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
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.
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
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.
North Korea has a vast system of honorary titles to be used to refer to all three Kims
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”.
There are even no links to them like “Kim Il Sung, a celebration of the 80th anniversary -> see Celebrations of the 80th anniversary of the Great Leader respected comrade Kim Il Sung”, since the Leader is not to be named without a title, even in a link.
The most extensive title the present author has ever seen was published in the Rodong Sinmun in December 1972, when Kim Il Sung was elected president for the first time.
He was referred to as “Peerless patriot, National Hero, Ever-Victorious Iron-Willed Brilliant Commander, One of the Outstanding leaders of the International Communist and Workers’ Movement, the Great Leader of our Party and of our people respected comrade Kim Il Sung, who founded the Marxist-Leninist Party – the Workers’ Party of Korea and the true state of workers and farmers – the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea and steadily leads our Revolution on the way of victories” – all in one sentence.
It should also be noticed that this title also reflected the spirit of the time, as after the end of the Cold War references to Marxism, Leninism, and communism (but not socialism) had disappeared.
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.
Portraits – in a smaller form – are also present on the badges all North Koreans (with exception of prisoners) have to wear. Introduced in the 1970s, these badges became an integral part of the personality cult, putting a Kim mark on every clothes set. Under Kim Jong Il, the “double” badge with both Kims was considered the most prestigious. Under Kim Jong Un, it became the standard one.
The portrait of the “Genius of the Revolution, Sun of the Nation, Legendary Hero, the Great Leader respected comrade Kim Il Sung” appeared on the DPRK currency quite late – in 1979. The quote mentioned in the previous sentence supplemented the portrait on a 100 won bill. The 1992 series had his face on 100, 1000 and 5000 won bills, while the current one only on the 5000 won bill. Kim Jong Il’s portraits never appeared there and neither have Kim Jong Un’s. Thus, interestingly, the cult is less reflected in the currency, when for example, a cult of Mao is in China – Mao is featured on all PRC currency bills from 1 yuan and above.
The final thing which needs to be said about the portraits is that, under Kim Jong Un, their appearance became unified – more than 90% of portraits seen now in the North are “images of the Sun” – the moniker for portraits of a smiling Kim.
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 after 1967. 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.
Even foreigners from the “bad nations” – such as the United States – loved the Leader, according to Pyongyang. And here, I am not talking about masses oppressed by the evil elites, but even government officials from, say, the U.S., meet the Leader, and even these villains are impressed by his unsurpassed virtue.
And finally, even the most vicious of the vicious bad guys in the North Korean films and literature never utter a word of insult about Kim Il Sung himself, although they can say nasty words about the DPRK in general. He is just that great, and so are his son and grandson.
Official biographies of Kim Jong Il and Kim Jong Un were also written to accentuate their alleged extraordinary abilities. Kim Jong Il was an unquestioned leader in every surrounding since his childhood, they say, and Kim Jong Un is claimed to have been able to drive a car at the age of three.
The history of Kim’s family has also been rewritten with his lower-middle-class ancestors elevated to the status of legendary heroes. Apparently, they say in the North, his father Kim Hyong Jik led the March First Movement and his paternal grandfather Kim Ung U led the fight against General Sherman – a United States merchant ship which had entered Korean territorial waters.
As for Kim Jong Il’s mother, Kim Jong Suk, the North Korean cult makers run into a problem. She was a woman of a very humble background and died in the 1940s.
Despite personally being elevated to the status of one of the Great Commanders of the Paektu mountain, so few things about her were known, that a cult of her family did not have a proper foundation to be built upon. For example, the name of her mother – the maternal grandmother of Kim Jong Il – is still unknown despite Pyongyang’s efforts to uncover it.
The deeper history of the Kim family on the Kim Il Sung line is also not subject to any cult. The likely problem is that the family registry of the Chonju Kims – the clan where Kim Il Sung, by his own words, comes from, were lost in the Korean War, so they are now nearly impossible to reconstruct. Even if they were available, family records in old Korea were routinely falsified, so they may have not been much of an asset.
Official versions of the history of Korea – and of each of the three Kims – are taught in North Korea in all stages of the education process, from kindergarten to university.
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.
Occasionally, a plan showing in which order the Supreme Leader was moving inside the building has been composed as well – and also hanged on the wall.
A plaque saying that the Great Leader visited the place on a certain date is placed on the front door. In case this is not the first visit, it is updated.
In case the visit is not classified, the report on it immediately forms front page news in the newspapers.
Not only the visit, but also its anniversaries are duly celebrated – with ideological meetings and reports on the subject being duly produced and made.
