[VIEWPOINT]Kim Jong-il is just growing upThe spokesman of the North Korean Foreign Ministry has strongly denied the foreign press reports about the removal of Kim Jong-il’s portraits from some public places such as the People’s Cultural Palace in Pyeongyang. “It is unimaginable to separate the fates of our people and the army from Great General Kim Jong-il,” the spokesman said. “It is a foolish and ridiculous attempt like trying to remove the sun from the sky.”
But a Russian diplomat in Pyeongyang and the pro-North Korean association of Korean residents in Japan offered assurances that the reports were true.
The situation remains confusing, but there is one thing clear: The portraits of North Korean leaders are important and precious objects to North Koreans, and damaging or even slightly denigrating the images could be considered a serious crime. There were incidents that suggested how important the portraits were.
In August last year, North Korean athletes and the famous North Korea cheering squad of beautiful young women participated in the Daegu Universiad Games. Naturally the young beauties from North Korea attracted the attention of the whole nation, and many South Koreans carrying welcome signs went out to meet them on the streets and at the stadiums.
While they were on their way back to their hotel, the North Korean girls suddenly stopped the bus along the roadside outside the city, and some of them rushed from the bus and climbed up trees along the road. There hung a placard welcoming the North Korean athletes and the cheer group, prepared by villagers nearby. Strangely, the young women were angry and tears rolled from the eyes of many of them. What was wrong with the welcome sign? One of the leaders screamed out, “How dare you [South Koreans] hang the portrait of the Great General Kim Jong-il over the road and leave the portrait soaked with rain?”
The villagers, knowing that the North Koreans would pass through their village, hung it to express their heartfelt welcome and affection for the North Koreans. But they didn’t know that Kim Jong-il’s portrait shouldn’t hang in the air unprotected.
In September 1972, a group of South Korean journalists were on a guided tour of Pyeongyang. They were accompanying the South Korean delegation to the first round of South-North Red Cross meetings held in Pyeongyang. Suddenly the North Korean guide stopped the vehicle and screamed out, “How dare you do this to the Great Leader’s portrait?” Someone, after reading the Rodong Sinmun, the organ of the North Korean Workers’ Party, folded it up as he would do in Seoul and left it on the seat. During the tour, it was apparent that somebody happened to sit on it. Folding a paper carrying the portrait of Kim Il Sung is a crime, and how dare you sit on it? An unthinkable crime and insult.
The tour was cancelled. The group returned to the hotel, and the journalists, at one stage, had to worry over their safe return to the South. There was no other way but for the leader of the press corps to apologize to the North Korean authority and promise not to repeat the same absurdities.
The fact that the portraits of Kim Jong-il have been removed from public places cannot be anything other than an indication that there is a significant change taking place in North Korea. But the analysis and evaluation of the foreign press may be missing the point. Many have taken it as a North Korean effort to change its bad images overseas and even as an effort, on the part of Kim Jong-il himself to lower his profile by downplaying his personality cult.
But, why should Mr. Kim try to improve his image overseas by the removal of his portraits, the symbols of his leadership, when the country’s internal solidarity and his leadership is being undermined by rapidly increasing numbers of defectors?
There is a conspiracy theory involving some dissident generals and that includes rumors about health problems Mr. Kim may be facing. But there is no indication so far where the orders to take down the portraits came from.
Then, we better see things from Mr. Kim’s position. Two things about the portraits would be unsatisfactory: One is that his portrait, made some 30 years ago when he was in his 30s, would not look like him at all now. Second, the portrait of the Great Leader, his father Kim Il Sung in his 50s, and that of the son in his 30s, hanging next to one another, symbolize the hereditary succession of power.
They are the material evidence that Mr. Kim is the unique Com-munist country leader who succeeded his father. Before he established himself as a legitimate successor, it was necessary to identify himself as the son of the Great Leader, but hereditary succession is not something about which you can boast.
The 10th anniversary of his father’s death was last July, and the “Rule under Kim Il Sung’s Teachings” should be brought to an end by now. It means that the era of the personality cult is over. Kim Jong-il now must stand on his own, instead of relying on the personality cult of his father.
* The writer is the editorial page editor of the JoongAng Daily.
by Park Sung-soo