Potent portraits in North Korea

Pictured above (Google Earth) : Ichon, alleged home of the patriotic North Korean mentioned in the story.

Andrei Lankov wites in the Asia Times:

In August 2007, North Korea suffered severe flooding. Kang Hyong-kwon, a factory worker from the city of Ich’on, was trying to make his way to safety through a dangerous stream. While leaving his flooded house, he took the two most precious things in his life – his five-year-old daughter and portraits of Leaders Generalissimo Kim Il-sung and Marshal Kim Jong-il (or so was reported in the North Korean media a few days later).

Read the rest below:

Suddenly overwhelmed by the current, he lost grip of his daughter, who fell into the swollen waters, but he still managed to keep hold of the sacred images. The next month, Kang Hyong-kwon’s devotion was widely reported by the official media, and North Koreans were extolled to emulate Kang Hyong-kwon, a real-life hero.

North Korea is a country of personality cults. Many would probably even say that this is the country of personality cults gone mad.

Many states in the 20th century went to remarkable extremes in extolling the virtues of their supreme leaders. Perhaps, since the times of the late Roman Empire or even ancient Egypt, the world has not seen personality cults reaching such heights. Nonetheless, North Korea still stands out – even if compared with such remarkable places as Mao Zedong’s China or Joseph Stalin’s Russia.

Perhaps no other item is as important to a North Korean personality cult as portraits of the Kim family leaders – the Great Leader Generalissimo Kim Il-sung, his son the Dear Leader Marshall (posthumously promoted to Generalissimo) Kim Jong-il, and the newly anointed Supreme Leader Kim Jong-eun, Jong-il’s son.

The portraits of Kim Il-sung – the founder of the North Korean state and its ruling dynasty – have been ubiquitous in North Korea since the 1940s. That said, in the early 1970s, North Korea began to take the personality cult to new heights and this was reflected in the treatment of the Great Leader’s visage.

In earlier times, the portraits could be found largely in government offices, military units and schools. But around 1972, it was decreed that every living room in every single Korean house should have a portrait of the Great Leader.

No diversity or creativity could be tolerated in such a solemn undertaking. All North Koreans were issued the same standard portrait of the Great Leader.

There were rules as to how these portraits should be treated. First, a portrait should be hung on a wall which had no other adornments or pictures. Preferably, a portrait of the Great Fatherly Leader should be placed in the middle of the wall as well.

Apart from individual homes, portraits of Kim Il-sung had to be displayed in all offices, class rooms and military installations. A special large portrait of the Generalissimo (to be more correct, back in the 1970s he still just a humble Marshall) greeted the visitors of every industrial facility, since it had to be placed above the doors of the main entrance. The portraits were also placed above the entrance of all train stations and at the sole single-purpose civilian airport.

The same standard portraits were also to be placed in trains, but for reasons which remain unclear, not in cars or buses.

Interestingly enough, Pyongyang’s subway cars were seemingly considered to be a special case and were also equipped with the portraits, unlike any other public transport in the capital Pyongyang (perhaps, on assumption that subway was, essentially, a railway which went underground).

The use of the past tense in the above description might be somewhat misleading since these regulations are still in force. But the number of portraits has since increased, so the rules governing them have become more intricate and complex.

In 1974, Kim Jong-il was made the politburo member – and all people in the know instantly understood that a dynastic transition, first in the history of the communist bloc, was to be launched. The official media soon initiated a campaign aimed at Kim Jong-il’s deification. From the mid-1970s, North Korean populace were issued standards portraits of Kim Jong-il, to be hung next to the picture of his father.

Interestingly enough, until the mid-1980s, portraits of the younger Kim were not normally displayed in offices or public places. Obviously this was a way to show (as if someone would believe it) that the admiration for the new “genius of leadership, lodestar of the 20th century” was essentially a spontaneous movement, enrolling from below and not forced by officialdom.

It was only around 1986 that portraits of Kim Jong-il become an obligatory feature of offices, train carriages and military barracks.

Another type of portrait can be found at the major crossroads and city squares. Those pictures are less standard and depict Kim Il-sung and/or Kim Jong-il being engaged in some activities. They lead guerrillas to a battle against the brutal Japanese, encourage soldiers who are fighting US aggression, or conduct on-the-spot-guidance in factories or mines.

These pictures are large, some four meters in height, and are painted on the specially constructed cement walls, complete with some protection from the rain.

The style of drawing is, predictably, socialist realism, but the technical quality of these large murals is quite impressive. One should not be surprised, though: the Great Leader and his family members can be depicted only by the employees of Mansudae Art Studio, who have to pass harsh tests to be admitted there.

