When Kim Jong Il died, the North Korean leadership faced the unexpected: the process of Kim Jong Un being anointed as successor had just began and was far from complete. Pyongyang had to rush to promote the young Kim to all necessary positions. Kim Jong Un had to be appointed supreme commander of the Korean People’s Army, the first secretary of the Workers’ Party of Korea, the chairman of the Military Commission of the Workers’ Party of Korea, the first chairman of the National Defense Commission and marshal of the DPRK (a promotion from mere general of the army). Apart from that, the youngest Kim had to obtain the main attribute of North Korean rulers: a number of personal titles. The titles had to be created quickly and not to be the same as his father and grandfather.
Before I proceed with the story, I should make one remark: Unfortunately, the common English translations of titles of the Kim dynasty are not completely accurate. For example, the word “leader” is used to translate three different Korean words, and the word “general” is used both to describe the four-star rank as well as a mere top commander in the army. Therefore, in order to precisely reflect the original Korean, I have to improvise.
The very first title for Kim Il Sung was “commander.” Aside from the fact, that he, indeed, commanded a unit of anti-Japanese partisans in Manchuria, one may remember that the same word was used in the very army Kim Il Sung was fighting against. Four highest-ranking generals in the Imperial Army of Manchukuo were holding the formal title of “commander.”
The next title of the first Kim was “leader.” In 1940s and early 1950s this word was used to refer to Stalin as well. After Stalin died and was subsequently denounced by Khrushchev, the word “leader” all but disappeared from the press for quite some time, but when Kim Il Sung managed to stay in power and became independent from the USSR, the title was put back in use.
However, the true revival of the cult started in 1967. It was during that time that a system of four types of titles was created and subsequently used to refer to Kim Jong Il and Kim Jong Un.
The titles of the North Korean leaders can be divided to short, standard, full and secondary. The short title is used as a synonym when an author mentions one of the Kims. The standard title is used many circumstances, such as naming the article or introducing a quote from one of the Kims. The full title is usually used in media when Kim is mentioned for the first time; it includes the formal position a Kim is holding in the state hierarchy. And, finally, secondary titles are used to emotionally emphasize Kim’s greatness and genius.
The short title of Kim Il Sung was “leader”; the standard being the “Great Leader,” the full, after 1972, being “President of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, General Secretary of the Workers’ Party of Korea, the Great Leader Marshal Kim Il Sung.” The titles were supposed to be followed, but sometimes a certain liberty was allowed. For example, “Great Leader” may have been substituted with “Beloved and Respected Leader” and the final part of the full title could become “The Great Leader of the Forty Million, respected comrade Kim Il Sung”; such variation was used mainly in 1970s.
As for the secondary titles, these were legion. “Sun of the Nation,” “Leader of Progressive Humankind,” “Father of the People,” “Unsurpassed Great Man” – these would be just a few examples of a multitude.
From the beginning of 1970s the Leader’s name started to written (and printed) in a special script – either bigger of bold. The same happened to his quotes, and a special formula was invented to introduce them: “The Great Leader respected comrade Kim Il Sung has taught the following…” Finally, the grammatical forms of respect in written text were to be used solely to refer to Kim.
FOLLOW THE LEADER
When Kim Il Sung started a mass campaign promoting his son to become his successor the country already had a model of worshipping the head of state. Before Kim Jong Il was formally shown to the public, he was called by a slightly strange euphemism of “Party’s Center.” But after he came into public view in 1980-81, he received his first title – “Dear Mentor.”
It was in December 1994, a few months after Kim Il Sung died, that the Dear Mentor changed his title to the Great Guide, but the canon of Kim Jong Il’s titles was finally constructed only in 1998. His short title became “Commander,” the same word which was used to refer to his father long ago, the standard – “Great Guide,” and the full one – “General Secretary of the Workers’ Party of Korea, Chairman of the National Defense Commission of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, Supreme Commander of the Korean People’s Army, the Great Guide respected comrade Kim Jong Il.” Of course, Kim Jong Il also had a lot of secondary titles, and sometimes he was even called “the Great Leader,” but usually it was avoided in order to no create unnecessary confusion.
Kim Jong Un’s promotion, starting in the late 2000s, seemingly followed Kim Jong Il’s model. The first title of the third Kim was “the Young General.” Kim Jong Un was reportedly fond of this four-star rank, which, for the record, is literally translated from Korean as “Big Boss,” and, apart from rumors and the campaign itself, it may be substituted by the fact that the only known photo of Kim Jong Un in military uniform was taken when he was a General – and once he was later promoted to Marshal, he was always dressing like a civilian.
However, when Kim Jong Il died in 2011, the succession campaign was very far from complete. Nevertheless, Kim Jong Un was announced as successor and so his personality cult was to be constructed – as soon as possible.
In a few days, his name also started to be written in bold and within about a week after the demise of the Great Guide, Kim Jong Un received his standard title: “the Supreme Guide.” It took more time for the short title to be shaped. From July 2012, Kim Jong Un became “Beloved and Respected Marshal.” The full title of the youngest Kim is “the First Secretary of the Workers’ Party of Korea, the First Chairman of the National Defense Commission of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, the Supreme Commander of the Korean People’s Army, the Supreme Guide of our Party and of our people, the Beloved and Respected Marshal Kim Jong Un,” with “Marshal” sometimes be substituted for “respected comrade.”
As for the secondary titles, the situation is not so bright – as almost all possible combinations of Suns, Fathers, Leaders, Guides and Bright Stars were already used, the North Korean propagandists have to work hard to invent something else. To the date, the only unique secondary title of the youngest Kim I can think of is “The Sun of the World.” One, however, should not give up and keep faith in the great force of progress.
When Kim Jong Il died, the North Korean leadership faced the unexpected: the process of Kim Jong Un being anointed as successor had just began and was far from complete. Pyongyang had to rush to promote the young Kim to all necessary positions. Kim Jong Un had to be appointed supreme commander of the Korean People’s Army, the first secretary of the Workers’ Party of Korea, the chairman of the
Fyodor Tertitskiy is an expert in North Korean politics and the military and a contributor to NK News and NK Pro. He holds a Ph.D. in Sociology from Seoul National University, and is author of "North Korea before Kim Il Sung," which you buy here.