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Kim Il Sung - Personality Cult

Although Kim Il-sung was by most accounts an accomplished guerrilla fighter, he quickly began to bolster his standing through enhancement of his personal record and engendering a cult of personality that has come to characterize the governance of the DPRK and the state’s approach towards freedom of information, opinion and expression.

Former Chairman of the Standing Committee of the Supreme People's Assembly Hwang Jang-yop explained: "The reason why Kim was chosen from among the Koreans in the 88th Infantry Brigade was apparently because he was young and had a good outlook. His experiences were no match for the Chinese [Korean] leaders of the day, though. Exaggerated propaganda was necessary in order to elevate a Russian army captain to the status of legendary North Korean hero, but at that time Korea had just experienced painful oppression under Japanese rule. This presented a good opportunity for exaggerated propaganda."

According to the Embassy of the German Democratic Republic in 1961: “The cult of personality surrounding Comrade Kim Il Sung has been growing steadily for some time. Everything the Party and the Korean people earn is attributed to Comrade Kim Il Sung. There is no room, no classroom, no public building in which a photo of Kim Il Sung cannot be found. The Museum of the War of National Liberation is designed entirely around the role of Kim Il Sung. There are no less than 12 figures of Kim Il Sung in the rooms of the museum, each larger than the next.... Party propaganda is not oriented toward studying the works of Marxism/Leninism, but rather is solely and completely oriented toward the “wise teachings of our glorious leader, Comrade Kim Il Sung. Many rules of Party life, such as the link to the masses, are portrayed as if they were discovered by Kim Il Sung rather than by Marx, Engels, and Lenin. There are almost no articles or events in which Comrade Kim Il Sung is not mentioned."

Personal veneration of Kim Il-sung came into full effect following the mass purge of anti-Kim factions after the 1953 Korean War. The process of establishing an unchallenged one-man rule system was complete by 1958. The cult of personality had two objectives: solidifying Kim Il-sung’s one-man rule and facilitating Kim Jong-il’s future ascension to power. Methods used to instill the cult of personality included fabricating symbols, creative history, and indoctrination.

There are two pillars to the veneration process. First, Kim supposedly came from a lineage of people’s leaders ever since the time of King Sunjo of the Chosun Dynasty. Upholding the family tradition, Kim had become a hero in the anti-Japanese resistance. Such is the ‘reconfigured’ version of Korean history used for the process of indoctrination.

Therefore, modern Korean history was focused around Kim’s lineage while the history of anti-Japanese resistance recounted the heroic exploits of Kim Il-sung the revolutionary. The north korean version of history served to justify the one-man rule regime under Kim. Second, Kim’s various abilities were praised to the extreme. Not only was he a resistance hero, he was also a thinker greater than Marx or Lenin and a theorist of unfathomable wisdom on all subjects including politics, economics, society, culture, and the arts. This is the second pillar upholding the one-man rule. History and exceptional individual talent were combined to justify Kim’s regime.

The most exalted of titles, such as ‘Father Chairman’, ‘Great Chairman’ and ‘Heavenly One’ were used to address Kim. His name was printed in bold type on all publications, making it stand out from the rest of the text. Furthermore, the entirety of North Korea’s institutional documents, including the constitution, labor laws, land laws, and educational theses were authored by Kim. All publications, including newspapers, magazines, school textbooks, and academic texts, were prefaced by ‘words of instruction’ from Kim. All North Koreans were taught at school that they were clothed, fed, and nurtured in all aspects of life by the ‘grace of the Chairman’. A portrait of Kim was to be placed in all homes, while ‘places of worship’ including 35,000 statues of Kim, were erected throughout the nation.

The adulation of Kim and the central role he was given in almost every aspect of daily life in North Korea exceeds that of any other modern personality cult. In part, this was possible because of North Korea's relatively small size and its homogenous population. Kim also a time of considerable charisma; he has taken special pains to cultivate a close relationship with the people. His unusually long tenure and penchant for making on-the-spot inspections allowed him to become personally familiar with virtually every town.

The Kim cult flourished in the special conditions of a relatively small country with a homogeneous population, a tradition of social harmony, authoritarian rule and loyalty of the people to the ruler, and, in this case, a charismatic leader with a unique style of leadership who ruled for an unusually long time. For nearly 50 years, Kim Il Sung traveled around his country for more than 150 days and sometimes as many as 225 days a year. From 1954 to 1961, he reportedly made more than 1,300 on-the-spot inspections of collective farms, factories, mines, highways, housing complexes, childcare facilities, museums, and other public buildings. In the 30 years from 1950 to 1980, he reportedly traveled more than 513,000 kilometers, averaging approximately 52 kilometers a day. He was personally familiar with every town and village, every farm and factory, visiting many of them repeatedly. Over the years, most North Koreans saw him close at hand on one or another of his visits to their provinces.

While the relatively small size of North Korea made it easier for him to establish a personal relationship with his people than it was for Stalin or Mao, who were remote by comparison, Kim’s particular personality and skills in establishing personal rapport, especially with children, cannot be denied. One of his effective leadership practices, for example, which won the hearts of both children and their parents, was his custom on his endless visits to nursery and elementary schools of taking a Polaroid camera and having each child’s picture taken with him. The children would then take the photographs home and hang them in their homes, where only images of Kim were allowed to be displayed. For many years, North Koreans have begun and ended their day with a bow to Kim’s portrait in their home.

Foreign visitors to North Korea were often stunned by the omnipresence of Kim Il Sung in the lives of North Koreans, not only in their view all the time but constantly in their thoughts as well. There are photographs of Kim hanging in people’s homes; gigantic posters of Kim hanging from the roofs of huge public buildings; state-issued portraits of Kim in offices, classrooms, shops, public halls, factories, hospitals, and other indoor locations, as well as on the front of trains and the decks of ships; mosaics of Kim with his band of anti-Japanese guerrilla fighters on the walls of the elaborately decorated P’yongyang subway system.

