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View more articles by Peter Ward
Peter Ward is a writer and researcher focusing on the North Korean economy.
North Korean propaganda is full of distortions, fake news, and ludicrous claims designed to make you hail the glory of the Workers’ Party of Korea (WKP) and the Kim dynasty – and curse its enemies.
But it also contains a great deal of factual material as well. The regime doesn’t have to lie about everything, and there are some facts that it is very proud of and would very much like the world to know about.
The film “The Great Transformation in the 1970s” (which you can watch here) is an example of how regime propaganda can be a useful source of facts, as well as of deliberately constructed falsehoods.
It also gives us furtive glimpses of what Pyongyang and other cities looked like back in the day, when and how landmarks were constructed, and some insights into Kim Jong Il’s rise to power and insertion into the North Korean cult of personality.
Released in 2004 to commemorate the 30th anniversary of Kim Jong Il’s appointment to the Politburo, we are treated to a wide array of fascinating imagery from the outset.
The footage of people cheering and banners on display hailing the appointment of Kim Jong Il to the Politburo hint that his appointment in 1974 was likely announced to meetings of the Party faithful, even though the fact was kept out of the open access media at the time.
There is also a fascinating image of portraits of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il hanging side-by-side. A regular occurrence in North Korea today, but these are images of the two Kims from the early 1970s, and thus may be examples of the early cult of Kim Jong Il.
What are more interesting, still, are the images of modern Pyongyang under construction.
What is striking is how little North Korea’s culture of public adulation has changed in forty years. Crowds scream “horray!”, hold large paintings of the leader and banners with slogans, wave flowers, and bring boutiques to put under bronze statues of the leader. Kim Jong Il is credited with having advanced the cult of Kim Il Sung.
The film also informs viewers that Kim Il Sung’s birthday was officially celebrated from 1974 onward.
The defacement of North Korea’s natural beauty in the name of the Kim cult also began in the 1970s, as the film informs us.
Kim Jong Il’s rise to the position of successor involved him strengthening the cult of his father. He also called for the “Jucheization” of all society, and the film treats us to what looks like an image of a struggle session from the time.
A fixture of North Korean state economic policy, the speed battle (the 70-day speed battle, to start with), seemingly was also invented by or at least pioneered under the watch of Kim Jong Il.
The battle to modernize the North Korean countryside also reached new heights, with apartments being built, new buses being introduced, along with the mechanization of farming for the first time.
Pyongyang underwent a residential construction boom too, with the building of the two large residential thoroughfares, Chollima and Rakwon streets. If you didn’t know it, this move to renovate the capital was reportedly Kim Jong Il’s idea, as was the Great People’s Study House.
The film rounds off with a ten-minute discussion of Kim Jong Il’s great accomplishments in the field of the arts – especially in cinema – and other areas.
Some stylistic elements in his emergent cult look very redolent of the cultural revolution that occurred in China a few years earlier. The banners and large character posters, for instance.
The rather stultifying and repetitious nature of North Korean media discourse also took its current form under the leadership of Kim Jong Il, according to the film. Perhaps the theatrical style of North Korean announcers also had something to do with the personal tastes of the young Kim.
The Revolutionary Martyrs Cemetry was also opened in 1975, creating another sacred site for the Korean revolution. And among other things, Kim Jong Il is credited with giving gifts to the country’s children and students (a tradition that has continued to the present).
Lastly, we are reminded that Kim Jong Il’s Songun (Military First) ideology has its roots in the past. The 1970s saw a number of confrontations with the United States that ended with “victory,” such as the Panmunjom Axe Murder Incident of 1976.
The film ends by reminding viewers that the Korean people are united behind Kim Jong Il, as you would expect a North Korean propaganda film to end.
Nonetheless, as a source of archive footage and information about certain events in North Korea’s past, the film is useful. It shows us snatches of what life under Kim Il Sung in the 1970s was like, and how the cult of Kim Jong Il emerged during that time.
It also shows us how the regime sought to legitimate itself through a campaign of modernization and mass propaganda – a glimpse of what was certainly an interesting time in North Korean history.
Edited by Oliver Hotham