The ubiquitous statues of the Leader dotted around the city are one of the images that come up when people discuss dictatorships. This stereotype, like many other stereotypes, has roots in reality: North Korea, among other things, is a country of statues.
The use of statues as a way to glorify the incumbent supreme leader is a relatively recent development in North Korea. Until the early 20th century, the idea of a public monument in a city square remained alien to East Asian cultures.
When the deeds of some individual – including, of course, the incumbent ruler – had to be enshrined for eternity, Chinese, Koreans, and Vietnamese would probably erect a memorial stele decorated with a nice calligraphic inscription. A memorial gate or an inscription on a rock would do, too.
Sculpture was pretty well developed in East Asia, but depictions of real individuals were usually made to commemorate those heroes of the past who came to be seen as gods.
Their statues were placed in temples and shrines and were, essentially, items of the religious cult, not examples of political propaganda, and those depicted were long dead by the time sculptures were made.
Only in the late 19th century did East Asia begin to emulate the European tradition of commemorative statues (going back largely to Ancient Rome, but with deeper historic roots).
As usual, the first was made by the Japanese. It seems that the first commemorative statue in East Asia was unveiled in Tokyo in 1894 and depicted a prominent general. More sculptures – generally, designated much better – followed in the early 20th century.
However, the modern ‘statue tradition’ of North Korea clearly comes from the Soviet Union. The first statues of Vladimir Lenin were erected during the 1918-1922 civil war and remained ubiquitous until well after the collapse of the USSR.
Massive construction of statues of Stalin began when he took power in the mid-1920s, with nearly all Soviet towns and cities boasting a statue of the current leader and/or his predecessor by the early 1940s.
This was the tradition well known to the people who came to run North Korea in the late 1940s – a tradition they eventually came to emulate.
The first statue of Kim Il Sung was unveiled in 1949 with little pomp.
It was located on the premises of the Mangyongdae Revolutionary School, an orphanage for children of fallen revolutionaries which eventually developed into a militarized boarding school for the offspring of the North Korean elite. From the very beginning, Kim Il Sung was presented as the founder and patron of this institution.
However, the real statue-building campaign was not launched until much later.
In the late 1960s, North Korean leaders, then struggling to keep an equal distance from both China and the Soviet Union, decided to raise Kim Il Sung’s cult of personality to heights the world had never seen.
One of the major expressions of this new foreign policy line was the proliferation of Kim Il Sung statues across the country.
In 2017, it was believed that there were some 70 full-scale public statues of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il in the country. This number excludes the far more numerous busts and statues located indoors and outside of public view.
By the late 1970s, every North Korean town would have a statue of Kim Il Sung or, as a cheaper alternative, a large stela with the Great Leader depicted in painting.
Such statues or stelae, usually displayed prominently in the central square, served as the center of regular mass rituals.
For example, on the New Year and Kim Il Sung’s birthday, as well as other major holidays, locals were required to visit the statue and, having performed a deep bow, lay flowers (real or made of paper) at its feet.
The occasions were arranged and supervised by local officials, so it was not advisable to skip them.
Until recently the vast majority of statues depicted Kim Il Sung, but there were some other individuals worthy of such treatment. All of them, however, were members of the Kim family.
Statues of Kim Il Sung’s father, mother, and first wife were usually erected in locations associated with their life and achievements. For example, there is a statue of Kim’s first wife, Kim Jong Suk, in the central square of Hoeryong, the city where she was born.
North Korea, among other things, is a country of statues
By as early as 1973, Kim Jong Il had clearly explained how to ‘properly’ place a statue. He stated that under no circumstances should it be under a shadow. Statues were to be placed on top of a natural or artificial hill, shining under the bright rays of the sun.
It helps, of course, that virtually all statues of the Great Leader and his family members located outdoors are painted gold.
Of all the countless statues, the most important is the massive monument on top of Mansudae Hill in downtown Pyongyang. It was unveiled in April 1972, shortly before Kim Il Sung’s lavishly celebrated 60th birthday.
The enormous statue, 23 meters in height and visible from afar, became a focal point of the Kim family’s cult of personality almost immediately, still playing a role to this day.
According to rumors, the Mansudae statue was originally gilded with real gold, but this thin layer was removed and replaced with regular gold paint in the late 1970s. This story is widespread and often retold, but it doesn’t seem too likely to the present writer.
Like virtually all other statues and visual depictions of the Kim family leaders, the Mansudae statue was produced by the Mansudae Art Studio, a special institution which has a strictly enforced monopoly on creating and reproducing the images of the Kims.
The statue looks better than Chinese statues of Mao Zedong that were mass-produced around the same time, but aesthetically still leaves much to be desired. Even though the Great Leader is captured in movement, his right hand risen and pointing forwards as if suggesting the masses to follow the path of his choice, the statue feels rather static and heavy.
