Unification Media Group (UMG): February 16 marked the birthday of Kim Jong Il. To discuss the cult of idolization surrounding Kim Jong Il and some related topics, we sat down with Professor Jung Kyo Jin from Korea University.
Kim Jong Il’s birthday is known as “The Day of the Shining Star” in North Korea. The event is a massive holiday in the country, much like the Day of the Sun (Kim Il Sung’s birthday). In your view, what is the most critical ideological aspect when it comes to the celebration of Kim Jong Il’s birthday?
Jung Kyo Jin (Jung): Since Kim Jong Un came to power, particularly since 2014, the idolization strategy has definitely changed. References to Kim Jong Il, and also Kim Il Sung for that matter, have been absent in his rhetoric about becoming a nuclear power. He has turned all these achievements toward building his own legacy. This is under Kim Jong Un’s symbolic title as “The Sun of the World,” and its direct allusion to nuclear power. Explicit mentions of Kim Jong Il and Kim Il Sung for their role in North Korea’s nuclear development has been omitted since Kim Jong Un’s 2016 New Year’s address.
December 17 last year marked 6 years since Kim Jong Il’s death. The North Korean media was in full gear – glorifying their former leader. Interestingly, the narrative for the propaganda was remembering him as showing “Love for the People.” He was also referred to as “The Benevolent Father” and “The Sentimental Father.
This narrative has been pushed by Kim Jong Un, who sees himself in the image of Kim Il Sung, in an attempt to strengthen his own perception by the public. Kim Jong Il was first to establish the military-first policy, and connecting the success of the ICBM launch last November 29 with Kim Jong Il’s legacy would have been fitting, but no North Korean media outlets did. Every media outlet lauded the launch as “the unprecedented nuclear power achievement of comrade Kim Jong Un.”
All credit for nuclear development has been claimed by Kim Jong Un, while economic development and increased production output have been focal points for idolizing Kim Jong Il.
The regime would praise Kim Jong Il by referring to techniques introduced under his reign, with examples like, “By using organic rice paddy agricultural techniques, we can save labor and pesticides while increasing crop yields.” Propaganda for Kim Jong Il has not changed much for his birthday this year. Kim Jong Un will take the lion’s share of the credit, while Kim Jong Il will be left with the scraps.
UMG: There are various symbolic icons that idolize Kim Jong Il. Could you tell us about some of them?
Jung: I refer to these as “mediums for the symbolization of a leader’. First, there is a leader memorial day. Next, a leader museum, as well as statues, songs dedicated to the leader (worship songs), and greatly exaggerated anecdotage/histories of the leader. As you know, Kim Jong Il’s birthday is one of the biggest national holidays and is called the “Day of the Shining Star,” designated on February 16, 2012 after his death. There is the “Kim Jong Il Museum” and many “Historic Revolutionary Sites of Kim Jong Il,” as every place visited by Kim Jong Il automatically becomes a historic revolutionary site.
Statues of Kim Jong Il were constructed after his death in 2012, the most significant being the one built next to Kim Il Sung’s statue on Mansudae Hill on April 13. This statue is likely to attract the biggest crowd of worshippers for his birthday this year. The standing statue inside the Kumsusan Palace of the Sun was also erected around the same time. Statues of Kim Jong Il are placed around North Korea’s many major institutions and provincial areas, including Kim Il Sung University.
There were many songs for Kim Jong Il even before Kim Jong Un was born. Classic texts idolizing Kim Jong Il are “Learning to follow from Kim Jong Il’s Youth,” “Revolutionary Movement and History of Kim Jong Il,” and “The Legacy of Kim Jong Il.” Another symbolic icon continuously promoted by the North Korean media is of course the “Kimjongilia,” a flower named after Kim Jong Il.
UMG: Kim Jong Il was quick to establish his own cult of idolization and deification after it became apparent that he would succeed Kim Il Sung during the 1980’s. Could you briefly talk us through the process?
Jung: You can trace the beginning of Kim Jong Il’s idolization process by looking into the construction of Kim Jong Il’s historic revolutionary sites. The idolization of Kim Jong Il began in earnest in 1982, after he was nominated as the official successor in 1980. In 1982, the birth date of Kim Jong Il was changed to 1942 from 1941 and it was officially announced that he was born in Milyong, Mt Paektu. They romanticized the birth of Kim Jong Il, the details of which are meticulously described in “The Legacy of Kim Jong Il.” In the book, Kim Jong Il is deified and his birth is further enhanced by propaganda symbols such as trees with inscribed rally cries where Kim Il Sung’s partisan comrades allegedly peeled off bark to inscribe rallying cries onto the trees.