Each visit of the Supreme Leader to any place – be that a school, a factory or anything else – is a major event
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.
Kamo, a native of Kakegawa city of the Shizuoka province, bred them in 1988. Kimjongilia belongs to begonia genus and is a red flower, unlike the purple Kimilsungia.
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.
Furthermore, North Korean botanists perfected the flowers to bloom at the time of the Leader’s birthdays.
It should also be noted that one of the most important things about these flowers is that there is a good chance that they will actually outlive the Kim dynasty.
Statues can be demolished, portraits burned, and even inscriptions made in the mountains blown up. However, the general rule of biology is that once a species is named, it cannot be renamed, and unless this practice changes, both flowers are likely to retain their names.
An example of a species named after a tyrant would be Anophthalmus hitleri – a beetle named, as the readers have guessed, after Adolf Hitler. Oskar Scheibel – an Austrian entomologist – discovered the beetle in 1937 – and, being a strong believer in National Socialism, named it after Hitler. The beetle still retains the name and became sort of a fetish among the neo-Nazis, who nearly drove the species to extinction.
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.”
Chairs which the Leader sits in are preserved, with no one allowed to sit in them again. The same fate usually awaits pens he used to sign documents.
Some readers may say that this is not a practice unique to North Korea, as, for example, one can find a president’s pen in a Western museum, too. However, there is a difference.
The cult is also an expensive thing to maintain – especially for such a poor nation as North Korea
A pen by which Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation declaration may be preserved not because it was used by the Honest Abe, but because it was used to sign a historic document, leading the way to end slavery. Should the document have been signed by Lincoln’s secretary, the pen would still have been preserved. However, when it comes to Kim-related objects, they are preserved solely because they are related to Kim, not to some grand historical event.
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.
First is the fact that Kim Il Sung’s old palace was transformed into his personal mausoleum. Maybe Kim Jong Il just did not want to live there. Maybe he wanted to save money for the country – his father’s legacy was economic collapse. Nevertheless, the decision was unprecedented.
Next, after his death, Kim Il Sung became the country’s Eternal President and Kim Jong Il – Eternal Chairman of the National Defence Commision and Eternal General Secretary of the Party. One can find a somewhat similar tradition in the communism camp: in Brezhnev’s USSR, Vladimir Lenin, who had been dead for a half of a century, was formally issued a Communist Party membership booklet 00000001 (number two was Brezhnev’s), although of course, this symbolic act was less grand than having the state and the Party being led by the dead.
Another posthumous honor to Kim Jong Il was his promotion to Generalissimo. The only other example of a non-royalty promoted to the highest rank in country posthumously would be the General of the Armies of the United States George Washington – also for ideological reasons.
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.
Finally, I would like to end this overview on a somewhat less depressing note – on the aspect of the cult, which, arguably, has some positive consequences as well.
I am talking about Museums of Revolutionary Achievements (혁명 사적관), which are dedicated to the Leader and a local city or even town. Like all cult-related things, these museums are given the top priority by the state, thus local history is preserved in North Korea much better than in other nations with a similar GDP per capita.
It is not easy to find a sphere of life in North Korea where the personality cult did not manifest itself
“Personality cult” is a common translation of the expression Nikita Khrushchev used when he denounced Stalin, yet a more accurate one would be “cult of an individual”. Like Stalin, it not just Kim Il Sung’s personality traits which became hailed, but he himself was elevated almost to a status of a living god.
The North Korean cult has been shaped by traditions of Stalinism, Kim Il Sung’s ego, Kim Jong Il’s creativity, and Kim Jong Un’s reluctance to change anything in state ideology.
One could not say that this is the most extravagant personality cult in human history. Idi Amin’s title “His Excellency, President for Life, Field Marshal Al Hadji Doctor Idi Amin Dada, VC, DSO, MC, Lord of All the Beasts of the Earth and Fishes of the Seas and Conqueror of the British Empire in Africa in General and Uganda in Particular” does look more impressive than the mere Supreme Incarnation of Revolutionary Comradely Love.
North Korea did not rename calendar months after the Leader’s relatives, like in Saparmurat Niyazov’s Turkmenistan. Kim Il Sung was never proclaimed the winner of all Olympic sport disciplines, as Emperor Nero was in ancient Rome of 67 AD.
He was not proclaimed a great scientist like Elena Ceaușescu, nor was he given more than a hundred state decorations like Leonid Brezhnev.
Yet this cult may be the most pervasive in human history, for it penetrates nearly all aspects of North Korean society and culture like perhaps no other cult has.
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.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
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Featured Image: by nknews_hq on 2018-01-09 21:52:18