The purpose of this review is to introduce you to the key people (Kims) you should be familiar with prior to visiting North Korea. You will certainly be well aware of them before you leave unless you close your eyes and plug your ears for the duration of your trip! Should you read my other reviews you will encounter reference to, and more details on, these people with, perhaps, monotonous regularity. Welcome to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea!
North Korea and the Kim family dynasty are inextricably linked. North Korea today is essentially the Kim family and the Kim family is North Korea.
Apart from infrequent reference to a few early kings the history of North Korea will appear as if it commenced around the beginning of the 20th century and the only people you will hear about within the DPRK will be Kim Il-sung, his first wife – Kim Jong-suk, and their descendants. When I say descendants I mean their son Kim Jong-il and their grandson and current leader Kim Jong-un. While Kim Il-sung died in 1994 he still holds the title and position of Eternal President of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. His son Kim Jong-il is Eternal General Secretary of the Workers’ Party of Korea.
Inquiries, to guides, as to the siblings/off-spring of the leaders are answered in one of two ways – either you will be told that such information is secret or it is not known. This may appear odd but the only people of importance in North Korea are the leaders – essentially, why would you be interested in anyone else? Guides will appear perplexed. The leaders are gods, great military men, song-writers, composers, writers of operas and general purveyors of advice and wisdom on absolutely everything. In the sense that absolutely everything bad and wicked in North Korea is directly attributed to the United States and other imperialistic countries, in particular Japan, everything good and wholesome is attributable to one or more of the three Kims.
The peoples’ (those whom I had contact with and saw) respect for, and allegiance to, the leaders ended up being the most enduring memory of my trips to North Korea. I will never forget our main guide’s joy and state of awestruck when Kim Jong-un entered the May Day Stadium and took his place in the VIP area for the opening ceremony of the Mass Games that I too attended in September 2018. Having never been in the presence of the Leader before our guide stood/sat there for most of the evening in a trance-like state, totally mesmerised – you could see the tears welling up in his eyes. While rather emotional for everyone, this being the first time that foreign tourists had ever been allowed to attend an event in the presence of one of the leaders, our guides state took things to a whole new level and proved, if proof was necessary, the level of love held by many North Koreans for their leaders. The guide remained in a state of ecstasy for days. Some days later when it was announced that Kim Jong-un would shortly visit and meet with the South Korean President, Moon Jae-in, in Seoul I asked the guide (very pro-reunification) if he was excited about that. He indicated that he was but was also very deeply concerned for the Leader’s personal safety in Seoul – the sort of concern a father might have for his young child.
While in North Korea you will be expected to show respect for the leaders and you will be well briefed on this topic before you get to North Korea and when you get there! There are a number of rules applicable to visitors and number one of these is that you will respect the leaders, past and present. This means among other things:
- You will not speak in derogatory terms about the leaders – you are permitted to discuss politics and have your views – don’t cross the line and offend. Very much a case of ‘if you have nothing good to say about someone, say nothing at all’, as my grandmother used to say;
- You will bow (bending at the waist with your hands by your side) and present flowers before statues, mosaics, and other representations of the leaders as appropriate – your guides will direct you in this regard and I will refer to it in other reviews. By the end of both my tours the group had admirably mastered this ability to bow (or bow – pronounced as in bow and arrow – as our Hungarian born Western guide in 2018 referred to it!);
- You will, when permitted to take photos, of statues of /monuments to the leaders
ensure that you take in the full figure – no pictures of parts of figures. If you are in the picture you will stand respectfully in front of the statues – no “v” signs, outstretched arms in imitation of Kim Il Sung, no “picking” of the leaders noses, etc; and
- In the event that you obtain a newspaper (including the weekly English language Pyongyang Times) it is almost certain that one or more of the leaders will be depicted on the front page and throughout the paper. You will not scrunch up such pictures, use them to wrap your shopping, etc and you will not fold the newspaper such that a crease is embedded on a leader’s face. As an interesting aside, in 2018 the first Pyongyang Times issued while I was in the country did not have a leader’s picture on the front – this would certainly have lowered its circulation numbers among tourists but in retrospect I now wish I had bought a copy of it as it may indeed turn out to be a collectors item given a leader’s absence from the front cover!
While the above may seem rather draconian and indeed ridiculous to some readers, in North Korea it is seen simply a matter of showing respect for the beliefs and customs of the people. You are not being asked to convert but rather show respect in the same way as you would remove your shoes before entering temples, etc in other countries.
