NKoreans Mythologize Kim Jong Il On His Birthday

Published February 14, 2012 8:45AM (EST)

PYONGYANG, North Korea (AP) — North Korea's grief has taken on a supernatural air: Mountains glow crimson, lakes shake, a family of bears weeps by the side of a road, hundreds of shrieking magpies hover over mourning sites.

As North Koreans prepare for what would have been the 70th birthday of late leader Kim Jong Il this week, the country's propaganda machine has gone to great lengths to build up the man who led the nation for 17 years.

As his young son and successor, Kim Jong Un, takes over the country's helm, North Korea is raising Kim Jong Il in death to a level that it refrained from — at his insistence — during his life. That contrasts with the full-fledged personality cult that surrounded his father, national founder Kim Il Sung, even before his death in 1994.

Kim Jong Il himself reportedly told officials in 1999 that he wasn't ready to accept such adulation while his promise of building an affluent society in the nation of 24 million remained unfulfilled, according to excerpts published in state media after his death in December. During Kim's reign, the country suffered from famine and nuclear tension.

But now postage stamps, new songs and commemorative coins for Kim Jong Il have been rushed into production; slogans have been carved on the sides of mountains in honor of his birthday. Kim Jong Il gold medals have been given to senior officials who served as his confidants, state media said Tuesday.

Most significantly, a monumental bronze statue of Kim Jong Il — the first of its kind in size and significance — was unveiled Tuesday in Pyongyang as part of events marking his birthday Thursday, which has been newly dubbed "Day of the Shining Star." The sculpture depicts him on horseback with his father.

"Having Kim Jong Un's father and grandfather portrayed as gods is important for a regime based on hereditary rule," said Peter Beck, a Korea specialist and The Asia Foundation's representative in Seoul, South Korea. "Legitimacy comes from his forefathers. Kim Jong Un's father and grandfather may be dead, but he embodies their essence."

This isn't quite how Pyongyang's political leaders planned for 2012 to play out.

For years, North Koreans prepared for three major milestones in 2012: Kim Jong Il's 70th birthday, the centenary of Kim Il Sung's birth and the 80th anniversary of the Korean People's Army, the backbone of Kim Jong Il's "military first" rule.

Kim Jong Il's death of a heart attack in mid-December upended those plans. Daily life ground to a halt, with many shops, bars and restaurants in Pyongyang shutting their doors during 11 days of mourning.

But as Kim Jong Un swiftly stepped into his new role, North Koreans went back to work, turning celebration plans for Kim Jong Il's Feb. 16 birthday into commemorations.

The nation remains in a semiofficial state of mourning for the man often referred to as "our fatherly general" as North Koreans observe the traditional 100 days of grief that follow the death of a family member.

Though the popular pubs that line the Taedong River are open again, displays of drunkenness are taboo and the plugs have been pulled from karaoke machines in restaurants across the city.

On Monday, workers in Pyongyang took advantage of the first respite in weeks from frigid temperatures to decorate the city streets for Kim's birthday. They pounded at frozen flower beds with picks, making space to plant row after row of plastic flowers.

No big military parades are expected at Kim Il Sung Square, the city's main plaza, but two birthday fixtures are slated to go ahead as planned: the annual exhibition of his namesake red "kimjongilia" begonias and an international figure skating competition that traditionally draws Russian and Chinese stars.

On a cold Tuesday in Pyongyang, North Korea opened the flower show dedicated to Kim Jong Il, with senior leaders bowing their heads as about 30,000 bright kimjongilia flowers decorated a heated display hall.

Calling himself the "inheritor" of his father's cause, Kim Jong Il was said to have avoided the kind of veneration he ordered for Kim Il Sung, such as the towering bronze statue of the late president that sits atop Mansu Hill, even as he ruled North Korea with an iron fist.

"Some time ago the Party History Institute submitted to me a suggestion that my statue be built marking my 60th birthday," Kim Jong Il told top Workers' Party officials in 1999. "After going over the document, I wrote on it 'Permission Not Granted,' and sent it down."

Kim's era included some of the country's toughest periods, including a famine in the 1990s that killed hundreds of thousands of people and protracted tensions over the nation's drive to build nuclear weapons. Despite a decade of warming ties with South Korea during his rule, relations with Seoul are now at their lowest point in years and the peninsula remains in a technical state of war.

"I cannot have my statue set up on the excuse of my 60th birthday when I have still many important tasks to do, like those of economic construction, improving people's standard of living and reunifying our country," Kim Jong Il said, according to excerpts published in the Pyongyang Times last month.

However, he left the matter of a statue to party officials who were said to "correctly understand" his desires and dilemma.

The campaign to mythologize Kim Jong Il began on the day state media announced his death. According to the Korean Central News Agency:

— Layers of ice at frozen Lake Chon at the base of Mount Paektu, said to be Kim's birthplace, suddenly splintered apart; a fierce snowstorm blew over the mountain and it glowed for hours "as if a red flag was unfolded over the peak to remind one of Kim Jong Il's life."

—A Manchurian crane flew around a statue of Kim Il Sung before sitting on a tree with its head drooped.

—Another bird mysteriously stiffened and died on a tree branch that stood near where Kim Jong Il had posed for a photo some years earlier.

North Koreans have also pledged to build "towers to his immortality" nationwide, and to enshrine his body in the Kumsusan Memorial Palace that houses Kim Il Sung's remains.

His birth date and the words "Peerless Patriot Gen. Kim Jong Il," reminiscent of the phrasing Kim reserved for his father, have been carved on the side of a mountain in South Phyongan Province.

In life, Kim was an enigma, even to his own people. He addressed them publicly once, decades ago, and in later years was rarely seen without dark sunglasses and often cloaked in a heavy gray parka.

But in death, his image is of beatific joy, not hardship. Dressed in his trademark khaki work suit, his smile beams from stamps, posters and portraits.


Klug reported from Seoul, South Korea. Associated Press writer Sam Kim also contributed to this report from Seoul. Follow Korea bureau chief Jean H. Lee at twitter.com/newsjean and Foster Klug at twitter.com/APklug.

By Salon Staff

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