Statues and sculptures of Kim are everywhere, some of them gold-plated, and the most impressive of all a huge, illuminated white marble statue of Kim seated at one end of the magnificent International Friendship Exhibition Hall in a pose reminiscent of Abraham Lincoln’s statue in the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC. By one count, there were more than 500 life-size statues of Kim in 1980, and by the time of his death in 1994 that number had increased many times over. There are elaborately staged theatrical productions of his life story, some of them reportedly produced by Kim Jong Il, who was known to have taken a personal interest and role in the development of North Korea’s movie and theater industries.

Kim Il Sung’s birthplace at Man’gyongdae and his burial site in P’yongyang are shrines, and North Korean students and workers go on annual pilgrimages to them from all over the country, often walking many kilometers to get there. On a typical day, Man’gyongdae was visited by some 10,000 people, including foreign visitors who are taken there as a routine first stop on their tour of P’yongyang and the vicinity.

There are raised plaques at spots in the middle of roads where Kim stopped to give on-the-spot guidance. Subway seats where he sat are roped off as memorials. There are signs over the doors of factories and day-care nurseries marking the date that Kim visited. Objects that he touched on these visits are covered with glass or draped with a veil and often set aside in a special room. North Korea’s only four-year civilian university was named after him, as was the four-year military university ).

Kim’s birthday (April 15) is celebrated as the most important national holiday of the year. There is a photograph of Kim on the identification card that hangs from the neck of every North Korean. People are not required to bow down to all his portraits in public locations, but North Koreans have been known to take out the picture of Kim that they carry and bow to it, sometimes ostentatiously, as when a North Korean diplomat returns home from an overseas assignment. Kim Il Sung was literally everywhere in North Korea. In P’yongyang, one cannot walk 100 meters without encountering his likeness.

Dedication to Kim ll-song - being a “Kim ll-song man“ loyal to Kim's thinking and teaching - could not erase bad songbun, but it could improve a person's lot in life — within the limits established for his class. The son of a former landowner will not get into college or the Army. Dedication to Kim‘s teachings might give someone in the middle social bracket a chance to live and work in the city as a lower level bureaucrat rather than as a factory worker. And among the privileged class it determines who rises to the top in government, education, management, and medicine.

Less-than-zealous devotion to Kim was grounds for demotion, but again within established limits. People with good songbun are not likely to be sent to a collective farm or a coal mine except for the most serious offense, such as the defection of a close family member or some other treasonable act. Normally, they will be dropped several notches within the range of occupations reserved for their social class; for example, a top party official might be demoted to some lower level party position on a collective farm, a high-level factory manager reassigned to office work, or a middle school teacher demoted to a factory worker.

No one — except Kim and his immediate family - was immune from such political displays of loyalty. For all their special privileges, the elite are just as obligated as any other North Korean tn this regard. Indeed, as a person rises through the ranks to the top, more was expected in terms of political loyalty. Thus, the most exaggerated worship of the cult occur at the upper levels of government. From all reports, in an embassy the ambassador was invariably the most fanatical. He got where he was that way; it may not be a measure of his true feelings, but it was the price of success, if not poiiticai survival.

In this total reorganization of society that Kim Il Sung wrought with amazing success, and relatively little terror compared to the wholesale purges of Stalin and Mao, today’s privileged, educated class are the children of the precommunist working class, while those discriminated against are the former privileged and educated class and their descendants. Thus, North Korean leaders of Kim Il Sung’s generation were not likely to have been educated beyond middle school, and their children — the leaders of today who have received a privileged education through college and a few through university—are a first-generation elite, schooled in Kimilsungism, with no family history of intellectual or professional achievement, untraveled and inexperienced in the ways of the world, owing everything to Kim Il Sung and his social revolution.

From available evidence, it seems that the cult of personality in North Korea rested on a genuine belief of the vast majority of the people in the greatness and goodness of Kim Il Sung. Visitors to North Korea often remark on the depth of the people’s feelings for Kim. Whatever criticism there is, it was rarely voiced, even in private; people are afraid to criticize the regime, especially Kim.

Some defectors have admitted to having secret doubts about his infallibility, but they would never have voiced these doubts in public or, for that matter, in private. The most convincing reason for accepting the genuineness of the people’s love for Kim actually comes from defectors who have absolutely no reason to exaggerate their true feelings for Kim after having made the highly dangerous decision to defect and having no fear of being returned to the dreadful existence from which they had so narrowly escaped.

In spite of any reservations they may have had about the excesses of the cult, they still express a certain reverence for Kim Il Sung as a person and as a leader. Their admiration seems deep-seated, genuine, and unshakeable. Studied at a distance as an abstraction, the cult may appear ludicrous, almost unbelievable, but, up close, its hold over the perception and thought patterns of North Koreans was awe inspiring.

As members of a cult society, North Koreans were trained not to think but to follow. They may be rational on most issues, but on sensitive issues touching on the cult or Kim’s life and teachings, they are totally intransigent. Their unshakable faith in the correctness of Kim’s teachings and confidence in his way of doing things, according to chuch’e doctrine, can make them closed to negotiation and resistant to compromise, even at the sacrifice of their own best interests. The strong belief in the rightness of their cause and their faith in better times to come, which true believers often have and take heart from, can see them through difficulties that nonbelievers might not weather as well. Some analysts consider that North Korea has been able to survive the natural calamities and adverse international pressure since the mid-1990s—which forecasters predicted would bring the nation to the point of national collapse — only because of the internal strength of a people bound together in an irrational but unifying national cult.

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Page last modified: 14-01-2018 18:38:41 ZULU