The Boom and Bust World of Kim Badges

[imText3]A badge bearing the same smiling portrait of the late Kim Jong Il that was on prominent display during the former leader’s funeral made its first public appearance on February 17th, proving yet again how keen the authorities in Pyongyang are to idolize Kim, this time using one of the country’s most prominent means of so doing.

Among existing badges, the one of a smiling Kim Il Sung from the North Korean founder’s own funeral is currently the most common, and is worn by high North Korean officials at almost all official events. As such, one unique point of interest is whether the new Kim Jong Il badge will supplant, be used alongside or remain one level below that of Kim Il Sung.

[imText1]But that is not the be all and end all of the badge world by any means. There are more, as many as twenty, some say. Among them, one of the most interesting is the ‘pair badge’.

According to the testimony of at least one defector, in the 1980s this ‘pair badge’ was seen as more valuable than any other because both Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il were on it.

However, in the 1990s Kim Jong Il was heard to comment that “the light of our nation is Premier Kim Il Sung alone; can I be together with him at that level?” and production of the ‘pair badge’ was swiftly brought to a halt. Since then, only the upper elite and people of real wealth have been seen with the badge. In recent years, those children of wealthy politicians who are sensitive to fashion have also been seen wearing the ‘pair badge’.

The first Kim Il Sung badge of all was produced for the November, 1970 5th Workers’ Party Congress. In 1972, to celebrate Kim Il Sung’s 60th birthday, a badge featuring Kim Il Sung within the Workers’ Party flag also went into production.

[imText2]The original picture of Kim Il Sung in the badges was of him with no expression, but the year after he died in 1995 this was replaced by the smiling, grandfatherly visage we now know. It is a similar process now being undertaken by the image of Kim Jong Il.

The first, unsmiling Kim Jong Il badge was produced by Mansudae Art Studio on February 16th, 1992, but, because of Kim Jong Il’s own opposition, only cadres wore it until 2000, after which time it began to be distributed to the ordinary citizenry.

In the past, when there were not actually enough badges to go around, the mere act of wearing a badge itself signified senior status. Now, everyone has at least one, and it is that of Kim Jong Il whose scarcity value is currently at its peak.

According to Cheong Seong Chang of the Sejong Institute, “The badges were produced to make people look up to Kim Il Sung and, through that, to justify the power held by Kim Jong Il. The sheer variety of badges simply reflects how prevalent idolization really is in North Korea.”