Kim Jong-un makes rare plea for some genuineness

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Kim Jong-un makes rare plea for some genuineness

North Korea appears to be dialing down the personality cult surrounding leader Kim Jong-un in a slight but significant departure from the usual adulatory coverage of him by its state media.

Kim Jong-un’s appointment as a deputy in the country’s rubber stamp legislature - the Supreme People’s Assembly - was noticeably downplayed in the coverage of North Korea’s legislative elections Monday by leading state newspaper the Rodong Sinmun.

While it is no surprise that the country’s supreme leader won a seat on its legislature, the North rarely misses an opportunity like this to widely broadcast Kim’s authority to a domestic audience. When North Korea held its last legislative elections in 2014, the country’s propaganda officials launched a massive campaign to advertise Kim’s political activities.

The relaxing of such exaltation may have something to do with a striking point made by Kim himself in a letter addressed to the country’s propagandists last Thursday, in which he called on them to portray him in a more approachable, down-to-earth image.

“If the leader’s revolutionary activities and characteristics are mystified for the sake of emphasizing his greatness, then the truth will be obscured,” the letter read. Only when the people are “enthralled with the leader by camaraderie and in a humanly way” can “absolute loyalty emerge.”

An editorial in the Rodong Sinmun on Friday also acknowledged for the first time that Kim’s summit with U.S. President Donald Trump in Hanoi, Vietnam, ended without any agreement, despite the fact that Kim had traveled over 120 hours to and fro to reach a deal with the United States on denuclearization and the crippling sanctions placed on the North.

The cults of personality of Kim Jong-un, his father, Kim Jong-il, and grandfather, Kim Il Sung, are ubiquitous in North Korea, where the two most important holidays are the elder Kims’ birthdays and statues of the former leaders are numerous.

Hwang Jang-yop, the highest level defector from the North and the architect of its Juche ideology, said Kim Il Sung’s line of thought dominates the country’s ideological foundation, and that any dissenters were eliminated throughout the decades.

Given that the near-deification of his family remains the cornerstone of Kim Jong-un’s legitimacy as the country’s ruler, as many academics point out, there is little chance that such portrayals will change beyond a shift in tone in line with Kim’s recent orders.

Thae Yong-ho, the North’s former acting ambassador to the United Kingdom who defected to the South three years ago, wrote on his blog on Monday that the recent shifts in official coverage merely correspond to a policy consistently espoused by Kim Jong-un since his rise to power in 2012, which included orders to remove obsequious language in the ruling party’s regulations.

According to Thae, the state media was forced to report on the summit’s failure this week because the news had already rapidly proliferated among average citizens.

“It is related to the fact that [the regime] could not ignore the reality that almost 100,000 people with smartphones, including North Korean laborers working abroad, have access to news of the world,” he wrote.

BY SHIM KYU-SEOK, BAEK MIN-JEONG [shim.kyuseok@joongang.co.kr]

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