Dear Leader. Supreme Leader. Our Father. Lodestar of the 21st century. North Korea's state propaganda masters have fashioned a variety of worshipful names for the nation's diminutive, 70-year-old dictator, Kim Jong Il.
North Koreans are taught to worship Kim as a god, just as they worshiped his father Kim Il Sung — known as the Great Leader and who, according to the North Korean constitution, remains the Eternal President. As one longtime observer noted, “Kim Il-sung appropriated Christian imagery and dogma for the purpose of self-promotion…. If Kim Il-sung was God, then Kim Jong-il was the son of God.” The pervasive cult of personality with religious overtones has helped both the father and son rule the nation with iron fists.
To further burnish Kim Jong Il's image, the state's propaganda machine bombards the nation's 24 million citizens with photos, television and radio stories, plays, operas and skits about his remarkable, if not superhuman, accomplishments, such as:
He can alter the weather simply through the power of thought;
In 1994, the first (and last) time he played golf, he shot a 38-under par on the country's lone golf course, including 11 holes-in-one;
When he was born in 1941, a new star appeared in the sky;
He learned to walk at just three weeks and talked at eight weeks and
He wrote 1,500 books while studying at Kim Il Sung University and six operas in two years, “all of which are better than any in the history of music,” according to his official biography.
Statues, pictures and shrines to the Kims are everywhere in the so-called Hermit Kingdom. “Wherever one goes in North Korea it is virtually impossible to avoid the unblinking stare of The Great Leader or The Dear Leader,” noted a Western reporter. “Their statues stand watch over the people, and their faces are on the currency, portraits are in every carriage of Pyongyang's underground system, on the lapel pins every citizen wears and enormous street hoardings,” or billboards.
Cultivating this cult of personality costs a fortune. According to a 2007 study, Kim-centered propaganda expenditures doubled between 1990 and 2004, rising from 19 percent of the North's budget to at least 38.5 percent. That cost covers everything from maintaining more than 30,000 Kim monuments and 40,000 research institutes to numerous events held to worship Kim and his father.
North Korean women leave a memorial dedicated to the “Eternal Leader” — the nation's founder, Kim Il Sung — after paying their respects in Pyongyang on Feb. 26, 2008. North Korea's first president remains its eternal head of state, although his son, Kim Jong Il, is called the “Dear Leader.” (AFP/Getty Images/Mark Ralston)
North Koreans learn to deify the leader, because speaking ill of the regime can result in a prison sentence. According to the U.S. State Department, one citizen was sent to prison camp for accidentally sitting on a newspaper that included a picture of Kim Jong Il.
Kim's son Kim Jong Un apparently is being groomed to succeed his father, judging from the recent onslaught of propaganda that introduced the nation to the chubby 28- or 29-year-old four-star general. According to a government textbook for military officials, “Anyone who meets him is fascinated by him…. [He is] a military talent who has genius, wisdom and policy.” More than 10 million copies of his portrait were reportedly printed for distribution to the public. (Already, every home by law must contain a picture of the two elder Kims.)
South Korea, which long has planned for the day the two countries will be reunified, has drawn up — aided by North Korean defectors — a list of targets to destroy to purge the vestiges of the Kim personality cult. The list includes 40,000 works of calligraphy of the Kims' writings, which are engraved on mountainsides and painted on propaganda posters, and more than 35,000 statues and monuments of the two leaders. The statues will be pulled down and smashed, suffering the same fate as Lenin's statues after the collapse of the Soviet Union and Saddam Hussein's after the invasion of Iraq in 2003.
Meanwhile, as the state spends more and more money burnishing the image of the two Kims, North Koreans remain too terrified to complain about their leaders or their own deplorable living conditions. “Northerners may hate Kim, but they have to act like they're reading from the same sheet of music,” says Chung Min Lee, dean of the Graduate School of International Studies at Yonsei University in Seoul. “Until the regime falls, they have little choice.”
— Robert Kiener