About the Author
View more articles by Colin Zwirko
Colin Zwirko is an NK News correspondent based in Seoul.
Non-North Koreans hoping to obtain official state-produced Kim Il Sung or Kim Jong Il portrait loyalty badges now face a more streamlined – albeit more expensive – process, multiple sources who have traveled extensively in the DPRK have told NK News.
Foreigners visiting North Korea may now visit the Kim Il Sung & Kim Jong Il Foundation building in Pyongyang and pay a 100 euro or 100 dollar donation to receive a badge, but only after receiving permission and the help of a local, two separate sources told NK News.
The foundation is located in central Pyongyang and offers memberships to foreigners who pay a yearly fee of 700 euros for individuals or 20,000 euros for organizations, according to their website.
Obtaining a badge, however, does not reportedly require membership in the foundation.
While some obstacles for foreign badge-seekers remain, it appears this method has now been replaced by a more transactional process, potentially as a new fundraising effort for the state.
The DPRK has expanded fundraising activities in recent years with the onset of stricter international sanctions and the loss of many export revenues. Many of these efforts involve illicit trade, though the government does also see tourism as a valuable source of foreign currency.
But efforts to ‘sell’ the Kim portrait badges to foreigners appear more passive, offered as a reward for friendship, loyalty, and – now – a monetary donation, with no retail sales within the country.
An anonymous source with experience in the North Korea tourist industry described how “the process has changed recently,” allowing foreigners to “make a donation of 100 euros to the foundation” to receive a pin.
“It’s a lot easier than before, but now you’re paying to cut corners,” they said. “The old process is not open anymore as the Koreans want to see how dedicated foreigners are to getting the pin if they can [make] a donation.”
Dedication and loyalty appear to be consistent aspects of the procedure both before and after recent changes, with North Korean minders who accompany foreign tourists or workers playing a key role in many cases.
“Applying for the pin is sort of like applying to a university,” one source said, discussing how the process worked in the past. “You need to write a letter about your understanding of Korea. So best to mention why you admire the leaders, the party, the hardships they’ve faced, and so on.”
The source described a process that included an in-person interview following the document review, where the would-be badge owner is asked: “Why [do] you want the pin? How will you look after it? Will you wear it back in your home country?” among other questions.
“If [the] interviewer liked you, he would then present you with the pin and place it on you, too.”
That source added that the North Koreans likely consider the conference of a badge to a foreigner as a “good photo opportunity.”
A second source with close knowledge of the issue corroborated details of the new, donation-based procedure, additionally confirming that the ceremonial aspect remains intact.
Upon receiving the required recommendation from a North Korean, the source was then “invited to the (Kim Il Sung & Kim Jong Il) Foundation’s office where they confirmed to me that my (100 dollar) donation was well received.”
“I was handed over the pins in kind of ‘ceremony’ at the MFA (Ministry of Foreign Affairs)” by a government official some four weeks later, they said.
A third source said it took them over a decade of visits to the country before finally being offered a badge.
The timeline for receiving the badge appears to depend on individual circumstances, with some made to wait weeks after inquiring and others receiving them faster as a result of a more intimate connection or relationship with their North Korean counterpart.
NK News was unable to confirm any written rules for the procedure on the North Korean side, which instead appears to be based on a series of loose guidelines.
The third source said that in their experience, “it depends mostly on your guide and inviting organization.”
“I would have thought that the process is regulated like most things in North Korea, but in reality it seems very random,” they said, adding that some acquaintances have even received badges at DPRK embassies in third countries.
The new payment requirement, however, appears to be a constant in the new formal procedure, though this does not mean that foreigners cannot receive a pin as a gift from a North Korean with no strings attached.
“I’ve seen it both happen officially and unofficially,” the tourism industry source said, describing a time they witnessed a tourist become friendly with a local in a bar in Pyongyang.
“The tourist bought (the local) a bottle and the guy said in a whisper to the tourist, ‘Hey… keep this…’ and handed him a pin.”
But, pointing to the sensitivity surrounding the badges, the source “told him not to tell anyone until we’ve left the country,” to prevent others in the group from “wandering around asking random locals for the pins.”
Currently-produced versions of the badges include a circular, thumbnail-sized illustrated portrait of a smiling Kim Il Sung or Kim Jong Il, and a larger pin in the shape of a red flag carrying side-by-side portraits of both, though variations in size and design have been offered to both foreigners and ordinary residents over the years.
“I think many people are interested in the badges because they’ve made so many versions of them,” the third source said. “Even the Koreans want to have the latest, showing their position in society or even as a ‘fashion statement.’”
North Koreans are generally expected to wear their badge on the left-hand side of their clothing near their heart at all times.
Foreigners have similarly been told to wear the pin near the heart, though there are no official requirements regarding when it should be worn.
Because wearing the badge can be seen as a political statement of support for the North Korean government, many foreigners who frequently travel to the DPRK on business may accept the pin as a symbol of friendship but refrain from wearing it so as to maintain a neutral position.
Others may see wearing the pin as a way of facilitating warmer relations with North Koreans, with one source saying that whenever they wore the pin, locals “became noticeably more friendly” towards them, with some even making conversation about it.
Whether seen as a rare souvenir, a token of friendship, or even a facilitator of closer relations with their North Korean counterparts, the badges remain a popular item among foreigners visiting the country.
But for now, access remains mostly limited to those personally visiting the DPRK.
The tourism industry source said: “My advice for any foreigners willing to have access to the pin: Visit the country more than twice. Know someone who knows a local then you’ll have your unique souvenir from North Korea.”
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Featured image: NK News