Kim Jong Il’s first historical revolutionary sites have ties to his childhood like the “Aeoun Historical Revolutionary Site” and “Jangsan Historical Revolutionary Site” constructed in Pyongyang in 1982. The “Jangsan” site commemorates a tree Kim Jong Il planted on March 31, 1957. A young Kim Jong Il merely planted the tree, but it’s being commemorated years later for being a historical revolutionary site, a classic example of how far idolization can go.
The idolization of Kim Jong Il became more pronounced after the country’s “Leader Theory”(Revolutionary Leader Perspective) was changed to “Socialist Political Organism Theory” in 1986. The following year, Milyong at Mt Paektu was designated as Kim Jong Il’s historical revolutionary site. In 1988, “Jangsu Peak” on Mt Paektu was renamed “Jongil Peak,” and was included as an essential stopping point in “The Learning Journey of a Thousand Miles,” a trek that is undertaken by nearly all North Koreans, with participants required to swear loyalty to Kim Jong Il. Mt Paektu is considered sacred ground for the revolution, and it is the bedrock of idolization fodder for the regime.
Another site of interest is the “Mupo Revolutionary Site.” This site was established in February 1994, and was where Kim Jong Il allegedly formulated the systemization of Juche on September 4, 1971. Numerous other historical sites were established for Kim Jong Il following the death of Kim Il Sung in July 1994.
The pinnacle of Kim Jong Il’s idolization was in 1992, before the death of Kim Il Sung. During this time, Kim Jong Il was effectively the supreme leader and over 1600 songs idolizing him were written in the space of 6 months. A book promoting the deification of Kim Jong Il, entitled “Legend of Kim Jong Il” (Legend of the Shining Star) was also published during this period. It was re-published in 1996 and the new edition is divided into 3 parts, “Legend of the Birth of Kim Jong Il,” “The Legend of Kim Jong Il’s Youth” and “The Legend of Kim Jong Il the Adult.” One can easily compare the degree of idolization from this to “The Legend of Kim Il Sung” that was published in 1987.
UMG: How is the idolization of Kim Jong Il different from the others?
Jung: If we discuss Kim Jong Il and Kim Il Sung, specifically in regards to their books, ‘The Legend of Kim Il Sung’ includes a story about how not only Kim Il Sung but also his partisan comrades and men had amazing powers. In other words, other non-Kim family individuals also allegedly had special abilities. So it’s difficult to assess if this necessarily deified Kim Il Sung. However, Kim Jong Il’s Book of Legend is different. Only three people in it are alleged to have god-like abilities, Kim Il Sung, Kim Jong Suk and Kim Jong Il. Other people in the book are depicted as ordinary human beings.
The respective stories regarding their youth are also different. Kim Il Sung was referred to as an intelligent boy who excelled at arithmetic, but Kim Jong Il was said to have taught himself to speak fluent Korean by the age of 7. The degree of Kim Jong Il’s idolization is also more audacious than that of Kim Il Sung’s. Then we look at Kim Jong Un’s alleged feats of legend from his youth, including driving a car at the age of three and displaying perfect marksmanship, which shows an even stronger degree of idolization. We can explain, on a theoretical level, that the degree of ‘Leader Symbolism’ is more extensive under Kim Jong Un. This emphasizes the reciprocal relationship between Kim Jong Un’s push to strengthen himself as the leader and his idolization, and how with unstable leadership comes stronger idolization.
Deification is also on a different level. The highest symbol of power as a leader in North Korea is the “Supreme Leader” (Suryong). The position of Suryong is distinct to that of a premier or president, and is the definitive term for what a North Korean leader represents. While North Korea is a “Suryong” society, the term was only coined with Kim Il Sung in North Korea’s official party and political documents and the media. Kim Jong Il was referred to as the “Eternal Leader” by Kim Jong Un in 2012, but there are no instances where he is referred to as the Suryong. Kim Jong Il is referred to as the Suryong only when in conjunction with Kim Il Sung, such as “our great forefathers” or “our great leaders.” Kim Jong Un appears to be some distance from being referred to as “Suryong.” This clearly shows the strong hereditary influence that remains in the North Korean system.
UMG: All residents must pay their respects in the form of ‘Gifts of Loyalty’ on Kim Jong Il’s birthday. Residents are forced to give these gifts, causing significant problems on a day of celebration.
Jung: Articles about Kim Jong Il’s “Day of the Shining Star” celebration preparations have been reported in the Rodong Sinmun since January 21. One such article entitled “Day of the Shining Star Celebration Preparation Committee Formed in Various Countries,” reported that a Day of the Shining Star Celebration Preparation Committee was formed in Tanzania and Ethiopia on January 6 and 9, respectively, to organize various political culture events praising Kim Jong Il’s revolutionary sacrifices and achievements from January 6 to February 16. Another Rodong Sinmun article on the 11th also reported on a new committee being formed in Russia. There were a total of 13 articles referring to various international preparation committees. Three to four countries are mentioned in each article, showing how seriously North Korean celebrates ‘The Day of the Shining Star’.
