In the Name of the Father

Korea Times
Andrei Lankov

In July 1997, the five most important government agencies of North Korea published a joint declaration which informed the North Korea populace and the entire world that the country was introducing a new calendar. The year 1912 became the First Year of Chuche. The reason? This was the year Kim Il-sung was born.

The decision allowed the occasional use of the Christian-era years, but these four-digit numbers would accompany the new official chronological designation only when deemed necessary. Thus 2006 AD is the Year 95 of the Chuche Era. In other words, Kim Il-sung’s birthday replaced that of Christ in the official North Korean calendar.

The world has seen other attempts to break with old calendar traditions. In France of the 1790s, the revolutionaries began to count years from the proclamation of the French Republic. In South Korea of the 1950s, the government tried to implement the so-called ‘Tangun Era.’ None of these attempts succeeded for more than a few decades.

However, the decision to introduce the Chuche Era was just one of the many manifestations of Kim Il-sung’s posthumous “personality cult.”

Indeed, the memory of the North Korea’s founding father is treated in Pyongyang with the utmost respect. Obviously, this was the intention of the dead founder when he chose to transform his country into the first communist monarchy in world history.

He saw what had happened to Stalin and Mao’s posthumous reputations, and arranged the transition of power within his family, so the new leaders have a vested interest in keeping the old man’s memory intact.

First of all, Kim Il-sung is to remain the country’s only president.

After his death, the President’s office was left vacant _ and is meant to remain vacant forever. Kim Il-sung is North Korea’s “eternal president” while Kim Jong-il runs the country not as president, but merely as “chairman of the national defense committee.”

Kim Il-sung’s body has been embalmed and left on public display in a special glass-covered coffin. Actually, in this regard they follow an established _ if bizarre _ communist tradition. Lenin’s body was treated in such a way in 1924 (against his own clearly expressed will), and since then many other communist leaders have had their bodies left on public display _ also often against their will.

However, the sheer size of the North Korean mausoleum is impressive. In other Communist countries, bodies of the dead leaders were held in specially constructed and relatively small _ if impressive _ buildings.

The North decided to transform the entire Presidential Palace into the mausoleum and major center of Kim Ilsung’s posthumous cult.

The construction of Kmsusan Palace began in 1974, and in 1977 it was presented to Kim Il-sung as a present for his 65th birthday. In Kim’s lifetime, the imposing building, with floor area of 35,000 square meters, was strictly off-limits to the public, but in recent years it has become the center of a government- sponsored pilgrimage.

Of course, portraits of Kim Il sung are everywhere, albeit often accompanied by images of Kim Jong-il and his mother Kim Jong-suk. From the late 1960s, the North Korean bureaucracy has developed intricate rules to determine where and how Kim Il-sung’s likeness would be displayed. I’ll probably say more about these rules later, but now it suffices to say that every living room, office, and entrance to every official building, as well as every railway carriage, has been adorned with the portrait of the leader from the 1970s.

After 1980, the portrait of his son has complemented that of the father.

The currently approved portrait of Kim Il-sung is officially known as the ‘sun image’ (taeyangsang in Korean). Here the Great Leader is depicted as smiling kindly at his subjects, and he is dressed in the Western suit and necktie that he actually preferred in the last years of his life (prior to 1984 Kim had worn a Mao suit).

These portraits are mass-produced by the ‘Mansudae Creative Group,’ a special workshop whose sole purpose is to design and manufacture portraits and statues of the Great Leaders.

An important part of Kim Ilsung’s posthumous glorification is the numerous “Yongsaengtap,” or “Towers of Eternal Life.” Their name reflects the official slogan: “Kim Il-sung will live with us forever!” These towers have a shape, slightly reminiscent of ancient Egypt’s obelisks, and they are decorated with slogans on Kim’s alleged “eternal presence” in his realm.

As of 1997, there were 3,150 “Towers of Eternal Life” nationwide. They are normally erected at crossroads, and every major town is required to have one. Most of these structures are relatively cheap and easy to build, but some of them are quite elaborate and expensive.

The tallest of all towers is, of course, located in Pyongyang. It has a height of 92.5 meters _ just a bit lower than the Chuche Tower, one of the city’s major architectural monuments.

However, Kim Il-sung’s cult is now giving way to the cult of his son, who has successfully become the new supreme ruler of the country.


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