The first public address by North Korea’s new leader Kim Jong Eun, recently appointed First Secretary of the Chosun Workers’ Party, seemed carefully crafted to stimulate nostalgia for the country’s late founder, Kim Il Sung.
Some say that ‘image politics’ is an inevitable lever for Kim, given his lack of any great personal achievements in the economy or elsewhere, and the mid-air explosion of a long-range rocket which was meant to symbolize North Korea’s debut as a ‘Strong State’.
Kim Jong Eun made his first mass public address at an event commemorating the centenary of DPRK founder Kim Il Sung’s birth on April 15. Speaking in front of a crowd numbering some 100,000 people, Kim spoke – recited, actually - for 20 minutes on the direction of the country henceforth. The sight of his body swaying from side to side as he spoke, the tenor voice and the movements of his hands were well choreographed to stir up memories of Kim Il Sung.
The sight of Kim Jong Eun in the grey military ceremonial attire that Kim Il Sung wore in the 1950s, as well as troops parading in perfect file or on horseback adorned with the uniform of Kim Il Sung’s anti-Japanese guerrilla group, also brought to the mind images of the Kim Il Sung era. If nothing else it was a brazen attempt by the new head of state to bask in the reflected glory of his popular grandfather.
For Kim Jong Eun, young as he is and light on experience, the priority right now is on creating interal unity, by borrowing on the legacy he has ‘inherited’ from his predecessors. Kim has determined that his grandfather’s image, and an evident yearning for yesteryear amongst the public, will be far more advantageous in building his reputation than drawing on that of his father, who many had their quiet grievances with.
This is certainly the way one South Korean government official sees it, who said that “Kim Jong Eun wearing the same type of black suit that Kim Il Sung used to love wearing, and members of the leadership wearing the grey military attire and headwear that was popular in the Kim Il Sung era looks like an attempt to strengthen loyalty by emphasizing that connection to his grandfather.”
Kim Gwang In, head of the North Korea Strategy Center told Daily NK that “For Kim Jong Eun, given his lack of any personal achievements to speak of, the visual references to Kim Il Sung are a symbolic device designed to maximize a propaganda effect now that his regime is in place.”
And just like the way Kim Il Sung announced his existence to the world in October 1945 with a speech at a Pyongyang stadium, Kim Jong Eun preferred to make his first public address with an appearance at a mass political gathering too. In terms of political strategy, there could not be a more clear signal that Kim intends to distance himself from the mysticism and isolated political decision-making that marked the reign of Kim Jong Il.
Vice-chancellor of Sogang University Kim Young Soo said that “There will be positive reactions to come out of people hearing the new leader’s voice for the first time. For the time being he will be attempting to differentiate himself from the strategies Kim Jong Il adopted in order to impress upon the people his standing and worth.”
Kim Gwang In said that “Drawing on nostalgia for Kim Il Sung will have a clear effect. The North Korean authorities will be looking to maximize the propaganda effect getting people to say things such as ‘It’s like the Suryong (great leader) has come back to life’.”
But for all that, there are limits to how much Kim Jong Eun will be able to leverage the reputation of his grandfather without real improvements in the living standards of ordinary people. The explanation for that is simple enough: most people who still remember life under Kim Il Sung don’t associate that time with the poor standard of living that exists now.
The fact that market trade, not government rations, is what sustains the people in the current day could mean that such ‘image politics’ has the potential to turn people off Kim Jong Eun altogether. One defector who held a senior position in North Korea said that “Kim Jong Eun has locked himself into following Kim Il Sung, but just saying he is going to be like Kim Il Sung isn’t going to have much effect unless he has some policies that relate to improving the living standards of the people.”
A senior researcher at the Gyeonggi Research Institute, Son Gwang Joo, said that “Unlike the honeymoon period Kim Jong Eun is enjoying now, the more time passes the more people may begin to get fed up with the regime’s contrived propaganda.”
Accordingly, some believe that if Kim Jong Eun continues to rely solely on the image of Kim Il Sung, he may in fact be doing himself a disservice. Kim Gwang Jin said that “Such attempts will probably have little effect amongst senior party cadres or in border regions, where outside information gets in relatively quickly. On the contrary, excessive propaganda will have a negative effect.”
According to Kim Young Soo, such image comparisons with Kim Il Sung can only be useful in the short term anyway. “In the long term Kim Jong Eun needs to untie the legacy binding him to Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il, so he won’t find any easy answers in manicuring his image alone,” the vice-chancellor said.