The Big Picture

Korea Times
Andrei Lankov

North Korea is a country of portraits _ portraits of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il, that is. The portraits are ubiquitous. They are to be placed in every living room, in every office, in every railway (and, by extension, subway) carriage but, for some reason, not on buses or trolleybuses. The portraits adorn the entrances of all major public buildings, railways stations and schools. Reportedly, in the late 1990s, the largest portrait of Kim Il-sung within the city limits of Pyongyang graced the first department store in the very center of the North Korean capital. The portrait was 15 meters by 11 meters.

North Koreans have been living under the permanent gaze of the Great Leader for more than three decades. In the late 1960s, North Koreans were ordered to place these icons in their homes and offices. By 1972, when Kim’s 60th birthday was lavishly celebrated, North Korea had much greater density of portraits than could ever be found in Stalin’s Russia or Mao’s China _ the two countries that bestowed this peculiar fondness for the Leader’s portraits on Korea.

In the late 1970s, the North Koreans received another set of instructions. They were ordered to display the portraits of Kim Jong-il, the heir designate. This had to be done “unofficially.’’ The propaganda insisted that there was a widespread movement of North Koreans who, purely out of love for the son of their ruler, began to adorn their dwellings with his portraits. Only in the late 1980s did Kim Jong-il’s portraits appear in public space, and from the early 1990s on they have been the same size as those of his father and they are put together in rooms and offices.

All portraits are produced by the Mansudae workshops that specialize in making images of Kim Il-sung, Kim Jong-il and their relatives. They are framed and glassed (and only the best glass and timber will do!).

In different eras, the Kims were depicted in diverse manners, and these changes tell a lot about changes in ideology and policy. In the 1960s and 1970s, Kim Il-sung wore a Mao suit, stressing the austerity and quasi-military character of the regime. In the mid-1980s, these portraits were replaced with new ones, depicting Kim Il-sung in a Western-type suit. This signalled the relative openness of the regime in the late 1980s. After Kim Il-sung’s death in 1994, the new portraits also showed him in suits (incidentally, these portraits were called a “depiction of the Sun’’ since in his lifetime Kim was “The Sun of the Nation’’). However, from early 2001, Kim Il-sung has appeared in newly issued portraits in the military uniform of a generalissimo.

Kim Jong-il’s portrait also underwent similar changes. Initially he was also depicted in the dark-coloured Mao suit, once his favourite. However, the 2001 version showed him in the grandeur of a Marshal’s uniform. This once again confirmed the importance of the “army-first policy’’ proclaimed by Kim Jong-il, North Korea’s Glorious Marshal who _ unlike a vast majority of North Korean males _ never served in the military himself.

Even within private houses, the portraits are treated with the greatest of care. They are put on one of the walls, and that wall cannot be used for any other images or pinups. There are rules prescribing how exactly these icons should be placed. When a North Korean family moves to another place, they must start by hanging the Kims’ portraits on the wall. Random checks are conducted to make sure that proper care of the portraits is taken.

In the military, the portraits are hung in all rooms in permanent barracks. When a unit departs for a field exercise (as North Korean units do often), the portraits are taken with them. Once the platoon prepares its tent or, more commonly, its dugout, the portraits are placed there, and only after this ritual is the provisional shelter deemed suitable for life.

Oftenl the portraits become an important part of ritual. In schools, students are required to bow to the portraits and express their gratitude to the Great Leader who, in his wisdom and kindness, bestowed such a wonderful life on his subjects. The portraits feature very prominently in marriage ceremonies as well. The couple has to make deep bows to the portraits of the Great Leaders. This tribute is very public and serves as a culmination of the wedding ritual. It does not matter whether the wedding ceremony is held in a public wedding hall or at home.

The portraits are jealously protected. Even incidental damage of the portrait might spell disaster for the culprit. But that is another story…


Comments are closed.