The current image of Kim Il-sung used in these portraits was made official in 1994, soon after his death. The 1994 standard portrait is officially known as the “image of the sun” (as every North Korean knows Generalissimo Kim Il-sung is the “sun of the nation”).

Unlike the portraits of a stern-looking Kim Il-sung used in the 1980s and before, in the “image of the sun”, the late Generalissimo is depicted as smiling and happy. Following the established tradition, a few weeks ago the North Korean authorities began to replace the old portraits of recently dead Kim Jong-il with new ones which closely resembles the “image of the sun”. Kim Jong-il is also shown with shining smile, an embodiment of joy and happiness.

In the early 1990s, there was another step in the proliferation of portraits. Nowadays, North Koreans are expected to display not two pictures, but three. Two pictures were the same portraits of Generalissimo and Marshall Kims, but the third was different from house to house.

The exact composition of the small family altar depends on the official standing of the house’s occupants. Commoners are issued with a picture of Kim, father and son, busy discussing matters of statecraft. People with some status in the official hierarchy are instead issued with a picture of Kim Jong-suk, the long-dead mother of Kim Jong-il and the first wife of Kim il-sung (well, she might have actually been his second wife, but we will not go into excessive details here).

The portrait of the three was known as “The Three Generals of the Paektu Mountain”. The image of the “Three Generals” is proudly displayed by socially ambitious Koreans as proof of their earthly success. Some entrepreneurial North Koreans sell the triple set on the black market, with buyers would use it to hint at their high official standing and importance. In the earlier times such things would not be tolerated by the authorities, but amidst the social disintegration of the last two decades, it is possible to do it with relative impunity.

So far, the assent of Kim Jong-eun has not led to the emergence of his portrait in the dwellings of the North Korean commoners. But one might suspect that this is merely a matter of time: Kim Jong-il died unexpectedly, and his successor has had little time to promote his greatness.

One type of portrait is on badges which, from 1972, have been worn by all adult North Koreans. These badges usually depict Kim Il-sung, but there is also a rare type of badge which depicts Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il side-by-side in two separate portraits, placed on the same badge (there is also an extremely rare badge that depicts Kim Jong-il alone).

Badges are distributed through the workplace and since more privileged workplaces – like, say, party institutions – are issued their own particular type of badges, an experienced observer can guess the official association and approximate position of a North Korean simply by looking at his/her badge.

Badges are not for sale, and most of the badges that can be found as collectables overseas are actually Chinese fakes produced for South Korean and Western tourists. A few years ago, the old rules were slightly relaxed and now only party members are required to wear their badges all day round. But most North Koreans still remain suspicious of this relaxation and believe it to be safer to continue to display proof of their continued loyalty.

Portraits are treated with great reverence, and stories of heroes who risked or even sacrificed their lives to save the sacred visage are a staple in North Korean media.The self-sacrificial behavior of Kang Hyong-kwon was already mentioned above, but similar stories are reported frequently.

Some of these stories might be fakes, to be sure, but one cannot rule out that some North Koreans indeed risk their lives to protect the images (after all, true believers did save icons from burning churches).

In 2003, South Koreans, then full of sympathy towards their Northern brethren, were given a subject lesson in ways of how visage of the leaders should be treated. At the time, a group of North Korean cheerleaders were participating in the Universiade in the South Korean city of Daegu. This was a rare visit, so the girls were widely admired and instantly became darlings of the South Korean public.

However, one day, when being driven in buses, they noticed a picture which depicted Dear Leader Marshall Kim Jong-il talking to a South Korean president. To their outrage, the picture – obviously placed by some enthusiastic reconciliation-minded South Koreans – was hung improperly and was exposed to the rain.

The girls screamed and demanded the driver to stop the bus immediately. Then the busloads (there were a few buses) of beauties – much to the shock and amusement of onlookers – rushed to the picture and “saved” it, as good North Koreans should do. One can doubt to what extent the girls were sincere at that moment, but there is little doubt that they followed the official code of behavior. The girls reacted very similarly in each bus.

Deliberately destroying a portrait or even seriously damaging it, needless to say, constitutes a grave political crime. Surprisingly, some mild neglect in portrait maintenance – like failing to dust the pictures every day – is not seen as a big deal, therefore many Koreans can mention this during their regular weekly self-criticism sessions when North Koreans are supposed to admit some wrongdoings (needless to say they always admit only the least dangerous infractions).

There is little doubt that the Kim family regime cannot last forever. But even if it will collapse in the near future (and this is not particularly likely) it will still mean that at least two generations of Koreans have spent a most of their lives under the gaze of Generalissimo and Marshall Kim Jong-il.

Read the full story here:
Potent portraits in North Korea
Andrei Lankov


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