Significant sums of money are spent on celebrations for this day. Under the name of “Gifts of Loyalty,” the regime collects money from the people. This year, a flower exhibition of Kimjongilias on thirty specially-designated stone paths was planned. The primary focus of this year seems to be the Kimjongilia Exhibition and other related events. The cost for the nationwide Kimjongilia exhibitions will be exorbitant. Residents, who are already tired from various labor mobilizations under the pretense of “Strengthening ourselves” and the “Mallima Mentality” will be further mobilized for the event, on top of them having to pay monetary tributes.
UMG: I’m also curious about the reaction of the residents. I’d assume there was minimal opposition to idolization in the early days, but after several decades, wouldn’t a certain degree of mistrust and dissatisfaction have grown?
Jung: Privately, there is a lot of distrust and dissatisfaction, but it is difficult to express such sentiments. The rise in dissatisfaction coincided with the peak of Kim Jong Il’s idolization.
The idolization of Kim Jong Il peaked in 2012, the year after his death. His body was placed next to Kim Il Sung, and “Kumsusan Memorial Palace,” which previously hosted only Kim Il Sung’s remains, was renamed “Kumsusan Palace of the Sun.” The meaning behind the change symbolizes Kim Jong Il’s eternal place next to Kim Il Sung, “living forever with the North Korean people” and his “eternal life.” An interesting point is that the “Day of the Shining Star,” the term for Kim Jong Il’s birthday, is closer to “being eternal like the moon”but they are also referring to him being ‘eternal with the sun’. Kim Il Sung is originally referred to as “eternal with the sun,” so having Kim Jong Il become eternal under the same sun is some interesting logic.
In a way, North Korea is like a religious cult that is required to worship the Kim dynasty like gods. However, this may be changing during the Kim Jong Un era, due to the effectiveness of Kim Jong Un’s idolization. More North Koreans, especially the youth, are harboring increasing distrust and dissatisfaction toward the leader, questioning how a three-year-old child can drive a car and shoot targets with 100% accuracy.
UMG: Many say that Kim Jong Il’s birthday not only serves to praise the former leader but has a direct relationship to the idolization of Kim Jong Un. What is your opinion?
Jung: Kim Jong Un is Kim Jong Il’s son and his successor, and thus, the idolization of Kim Jong Un and Kim Jong Il is naturally connected. North Korea’s primary basis for idolization is the “Paektu Bloodline” and “The Great Paektu People.” Kim Jong Il systemized Juche into “Kimilsungism.” Kim Jong Un added “Kim Jong Il Nationalism” to “Kimilsungism” after his father’s death to create “Kimilsungism-Kimjongilism.” On the surface, this seems to only praise Kim Jong Il, but Kim Jong Un was lauded as a “Genius of Ideology” and “Maestro of Ideological Theory” for creating a new ideology and enhanced his symbolic image as a leader. Kim Jong Un gained exclusive authority to ‘Kimilsungism-Kimjongilism’ as something that can only be realized through him.
To celebrate Kim Jong Il’s birthday, ‘The Day of the Shining Star Preparation Committee’, as reported in the Rodong Sinmun, organized various political culture events. The most important events were ‘The day of the Shining Star Celebration Gathering’, “Film Festival’, and the ‘‘Kimjongilia Exhibition’. Kim Jong Il’s revolutionary sacrifice and achievements were propagated during these events, while Kim Jong Un’s leadership was fervently praised. The media also announced Kim Jong Un’s recent nuclear achievements and lauded his ability to raise the nation’s strength to its highest peak.
UMG: Kim Jong Nam, Kim Jong Un’s half brother, was assassinated days before Kim Jong Il’s birthday. Kim Jong Un was shown with a stern face on the day. How do you think this year’s event will turn out?
Jung: I think Kim Jong Un will appear happier this year. His charm offensive peace strategy during the Pyeongchang Olympics will be seen as a success, which will go through to the end of the Paralympics on March 18, with the country sending players to compete. He will use this time to avoid any provocative moves from the US. If inter-Korean relations progress further beyond the Winter Olympics, there will be much celebration as North Korea will claim it is in the final stages of nuclear development and has circumvented strong international sanctions while creating tension between South Korea and the US.
After Kim Jong Un’s New Year’s address, the North Korean media has not published a single article referring to all the welcome events the North Korean delegation received during the Pyeongchang Olympics. News about memorizing Kim Jong Un’s New Year Address and other related academic and ideological competitions have been reported daily, but there is not one mention of “Pyeongchang.” Many North Koreans may not know where the Winter Olympics are actually being held. The North Korean media continues to push slogans such as “The March towards Purple Unification,” “Achieving Purple Unification” and “Revolutionary Full-Scale Offensive” during the Olympics regarding inter-Korean relations. This is a crucial insight into how the Kim Jong Un regime views the Pyeongchang Olympics.