I have somewhat digressed from the Kim’s.
There are five Kim’s that you need to be aware of as depicted in my pictures attached. You will see statues, images and other depictions of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il everywhere. These two leaders are typically displayed together, with much fewer depictions of Kim Jong-suk, especially outside the north east of the country.
Mother Kim Jong-suk, to give her her more formal title, was the daughter of poor farmers in Hoeryong County in the north-east of the country who became a revolutionary fighter, married Kim Il-sung and became Kim Jong-il’s mother. While in Hoeryong we visited her humble birthplace as we had done that of Kim Il-sung on the outskirts of Pyongyang. The KCNA (Korean Central News Agency) has variously referred to Kim Jong-suk as an “outstanding woman revolutionary” and “the sacred mother of the revolution,” citing that ‘Her marksmanship was so marvellous that even her comrades-in-arms used to guess the number of killed enemies by counting empty bullet pockets of her cartridge belt after battles.” I saw some evidence of this amazing marksmanship at the Jipsam Revolutionary Site near Chongjin, on the east coast. Mother Kim Jong-suk passed away on the 22nd September 1949 aged only 31 – officially from ‘the hardships she had endured during the years as a guerilla fighter’. Other sources suggest a failed childbirth, tuberculosis or even being shot as the real cause of her death.
A meeting between Kim Jong-un and South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in at Mt Paektu precluded our visiting Kim Jong-il’s even more humble birthplace in a then secret camp on the slopes of the mountain. For my reader who may seek to challenge me as to where Kim Jong-il was born, Russian records (generally accepted outside North Korea as factual) have it that he was born as Yury Irsenovich Kim, the son of a rank and file officer of the Red Army, Kim Il-sung, in Vyatskoye, a tiny village, in the Russian Far East. During a number of visits to Russia, and the far east in particular, Kim Jong-il never once visited Vyatskoye – presumably as he recalled no association with the place and didn’t want to play into the hands of Russian propagandists and their ‘fake news’!
Apart from news articles and similar you will not come across depictions of the current leader, Kim Jong-un. Such depictions are forbidden – he being a modest man like his father before him. Statues and other forms of public glorification of Kim Jong-il were not erected until after his death. My guide felt that given the rather tender age of the current leader it was unlikely that the people will be able to await his death prior to having some form of public acknowledgement to his great achievements erected.
The final Kim that you need to be aware of is Kimchi, which you will encounter three times a day, at breakfast, lunch and at dinner – even if you order pizza!
During my 2014 visit to North Korea we were permitted to, and indeed encouraged to, take photographs of any and all depictions of the Leaders we encountered (outside museums and similar places were photography was not generally permitted). During my 2018 visit, in many places (though not everywhere) we were forbidden from taking photographs of various paintings of the Leaders and of blown up photographs of them – generally dispensing one form of advice or the other. The only reason I can think of for this new restriction is that photographs of photographs have been republished in a manner which has been construed as degrading or poking fun at the Leaders. A rather famous website dedicated to depicting Kim Jong-il ‘looking at things’ (https://kimjongillookingatthings.tumblr.com/) comes to mind. To be fair, the good General did have an uncanny ability to look at things………..
a skill which he has clearly handed down to his son, the current leader, Kim Jong-un (http://kimjongunlookingatthings.tumblr.com/).
Clearly all of these things were put-upon the Leaders seeking their approval or blessing, as they are upon dignitaries and leaders anywhere else in the world. Only because it’s North Korea does it seem odd. Similar light-hearted sites could be set up for many today.
To summarise: –
The leaders of North Korea since 1948 have been:
Kim Il-sung – 1912 – 1994 (leader 1948 – 1994)
Kim Jong-il – 1942 – 2011 (leader 1994 – 2011)
Kim Jong-un – 1983 – (leader 2012 – )
Dates given, especially birth-dates, are open to debate.
I have referred to the various Kims as leaders – in reality they each have, and continue to have, a multiplicity of titles. For ease of reference, within the DPRK the Kims are often referred to as:
Kim Il-sung – President
Kim Jong-il – General
Kim Jong-un – Marshal
Kim Jong-suk – Mother.
My next North Korea 2018 – General Review – HERE
Return to the beginning of my North Korea 2018 – General Review – HERE