case of Kim Jong-il's missing portraits
By Kosuke Takahashi
TOKYO - If you love a good, multi-layered mystery, and convoluted Asian
machinations with international implications, then you'll love this one.
Speculation among North Korea watchers is feverish and rampant, and experts are
trying to figure out what's going on with the world's last grand personality
cult in the world's most reclusive kingdom. Some of the ubiquitous portraits of
North Korea's Dear Leader Kim Jong-il are disappearing, reportedly at his
direction, from some but not all public places in Pyongyang. Furthermore, the
standard honorific "Dear Leader" has been dropped in many cases.
Reports on North Korea's leader Kim Jong-il's order to remove his portraits
from some public places in Pyongyang are prompting rife speculation worldwide.
Some analysts have said "Dear Leader" Kim might have been shifted from the top
position, signaling the beginning of his downfall at a time of unprecedented
economic and international political problems. Some said it could be
preparation for the transfer of power to one of Kim's sons. Some said Pyongyang
is just switching old portraits for new ones bearing a better, older likeness,
while others conjectured Kim has just decided to show the world that the Hermit
Kingdom will humanize a bit and open up a bit toward the outside world. This
suggestion of possible humanism, humility and almost certain pragmatism comes
at a time when North Korea, like the rest of the world, is increasingly
conscious of the hardline United States administration, in advance of the
still-unscheduled next round of six-party talks on defusing the Pyongyang
Nobody is sure about what is really going on. Is this an authentic downsizing
of the larger-than-life personality cult, an effort to win friends and
influence people, or the result of a power struggle by those dissatisfied with
Kim Jong-il's refusal to undertake reforms and make concessions at a time of
unprecedented international pressures, a barely sustainable economy, and now a
Japan that is considering economic sanctions over its citizens abducted by
North Korea years ago?
"Those portraits' removal aims to get more sympathizers with Pyongyang from
international society, especially targeting South Korea's pro-North politicians
and younger people by showing the world the softening of a personality cult at
home," Lee Young-hwa, the representative of Rescue the North Korean People!
(RENK), a Japan-based citizens' group supporting North Korean asylum seekers in
China since early 1990s, told Asia Times Online. Lee is also an economics
professor and third-generation Korean resident in Japan.
Many are surprised to learn that this is not the first time Kim, now 62, has
ordered his own portraits to be taken down from public buildings. This goes
back to the summer of 2002. It first happened in Japan in the Chongryon
society, an organization of North Korean residents who for years boasted
iron-clad solidarity for their motherland. The purpose for the removal of Kim's
portraits from public spaces in Japan had been to emphasize Koreans' unity,
North and South, as the same race. At that time the move sought to soften,
dilute, even diminish the ideology of a personality cult and to play up Kim's
conciliatory stance toward South Koreans - putting people before ideology. Kim
specifically ordered Chongryon (the General Association of Korean Residents in
Japan) to remove his portraits from North Korean schools in Japan in order to
win more pro-North Korea supporters from ethnic Koreans, to make them future
Chongryon members and encourage them to enroll their children in
Kim now seems to have decided to do the same thing domestically, especially
when Pyongyang faces a profound international predicament, ranging from its
stubborn refusal to do away with its nuclear-arms program to Tokyo's fury over
its citizens abducted over the years by North Koreans. He may well have been
trying to attract more South Korean supporters for his dynasty, just by showing
some limited, possibly just cosmetic, flexibility in his Stalinist nation. It
might be Pyongyang's typical divide-and-rule strategy in dealing with South
Korea, the United States and Japan, this time counting on pro-North supporters
in the South.
The Russian news agency Itar-Tass was the first to report on Tuesday that many
paintings of Kim were being removed from their usual positions, alongside those
of his father, North Korea's founder Kim Il-sung. Adding fuel to the
speculation on Thursday, Radiopress, the Japanese monitoring agency of North
Korean media, reported that North Korea's official media on Wednesday dropped
the glorifying description of "Dear Leader" from Kim's title. Radiopress said
the North's Korean Central Broadcast, the Korean Central News Agency and other
media simply described him as "general secretary of the Workers Party of Korea,
chairman of the DPRK [Democratic People's Republic of Korea] National Defense
Commission, and supreme commander of the Korean People's Army".
In the latest development, a North Korean diplomat who defected to the South
last year said on Thursday that Kim himself ordered the portraits removal as
early as last year, according to the Korea Times. On the same day, Japanese
media reported that Kim's portraits have been removed only from certain public
places - those frequented by foreign guests, including the People's Culture
Palace - not from all public places in Pyongyang or across the country.
Whenever Kim actually decided to take down his portraits, at least some of
them, he appears to have believed that without de-emphasizing his personality
cult, leavening his rigid ideology and thus getting more support from South
Koreans - especially from the pro-North ruling Uri Party members in Seoul - he
cannot effectively confront the US and Japan over Pyongyang's nuclear-weapons
program and its past abductions of Japanese citizens.
