The January page of North Korea’s 2018 calendar shows that Kim Jong Un’s
birthday, believed to be January 8, is still not a national holiday.
North Korea’s 2018 calendar was recently distributed. Although some were wondering whether Kim Jong Un’s birthday, January 8, would be designated a national holiday, it has yet to happen. Many scholars of North Korean politics anticipated that the 7th Party Congress in May 2016 would be used as an occasion to elevate the day to the status of one of the country’s most significant national holidays. It was also believed it would be marked as a national anniversary, in the same vein as his father and grandfather.
It was then thought by many that the leader’s birthday would be memorialized this August, during a gathering at Mt. Paektu. All the elements suggested it as a possibility, including the political and historical significance of the location. Memorializing the leader’s birthday is significant for reinforcing political symbolism. However, January 8th remains an unheralded date. For those who study the North Korean regime closely, this is a perplexing development.
The strange circumstances in which we learned Kim Jong Un’s birth date
Kim Jong Un’s birthday was only revealed two years after he came to power, in 2014. For two years, North Korean residents had no idea when their leader’s birthday was. The North Korean media did not report on the leader’s birthday in 2012 or 2013. In 2014, the North Korean authorities did not publicize the date, but it was revealed as a tangential part of a very different kind of story.
On the first and second page of the party-run Rodong Sinmun newspaper, there were articles discussing retired American basketball star Dennis Rodman’s visit to North Korea, including a friendly match that took place between Rodman’s friends and North Korean athletes in Pyongyang Stadium. An additional article on page four continued the coverage, discussing how Kim Jong Un was on hand to watch the match. It was then revealed that the match was scheduled in order to celebrate the leader’s birthday, which arose because the paper quoted Dennis Rodman. The way the event unfolded is difficult for us to understand, especially when put in the proper context: North Korea is a dictatorial society that places the leader at the center of everything.
Many scholars regard 2014 as the year that Kim Jong Un solidified his leadership. It began when he executed his uncle Jang Song Thaek on December 12, 2013. The leader was also praised with lavish compliments and honorary titles. Due to these developments, many thought that 2014 was going to be the year that Kim Jong Un became the fundamental root of the ideological propaganda system, and the memorialization of his birthday in 2015 would be part of this overhaul.
Potential reasons why KJU’s birthday is not yet a holiday
From 2015 to 2017, there was no mention of KJU’s birthday in the Rodong Sinmun or other state publications. It was suspected that the 2014 release of the birthday would preface large celebrations to mark the day on the following year. However, state media remains silent on the issue.
There are three general reasons that could account for the turn of events. The first is simple: the supreme leader is still too young.
Most defectors agree with this assessment. When Kim Jong Il’s birthday became a holiday, it was 1982 and he was 40 years old. Kim Jong Un is still only 34 years old. We should also consider, however, that Kim Jong Il’s birthday was elevated to national holiday status a mere two years into his reign.
It has been six years since Kim Jong Un rose to power. Although still young, he has been in power for longer than his father when the honor was bestowed on him. However, his young age has not prevented Kim from ascending and accruing power in other ways. Therefore, there may be other, more compelling reasons.
The next consideration is that KJU might wish to appear modest to his people, at least on the surface. But this assessment does not align with everything we know about the symbolic importance of enshrining aspects of the supreme leadership in North Korea. It’s a monolithic regime that needs to strongly enforce political symbols to build and maintain legitimacy. Along with devising complimentary titles and marking the leader’s accomplishments as historical contributions, memorializing birthdays as national holidays and anniversaries assists the process of deification.
It’s this mythical status that enables the leadership to justify calling for the unconditional loyalty of the North Korean people. The idea that KJU would not memorialize his birthday to appear self-effacing and humble is not in line with the propaganda efforts that attempt to frame him as infallible, claiming he is capable of amazing feats, like first driving a car at age three.
Some believe the reason is because KJU is too focused on nuclear development. Nuclear weapons provide solidarity with the regime, explaining why he isn’t as focused on the symbolic political achievements.
KJU’s birthday secret: possibly related to his birth mother, Ko Yong Hui
Kim Jong Il moved to make his father’s birthday a national anniversary in 1995, shortly after his death. Following this, it became a tradition to make the leadership’s birthday an important date: both a national holiday and national anniversary. Kim Jong Un, a strong leader, would also want the same for himself. However, doing so might invite some unwanted side-effects, principally, the public recognition of his birth mother Ko Yong Hui, a consort to his father. Announcing Kim’s birthday as a national holiday would automatically tie the date, and KJU, to Ko Yong Hui.
Kim Jong Il’s Mount Paektu origins have been emphasized in attempt to support the deification process. His mother, Kim Jong Suk, is an important part of the story. Kim Jong Il’s songun, or military-first politics was often tied back to Kim Jong Suk, referred to as “the Mother of Songun.” On December 24th of this year, the 100th anniversary of Kim Jong Suk’s birthday was honored and she was given another honorary title. Kim Jong Suk continues to be referred to as “the Mother of Josun,” and is regarded with deference.
In contrast, Kim Jong Un has been in power for seven years, but he has still not acknowledged his mother in the same way. Even North Korea’s most popular women’s magazine, Chosun Women established in 1946, has not mentioned Ko Yong Hui. This magazine is the principle way that the authorities communicate with the country’s female leaders. Ko’s absence from this magazine is thus a notable exclusion.
The reason may be due to Ko’s lowly songbun [social status]. According to the country’s three-tier classification system devised in 1970, Ko is a member of the hostile class, the lowest rung of the ladder. This is because Ko is an ethnic Korean who was born in Japan, a fact that automatically pulls down her rank.
Ethnic Koreans from Japan rank among the very lowest of society, including prisoners of war and people who have engaged in counter-revolutionary activities. Ko Yong Hui’s very existence is therefore a major blow to the revolutionary bona fides of KJU. Of course, when KJU was nominated as successor, it was known that this could be an issue. But a more public acknowledgement of it could be destabilizing. When we see that KJU’s birthday was revealed in 2014 but has not been discussed until the present day, it may be concluded that the reason is largely related to the obstacle presented by Ko’s existence.
*Views expressed in Guest Columns do not necessarily reflect those of Daily NK.