Kim Il Sung presided over and, perhaps, directed the massive construction of his own statues, but Kim Jong Il was different. The second ruler of the Kim dynasty was somewhat reluctant to see his likeness spread across the country during his lifetime.
It’s possible Kim Jong Il explicitly stated that he did not want statues of himself to be erected – this is at least what a piece attributed to him says.
However, the piece was published posthumously (in 2013) and hence should not be seen as completely reliable – like many other supposed ‘works’ of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il, it might have been heavily rewritten post factum.
At any rate, statues of Kim Jong Il were absent for most of his rule. This does not mean, of course, that the North Korea of the 1990s and early 2000s was not saturated with depictions of Kim Jong Il.
His portraits were to be prominently displayed in all private residences and offices, but his statues began to pop up only shortly before his death.
Only in May 2010 was the first statue of Kim Jong Il unveiled, at a military academy — still outside public view.
This was renascent of the first Kim Il Sung statue, which was erected in 1949 behind the walls of Mangyongdae school, out of sight from the people.
Perhaps the 2010 statue was meant to be the first step in an elaborate propaganda plan, the final goal of which was to promote the then recently appointed successor, Kim Jong Un.
If this was indeed the case, it was too late: the Dear Leader would pass away only one and a half years later.
Statues were to be placed on top of a natural or artificial hill, shining under the bright rays of the sun
Generally speaking, Kim Jong Un has not shown much interest in ideological writings — most likely, he sees the repetitious official rhetoric as both boring and irrelevant.
However, there are some exceptions, and one of these is the interest the Young Marshal seemingly takes in his family’s commemorative statues, his rise to power bringing some changes to North Korea’s ‘statue politics.’
According to Han Seung-dae, the North Korean media carried reports about 30 newly unveiled statues from 2012-2016 — many, if not most, remodeled by adding a Kim Jong Il next to the original Kim Il Sung. Ten more statues were unveiled in 2017, bringing the total to 40.
Unlike the monuments of earlier periods, the statues of Kim Jong Un’s era tend to feature both Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il, working together or simply standing side by side.
Of the 30 unveiled between 2012-2016, only five are of only Kim Jong Il, and not a single one was dedicated to just Kim Il Sung.
Indeed, with the rise of Kim Jong Un came the birth of what can be described as a ‘joint ancestral cult.’
Commemorations of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il are increasingly being fused together, and both can be described as “the illustrious ancestors of the current leader.”
As well as in the proliferation of the double monuments, the same trend can be seen in the ongoing switch in North Korean badges to those which have both Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il.
In many cases, the fusion was achieved by simply adding the three-dimensional depiction of Kim Jong Il to the already existent statue of his father, even though the latter was often slightly altered as well.
For example, when the Mansudae statue – the major shrine of the cult – was remodeled in April 2012, a statue of Kim Jong Il was added next to the Kim Il Sung statue.
This actually had to be done twice: the first version of the additional Kim Jong Il statue was quietly removed in early 2013, replaced by another statue of similar size and appearance.
This replacement was a bit strange, since the only difference between the two versions is that Kim Jong Il is depicted in slightly different dress.
In many cases, the old statue of Kim the Founder was also redesigned. In his lifetime, the founder of the North Korean state was usually depicted with a stern face, clad in a Mao suit or, sometimes, military uniform.
But since his death, his standard depiction has been in the form of the so-called ‘Sun image,’ which shows Kim Il Sung with a broad smile and a soft, kind expression on his face. After 2012, many monuments were remade to conform to this new version of the softer, kinder founding father.
With the rise of Kim Jong Un came the birth of what can be described as a ‘joint ancestral cult’
The Kim family statues remain objects of mandatory pilgrimage, especially on public holidays.
Wedding ceremonies also include a trip to a statue, where the newlyweds will express their (sometimes fake, but often sincere) admiration for the deceased leaders.
Foreign visitors to the country are also marched over to them. In an interesting twist, after the ascent of Kim Jong Un, foreign visitors cannot just approach the statues and take some photos but are instead required to pass through the same semi-religious ceremony which has long been obligatory for the locals.
They first bow deeply to the feet of the Great Leader and Dear Leader’s likeness, and then lay flowers. No doubt, the sight of foreigners doing this serves as a major boost for North Korean propaganda – exactly the reason why such public worship is obligatory now.
Edited by James Fretwell
Featured image: NK News
The ubiquitous statues of the Leader dotted around the city are one of the images that come up when people discuss dictatorships. This stereotype, like many other stereotypes, has roots in reality: North Korea, among other things, is a country of statues.The use of statues as a way to glorify the incumbent supreme leader is a relatively recent development in North Korea. Until the early
Andrei Lankov is a Director at NK News and writes exclusively for the site as one of the world's leading authorities on North Korea. A graduate of Leningrad State University, he attended Pyongyang's Kim Il Sung University from 1984-5 - an experience you can read about here. In addition to his writing, he is also a Professor at Kookmin University.