North Korean leader Kim Jong Un marks his 36th birthday on Wednesday, if the U.S. government is anything to go by. This is a remarkably young age for a man leading a nation of 25 million people — it also makes him the world’s third-youngest person to lead a government, and the youngest to possess an arsenal of missiles and nuclear weapons.
State media on Wednesday featured no mention of the auspicious day, with ruling party daily the Rodong Sinmun instead leading with an editorial extolling the outcomes of a recent party plenum. It is also conspicuously absent from officially-issued North Korean calendars.
North Koreans, it seems, were largely in the dark about the date of the Great Successor’s birth until an unusual visit to North Korea by former NBA hall-of-famer Dennis Rodman — and an impromptu courtside sing-a-long — revealed the fact back in 2014.
“I think everyone knows it is the birthday, since the Rodman “Happy Birthday,” singing in fact!” Simon Cockerell, general manager at Koryo Tours and a frequent visitor to North Korea, told NK News. “People’s hesitance to sing along at the time was probably both the slow cadence of the song and the fact that they didn’t really know that it was Kim Jong Un’s birthday.”
Reports also suggest that the state has for several years informally celebrated Kim Jong Un’s birthday, with defector-run media outlets suggesting that the day is used as an occasion to send gifts to schoolchildren.
“Presents for Kim Jong Un’s birthday were handed out at a national event on January 7,” a source told Daily NK last year, remarking that 2019’s offering had improved compared to previous years.
“Cookies and biscuits were handed out in gift bags and were of higher quality than in previous years.”
But while the birthdays of his grandfather and father — April 15 and February 16 respectively — are national holidays in North Korea, often marked with military parades and large public celebrations, Kim Jong Un has pointedly refused to deify his own, at least in outer-track outlets.
So why the reluctance to declare it a national holiday?
“This is their version of Christmas,” Fyodor Tertitskiy, a senior researcher at Seoul’s Kookmin University, explained. “Because the country’s entire ideology is based on the cult. It is extremely personalistic, so naturally, the birth of the central figure of the DPRK belief system is a major deal.”
Much of it may have to do with Kim Jong Un’s relative youth, and his reluctance to fully embrace the large-scale deification his grandfather and, later, his father, enjoyed — at least for the time being.
Tertitskiy suggested he may be seeking to follow Kim Jong Il’s model: slowly building a cult of personality over the years while refraining from the kinds of excesses that might seem unbecoming for a leader so young.
“Kim Jong Un likely follows the example of his father – he shows his modesty and loyalty to his predecessors by limiting his cult to a certain extent,” he said.
“This is not the only part where his cult is limited – there are seemingly no badges with his portrait, no ‘Song of Commander Kim Jong Un,’ and, importantly, he does not have a single medal or order.”
In an in-depth piece for NK News last year on the politics of the North Korean leaders’ birthdays, Tertitskiy noted that the first “proper” celebrations of Kim Il Sung’s birthday only began in 1952, just a few years after coming to power. Annual celebrations began in earnest in 1962, continuing every year until the Great Leader’s death in 1994, and beyond.
Kim Jong Il was a little more subtle, with his official birthdate first appearing in 1972 in a more cryptic form: as the number of his successor’s district in the Supreme People’s Assembly (216).
In what at the time appeared to be increasing hints that Kim the young would, indeed, succeed his father, the number began appearing on everything from military divisions to economic indicators like the official exchange rate.
That said, the DPRK remained cautious about formally setting the birthday in stone until after Kim formally took power.
“State media was careful in its treatment of Kim Jong Il’s birthday up through the mid-1980s, 10 years after he was designated as Kim Il Sung’s successor,” Minyoung Lee, a senior analyst with NK News‘s sister site NK Pro, said.
“It was only in 1992, after Kim received all the top or second-to-the-top titles (after Kim Il Sung) in the party, state, and the military, that state media officially began to commemorate Kim Jong Il’s birthday.”
And while Koryo Tours’s Simon Cockerell said that he “would imagine there is a general expectation that one day it will become a national holiday or a more significant day,” at present “it isn’t up there with the birthdays of the previous leaders.”
Kim III, Tertitskiy suggested, may simply be biding his time, or even waiting for a time of real adversity, to enhance his cult of personality.
“Kim Jong Il did it in a time of crisis of the late 1990s so who knows – maybe he’ll do it if the situation in North Korea declines,” he argued.
Analyst Minyoung Lee wasn’t quite so sure, suggesting that the North Koreans may instead be waiting for Kim the youngest to accrue a little more time as leader.
“State media will likely start commemorating Kim Jong Un’s birthday when Kim feels that the country’s situation at home and abroad is more stable, and he feels he has more achievements to speak for.”
Edited by James Fretwell