North Korea: Kim Jong-un and Myth Making

22 Oct, 2014    ·   4711

Ruhee Neog writes about the role of the 'cult-of-personality' factor in North Korea

Ruhee Neog
Ruhee Neog
The Supreme Leader of North Korea, Kim Jong-un, disappeared from the public eye for six weeks beginning September 2014, which created an uproar in the international community. Apparently, regular sightings of Jong-un going about his usual business is much less alarming than his inexplicable absence. Before he reemerged in mid-October, Jong-un was last seen with his wife in a photo released by the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA), watching a band perform. His appearance thereafter was conveyed to the world via images issued in the North Korean newspaper, Rodong Sinmun, which showed him conducting an inspection with top aides by his side and a walking stick in his hand.

In this entire furore, the most interesting aspect has been the central role of the North Korean media apparatus in creating the North Korean cult of personality. It can be assumed that the domestic audience in North Korea relies almost as much on print and visual references to their leader in the North Korean press as the international community for information regarding his personality, work and movements. Indeed, Jong-un’s last sighting, before his disappearance, was demonstrated by the KCNA, and his apparent reappearance by Rodong Sinmun, albeit in undated photos. While the actual timing of these photos is therefore anybody’s guess, it can be said with some certainty that Jong-un and/or the regime decided that the many theories, some rather fanciful, that were prompted by his absence needed to be put to rest.

The media apparatus has been instrumental in generating, for public consumption, the personalities of Kim Il-sung and his ilk. In the absence of religion, Il-Sung and his descendants have been elevated to mythical heights and granted god-like attributes. As the founder of North Korea, Il-sung continues to be the ‘Eternal President’ even after his death. Consequently, the regime itself is also to be understood as an embodiment of the current leader. All of this is seamlessly and continuously signalled with the glorification of the leader of the regime, in this case, Kim Jong-un, through propaganda by the state-controlled media. Kim Jong-un is probably physically ‘seen’ by his people very rarely, but he is a regular feature of the day’s news, thus confirming his omnipresence.

North Korean leaders rely on a steady bombardment of sycophantic, almost devotional, oral and visual imagery to sustain and reinforce themselves as the foundation on which North Korea was built and continues to survive. Any instance of dissatisfaction, intransigence or glory is not proclaimed by the leader himself. They are instead be reported by the media, which is therefore really the only ‘primary’ source available to North Korea watchers. It must be noted of course that the job of the North Korea watcher then becomes to read between the lines and make deductions about their possible implications.

For example, one of the theories that took a shot at explaining Jong-un’s disappearance offered the possibility of a coup, backed, if not led, by Hwang Pyong-so, widely accepted as Jong-un’s second-in-command. He is the First Deputy Head of the powerful Organisation and Guidance Department, which one North Korean defector and former propaganda officer claims effectively controls the regime. Added to this was a KCNA report which, in an unprecedented move, talked about Jong-un “severely” criticising the military during a field inspection. This led many to wonder whether the criticism was suggestive of Jong-un’s dissatisfaction with the military, which started with the purges of 2013.

Conclusions regarding dissent were also drawn on the basis of this information - perhaps the cohesion and institutional interconnectedness that is characteristic of North Korea was finally beginning to fray. These however were very soon put to rest by the Rodong Sinmun photos, in which, in addition to beaming at the camera, Jong-un is very conspicuously accompanied by a slightly subservient Hwang Pyong-so, the alleged coup mastermind.

Audio-visual features and their subtle influence on the psychology of the individual through slogans, images, divine epithets, and acts of greatness attributed to the Kims have all been very effectively utilised by the North Korean propaganda machine. Indeed, the entire North Korean population was induced to mourn the passing of Kim Jong-il in 2011 in a frightfully theatrical manner. Video and still feeds of this were then relayed back to the citizens to establish not just the extent of Jong-il’s influence and public adoration but to further tighten the regime’s reigns on its people. This is how one is expected to act, and if there are any, by the slimmest chance, who disagree, the legitimacy ensured by thousands of people crying in unison over the loss of the Father of the People ought to make them fall in line.