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The 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 nuclear crisis.

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 Chongryon-affiliated schools.

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 years.

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 price.

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 at

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Nov 20, 2004
Asia Times Online Community

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