North Korea: The Glorification Nation

The North Korean documentary film ‘The Mother of Great [Military-first] Chosun’, which was recently leaked after being shown to high-level Party cadres, was manufactured in order to solidify the cult of the young North Korean leader, Kim Jong Eun.

The film depicts many different and often contrasting aspects of Kim’s mother Koh Young Hee, the de facto first lady during the Kim Jong Il era. She is presented via images captured over a number of years and in various locations, all of which are intended to give evidence of her loyal and caring nature.

Internal North Korean portraits of Koh used for educational purposes show her dressed in traditional Korean clothing, the ‘hanbok’. Likewise, at the beginning of the documentary she is shown in a blue and white hanbok, the very image of a traditional Korean woman.

But Koh is also shown as both active and powerful as she accompanies Kim Jong Il during his onsite guidance visits. At these times, Koh is outfitted in the ‘People’s uniform’, a beige suit. In this way, the film establishes her as a woman of the people as well, someone who knows of their lives and troubles.

However, when compared to ordinary North Korean women, Koh’s style was actually very sophisticated. The permed hair was well ahead of its time in the North Korean context, while her white or black one piece dresses were ideally suited to meetings with overseas dignitaries. Even when dressed in the People’s uniform for visits to military bases, luxury sunglasses and clutch purse stood in stark contrast to the functionality of common North Korean clothing. It was noticeable that she tended to wear practical, flat-soled shoes, but that could have been a choice made with Kim Jong Il’s diminutive stature in mind.

During her days as a dancer and actress, Koh had been relatively thin, but over time she added weight. Pictures of mother and son together taken during Kim Jong Eun’s youth in the early 1990s up until 2000 show a woman who must have lived in a way that was in stark contrast to much of the rest of the country at the time.

In an effort to construct a positive public persona, Kim Jong Eun has adopted the hairstyle and attire of Kim Il Sung wholesale. In a similar vein, the film also compares Koh to the so-called “Mother of the Revolution,” Kim Jong Suk.

Where the emphasis in terms of Kim Jong Suk has always been on her involvement in the anti-Japanese resistance movement and the ‘mother of the People’ image she presented in her military uniform, Koh Young Hee is shown as more active, wearing western style suits as she travels loyally around alongside Kim Jong Il.

However, that task of glorifying Koh is not easy. Whereas Kim Jong Suk died before Kim Il Sung started to rule over North Korea, meaning that establishing her as a symbolic figure was not hard, Koh Yong Hee was next to Kim Jong Il for around 30 years, and was also Korean-Japanese. For North Korea’s propaganda managers, dealing with the reality she presents can be no easy task.

Nevertheless, one defector said that the film is probably going to do exactly what it is meant to for a lot of North Korean people. “People who have seen the movie will recall Koh Young Hee as the ‘Azalea of the Motherland’,” she said.