does this mean for the future of North Korea’s leadership?
For long, the Pyongyang leadership has relied on Confucian ideals of patriarchy and respect for elders and an effective propaganda base to portray certain members of the Kim family as natural rulers with exceptional leadership capabilities. North Korean conceptions of Confucianism only serve to reinforce the notion that the Kim dynasty has a ‘divine right’ to rule the North Koreans, in the manner of a monarchical family. It is upon this myth of greatness that political eligibility can be built in order to permit the concept of power-inheritance from father to son. But how well does Kim Jong-un fit into this tradition?
Amongst North Koreans, the relationship between ruler and ruled is often portrayed as that of a benevolent father and beloved child. This is a theme that has been evident in North Korean propaganda since the time of Kim Il Sung. B.R. Myers observes that within paintings which depict Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong-il together, the latter’s ‘popularity’ owed much to his image as the doting son, who did his best in the shadow cast by his almost deified father. As Myers explains “it is in no small part because [Kim Jong-il] appears more human and vulnerable than Kim Il Sung, and thus a more convincing embodiment of the child race itself, that the Dear Leader is so dear to his people, even if he is not so fervently venerated as his father”. The cult of the Kim family was not a rushed construction; it has been decades in the making, to the extent that it is now genuinely enmeshed in the lives of many North Korean people. This makes the lack of widely visible propaganda campaign relating to Kim Jong-un all the more surprising. Myers points out that propaganda support for Kim Jong-un seems, at present, to be “a mainly oral campaign carried out at party lectures, factory assemblies and the like, and through unprepossessing posters hung in display cases far from tourist sites”.
Myers’ observation that much of the propaganda is displayed “far from tourist sites” is interesting. We know comparatively little about the nature of the propaganda campaign surrounding Kim Jong-un within North Korea. It has been posited that two songs were sung which referred to the succession; but even this is unclear as the performance was held in Kim Jong-il’s honour, another public display of affection and respect which Kim Jong-un, it would seem, has yet to enjoy. There has also been mention of the production of lapel badges bearing Kim Jong-un’s image, in the pattern of pre-existing badges depicting the two elder Kims. Such a move would constitute overwhelming evidence of Kim Jong-il’s support for his son as his heir, but the authenticity of these claims has not be absolutely verified. In fact, Professor Kim Yong-Hyun of Dongguk University declared last year that “I have never heard of North Korea producing badges for Jong-Un before.” Even if we accept that there is a concerted propaganda campaign acting to promote Kim Jong-un as a successor, it is worth remembering that the campaign backing Kim Jong-il in the 1970s was far more public and visible to the outside world. Indeed, much of it was actively targeted towards an external audience, for it was vital that Kim Jong-il’s leadership credentials were established on the world stage before he came to power. The propaganda acted as a kind of curriculum vitae which told his people and the outside world why he would be fit to rule the country.
Kim Jong-un’s current credentials are far less established than his father’s were by the time he came to power; Kim Jong-il had plenty of time to build his credentials, but should Kim Jong-un be forced to succeed any time soon, his own credentials would be far from secure. This is a serious issue for the young Kim, as the problems he faces are more serious than those his father faced on accession. Kim Jong-un is young: at twenty-seven, his potential authority would be questioned by many. Should Kim Jong-un eventually lead North Korea, he will lead a government consisting of many venerable figures, many of whom can trace their allegiance to the Kim dynasty back to the Korean War. Amongst such men, his young age and lack of experience will no doubt raise eyebrows.
Kim Jong-un’s youth means that if he is to successfully take power, concerted efforts will have to be made to establish his ability to lead. His father spent years following in Kim Il Sung’s footsteps, quietly and unobtrusively revealing his presence to the North Korean people and, by demonstrating filial loyalty to his father, established himself as a worthy heir to the Great Leader. Kim Jong-un has, according to the KCNA, been on several trips with his father, as well as providing some ‘on-the-spot guidance’, but there is little evidence to suggest that he has amassed the same level of experience and personal achievement that Kim Jong-Il had by the late 1970s. But perhaps Kim Jong-un’s leadership credentials are being created in other ways.
The shelling of Yeongpyeong island was seen by some as a bid to establish Kim Jong-un’s military credentials. The Director of the National Intelligence Service of South Korea, Won Sei-Hoon, is quoted as having declared: ‘Kim Jong-un is resorting to military adventurism such as the shelling of Yeonpyeong island in order to rally support for him’. However, it is possible that shelling may not have been ordered by Kim Jong-un directly, but instead carried out on his behalf. But even if this was the case, this would result in the important perception that North Korea’s military stood behind Kim Jong-un. Related to this – KCNA reported last year that Kim Jong-un had been ‘promoted to the rank of general’. If the title is to assume anything other than a symbolic significance, it would have been necessary for Kim Jong-un to build up his military experience and authority. So, perhaps Yeonpyeong was linked and may have helped bolster his credibility in some quarters – but whether this will be enough to ensure a smooth and successful succession is far from clear.
Kim Il Sung was the Fatherly Leader; the man who fought off the Japanese occupiers, defeated the Imperialists, and continued working towards reunification until his death. His own propagandised image evolved almost organically, until his personality cult was such that he assumed the role of a minor deity amongst his people. Kim Jong-il has been less successful, arguably because he lacks the physical presence and charisma of his father, but also because his economic reforms contributed to the disastrous ‘Arduous March’ of the late 1990s. Nonetheless, during the military parade staged in honour of the sixty-fifth anniversary of the Korean Workers’ Party, the crowds shouted slogans, wishing Kim Jong-il protection against death, and other general declarations of support. Whilst these declarations might not have been deep from the heart, the public and overt declaration of loyalty was a triumph of North Korean propaganda. Kim Jong-un has so far enjoyed no support or public displays of loyalty on this scale. Perhaps this is because Kim Jong-il himself remains unsure about the succession issue. To be sure, there was been considerable to-ing and fro-ing about who would inherit power; the ill-favoured elder son Kim Jong Nam, or the young and fresh-faced third son, Kim Jong-un. The lack of overt propaganda on behalf of Kim Jong-un might therefore be a result of the ruling power’s reluctance to firmly commit their support in favour of the youngest Kim. But one thing is for certain, given the perceived level of propaganda support- and indeed general internal support- for Kim Jong-un, efforts will have to be increased rapidly or, as Foster-Carter succinctly puts it ‘If dad drops dead tomorrow… that would be curtains for son as well’.
 B.R. Myers ‘The Cleanest Race’ (Melville House Publishing 2010) p 112
Jae-Chon Lim and Ho-Yeol Yoo Institutionalization of the cult of the Kims: its implications for North Korean political succession
 Myers ‘The Cleanest Race’ p 19
 Nam You-Sun N.Korea producing badges of heir apparent: report