Double-portrait lapel pins featuring North Korean leaders Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il, once easily purchased as souvenirs just across the border in Dandong, China, have all but disappeared from the local market.
“Rumors have been spreading that Pyongyang officially requested the city to ban sales of the inexpensive ripoff pins back in May in light of the 7th Party Congress, citing concerns over negative implications for the leadership’s ‘Highest Dignity’ [Kim Jong Un],” a source privy to North Korea affairs in China told Daily NK.
“Those cheap products that they used to sell in Dandong near the Yalu riverside [bordering North Korea] haven’t been seen for months.”
Dandong’s proximity to North Korea makes it a popular destination for foreign and local tourists alike, many of whom seek out the dual-portrait lapel pins as souvenirs from their trip. Before the crackdown, vendors in Dandong, encouraged by the growing demand, typically sold counterfeit versions for less than a bowl of soup, at approximately 10 RMB (12,000 KPW).
The availability of such a cheap portrait badges in an area teeming with North Koreans, the source surmised, would have been a barrier in Kim Jong Un’s quest to stabilize his leadership by emphasizing the “Highest Dignity,” hence the request to ban sales.
“Now [North Korean] traders or people on travel permits
[in and around Dandong] balk when asked to sell their lapel pins [to vendors unable to obtain pins due to the crackdown],” a different source in Dandong said, “because these days, going without your badge could raise questions about your political ideology and lead to harsh punishment.”
The lapel pin depicting Kim Il Sung’s likeness was first proposed in November 1970 during the 5th Party Congress, and soon thereafter manufactured as a circular pin. Two years later, to commemorate his 60th birthday, the North produced a pin in the form of its national flag with Kim Il Sung depicted in the center.
In the 1980s, to distinguish it from the circular pin and, by extension, the masses, Kim Jong Il presented the flag-shaped emblem only to Party cadres of secretary rank or higher. Suddenly, the flag pin conferred power and was accordingly difficult to obtain on the black market.
Much changed the following decade. When the Public Distribution System collapsed and triggered a widespread famine, generating a black market trade of both authentic and imitation badges. This reporter and countless others pawned off their pins, at that time considered more valuable than cash, to slide out of scrapes with Ministry of People’s Security personnel. By the same token, they could be bought back again to gain the confidence of potential business partners or simply to show off.
These types of transactions still occur inside North Korea–the dual portrait pin trades for roughly 20 to 25 USD (170,000-200,000 KPW)–but eroding loyalty for the regime continues to whittle away at the badge’s gravitas.