North Korea’s New Must-Have Accessory: The Kim Jong-un Pin


When North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-un, met with his ruling Workers’ Party in the past week, he had some good news. The country, which has long struggled with hunger, was expecting a “fairly good” harvest this year, he reported, and had recently signed a mutual defense treaty with Russia.

The bigger news, though, might be what officials were wearing at the meeting in Pyongyang, the capital: chest pins bearing Mr. Kim’s image, according to photos released through state media.

Mr. Kim’s family has led North Korea since its founding in 1948 and has long indoctrinated its people to worship the Kims like godlike figures. Every home and office building has portraits of Mr. Kim’s grandfather, Kim Il-sung, and his father, Kim Jong-il, hanging on walls. Every North Korean is required to wear a pin bearing the image of either of the two senior Kims or a double-image badge on their chest.

By introducing a pin of his own image, Mr. Kim is elevating his idolization and the personality cult surrounding him to match the level reserved, until now, only for his grandfather, who ruled from 1948 until his death in 1994, and his father, who succeeded him and ruled until 2011, according to South Korean officials and analysts. Its introduction means that North Koreans now have three pins and images to choose from for wearing.

If tradition follows, the image of the latest leader — now Kim Jong-un’s — will eventually become the most common choice.

“This is part of Kim Jong-un’s efforts to establish his own independent image as leader,” Kim Inae, a deputy spokeswoman for the South Korean government’s Unification Ministry, said on Monday.

North Korea introduced the Kim Il-sung badges in 1970 after the country’s founder purged all his domestic competitors to establish a monolithic rule. Kim Il-sung then was 58 years old. Kim Jong-il’s pin was introduced in 1992, when he was 50. By then, he had cemented his status as heir and was running the country together with his ailing father.

The lapel badges have since become the most recognizable feature of the personality cult. But they began losing their appeal among ordinary North Koreans, especially after a famine in the 1990s that killed millions. Once treated like a sacred object by North Koreans, they were smuggled out to China and sold as cheap tourist souvenirs near the border with North Korea. Defectors from North Korea called them “badges of slavery.”

Ms. Kim, of the Unification Ministry, linked the introduction of the new Kim Jong-un pin to Mr. Kim’s efforts to unify the country around his leadership as it faces economic difficulties and the perceived threat of outside influences, including K-pop entertainment from its rival, South Korea.

When he came to power after the death of his father in 2011, Mr. Kim moved to quickly establish a totalitarian leadership through what South Korean officials and analysts have called a “reign of terror.” Anyone who was seen as posing a challenge to his authority disappeared or was executed or assassinated.

But he has struggled to deliver on his family’s promise to North Korea’s long-suffering people: to build a “strong and prosperous country” where people would no longer have to tighten their belts because of food shortages or fear an invasion from the United States.

Mr. Kim has struggled on the economic front, unable to persuade Washington to lift sanctions imposed on his country for its nuclear weapons development. His credentials among his people rested largely on his carefully choreographed image as a leader who has finally made North Korea a nuclear weapons state.

Under Mr. Kim, North Korea has conducted four underground nuclear tests and developed a fleet of missiles, including long-range rockets able to reach the continental United States. On Monday, the last day of the Workers’ Party meeting, the country said it tested a new ballistic missile capable of carrying a “super-large warhead.”

Despite such military achievements, Mr. Kim’s hold on power has depended on reinvigorating the personality cult and in keeping North Koreans away from outside news.

Mr. Kim has tried to reinvent his family’s rule, casting himself as a young, energetic and even transformative leader. He has emphasized his family lineage by dressing like his grandfather, but has also appeared to distance himself from his forebears in an effort to move out of their long shadows and show that he is a worthy leader in his own right.

This year, he abandoned a longtime goal, set by his grandfather, of reunifying with the South and called Seoul an enemy that must be subjugated, if necessary, through a nuclear war. North Korea did not highlight Kim Il-sung’s April 15 birthday this year as much as it used to. State propagandists have begun praising Mr. Kim the way they used to eulogize his father and grandfather, calling him “the Sun” of the Korean people and the “father” of all Koreans, and have begun distributing portraits of him to be hung in government buildings and homes.

The distribution of the lapel pin reflected Mr. Kim’s growing confidence in his one-man dictatorship, analysts said.

“It makes it official that he is now on the same echelon with his forebears, Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il,” said Yang Moo-jin, president of the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul.



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