After Kim's order in late August 2002, Chongryon directed all of the
pro-Pyongyang 110 Korean elementary and junior high schools across Japan to
remove his portraits; most of this took place in September 2002. Behind this
move was the dwindling number of North Korean residents in Japan. Currently
about 600,000 North and South Koreans are said to live in Japan. More than
500,000 are said to be South Koreans, while only 100,000 are North Koreans.
Until the 1960s the numbers from each Korea had been almost the same. But
recently, many Koreans have changed their nationality from North to South.
Moreover, not a few Koreans have become naturalized Japanese citizens in recent
As a result of all these factors, enrollment in pro-Pyongyang schools is
falling year by year. This trend was fueled by expensive tuition, due to the
lack of subsidies from the Japanese government. North Korean parents therefore
are reluctant to send their children to those schools, seeking instead to enter
them in Japanese public schools.
Moreover, the eruption of the abduction issues - Pyongyang agents abducting
Japanese over the years - also accelerated Japan's trend toward anti-North
Korea sentiment. Faced with this threatening of Korean national
self-determination, Kim ordered Chongryon to take down portraits at schools in
August 2002, to make things more comfortable for South Korean parents and to
lower their resistance to sending their children to pro-North schools in Japan.
Faced with recent mass movements of refugees from North Korea - more than 460
in July - Kim might have wanted to play down the personality cult to stem the
outflow, with some so desperate to leave the worker's paradise that they even
climb the walls of various embassies and consulates in China, to Beijing's
great embarrassment. Moreover, the decision to lower the profile of the
dictator in the reclusive communist state is in line with the extremely adverse
situation that North Korea has created for itself. In the past four years, US
President George W Bush has applied increasing pressure to thwart North Korea's
nuclear-weapons program and chronic human-rights violations. This approach
appears to have been reinforced by his appointment of the tough and pragmatic
Condoleezza Rice as new secretary of state in his second administration once
Colin Powell leaves that post.
As for Japan, Pyongyang has continued the risky cat-and-mouse game of diplomacy
with Tokyo as its economy continues to deteriorate - in a bid to run up the
amount of potential Japanese economic aid and post-World War II reparations for
past wrongs. Today in Tokyo, however, not a few lawmakers and citizens are
asking the administration of Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi to consider
economic sanctions on North Korea. The anti-North Korea attitude has become
even more acute after a Japanese delegation's week-long stay in Pyongyang did
not yield good news about the fate of abducted Japanese. Instead, they brought
back to Tokyo the ashes of at least two persons, including Megumi Yokota, who
was kidnapped in 1977 at age 13 (see
The ashes of little Megumi, November 18).
North Korea now can only rely on South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun's
center-left, pro-Pyongyang administration. South Korean political circles are
sharply divided into conciliatory pro-North progressive camps of the Uri Party
and antagonistic conservatives of the main opposition, the Grand National
Party. Capitalizing on these divided political circles, Kim basically appears
to have adopted a conciliatory strategy toward South Koreans by downsizing the
personal cult of ideology.
Professor Lee Young-hwa, who said Pyongyang is trying to get more Seoul
sympathizers, also pointed out that Kim once ordered his portraits alongside
those of his father Kim Il-sung to be taken from public buildings in 1978, four
years after Kim Il-sung officially nominated his son as his dynastic successor.
Lee, an associate professor of economics at Kansai University, said that at the
time Kim Jong-il was testing his people's loyalty to him: those who actually
took down his portraits as ordered were said to have been punished and sent to
gulags, or prison camps, often meaning death. This is one of the major reasons,
Lee said, that Koreans cannot take what appears to be Kim's direct order at
face value this time around. They are cautious: wanting to obey their leader
who says take down his pictures, but also aware that obedience may carry a
Moreover, concerning the removal of the glorifying - though some find it odious
- honorific "Dear Leader" from Kim's title, Lee said that also signifies Kim's
efforts at conciliation toward South Korea. "Recently North Korea has
intensified its media campaigns towards [the] South Korean audience, especially
in Hangul [the Korean alphabet] on the Internet," said Lee. Now North Korea is
coming to realize that the "Dear Leader" title inspires disgust among Korean
audiences, especially the young.
Still, Lee said he could not exclude the possibility that Kim just wants to
replace his old portraits with new ones because the old standard portraits
depict a man in his 20s. Then again, maybe he wants to test his people's
loyalty to their Dear Leader, again.
Kosuke Takahashi is a former staff writer at the Asahi Shimbun and is
currently a freelance correspondent based in Tokyo. He can be contacted atKosuke_everonward@ybb.ne.jp.
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