Two large mosaics with portraits of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il
Culture & tradition,  Dark tourism,  DPRK,  History,  Travel galleries

Gallery: mosaic portraits of a dynasty

The people of North Korea are not so very different from those of every other country. Like people the world over they want to feel safe, to be in good health, to have the basic necessities of life. If they have children, they want the same for them, and they want them to thrive and do well in their lives.

But one thing the country and its people don’t have, that many others do, is a prevailing religion. Driving around you see virtually no mosques, churches, temples, shrines or synagogues. However every town and village, however small, has its Immortality or Eternal Life Tower to remind the people of the immortality of Kim Il Sung, and of his son, Kim Jong Il. And each has at least one monument to, or image of, the Great Leaders.

Devotion to the Leaders is not a religion, of course. It doesn’t offer its followers the certainty of an after-life, for instance, and there are no gods in the sense that we might understand the term. But it is a belief system nevertheless, and it provides its believers with many of the same comforts and certainties that a religion might do.

North Koreans are confident that the Leaders have always looked after their people and protected them. And that they continue to do so today; not only the current leader, Kim Jong Un, but also the two previous ones. Firstly the Great Leader and President Kim Il Sung who (according to the somewhat distorted North Korean version of history promulgated here) led the revolution that freed the people from the tyranny of Japanese occupation and repelled the threat of the US during the Korean War. And secondly the Dear Leader, Chairman Kim Jong Il, who reinforced the spirit of the revolution and furthered the country’s self-reliance and independence. These two are considered Eternal Leaders who are today still watching over the people. Perhaps for them at least there is a belief in an after-life?

As with a religion, it behoves its believers to show their gratitude to those who watch over and protect them, and to show them proper reverence. Hence the images and statues everywhere; the pin badges worn close to the heart (obligatory for everyone over sixteen); the many monuments celebrating the achievements of Kim Il Sung in particular.

There are photos, statues, paintings and mosaics: thousands, or more probably millions of images, if you count those indoors in workplaces, shops, schools, etc. Every home will have as a minimum a pair of smiling Leaders looking down on the family as they go about their daily lives.

But it was the mosaics that made the strongest impression on me. Each one tells a story about the lives of the Great Leaders, their exploits and achievements, and places them in the context of some of the landscapes of the DPRK.

  • Huge mosaic of man giving a speech surrounded by crowd
  • Mosaic of Kim Il Sung and happy children
  • Huge mosaic of two men on a mountain top
  • Man looking at mosaic of building project
  • Mosaic with family in the snow
  • Large mosaic of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il with people bringing flowers
  • Mosaic of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il on mountain top
  • People cycling past large mosaic of young woman
  • Large mosaic of snow scene with hut
  • Mosaic of family in army uniform in a snowy forest
  • People cycling past large mosaic with three figures
  • Man cycling past huge mosaic with rural scenes
  • People gardening on hill with large mosaic of Kim Il Sung
  • Large mosaic on a hill
  • Mosaic of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il at the airport

I visited North Korea in 2019

11 Comments

  • wetanddustyroads

    Yes, I must agree with you, the mosaics are quite something. “Wearing a pin badge close to the heart when you’re over sixteen” … wow, that is … eeh well, could I say fascinating 👀.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Yes, the requirement to wear those badges isn’t something we would readily accept, but they take it for granted I guess. Even if they secretly question the regime (and I think relatively few do), they know they must show love for the Great Leaders.

  • TheRamblingWombat

    A great summary Sarah and you have managed to capture one mural that I have not seen somewhere on my own travels. …. interestingly the one with the ox, so, after all, it may be ok to take photos of oxen in NK!

  • katieshevlin62gmailcom

    Very interesting Sarah as always. I wonder how those who defect learn that escape is possible in such a society. I mean they can’t speak openly about it to each other. I’ve read a lot about those who left but never found out how they learned it was an option. Or did they just decide to take a chance? Seems that many people are ‘pretending’ to go along with the dear leaders parable to survive.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      ‘Nothing to Envy’ is an interesting read Katie, if you haven’t already come across it. It’s based on accounts by defectors, although you have to bear in mind that they came from a particular area, around Chongjin, which suffered especially badly during the 1990s. To be honest, I think relatively few people there question what you call the ‘parable’ – you don’t know what you don’t know, after all! And those that know but go along with it will see it as a trade-off – not just for survival but for a relatively calm and protected life. They work hard and don’t have the access to the wide range of activities and culture that we have, but they have a degree of security (free housing, education, some sort of job albeit often dull and menial, healthcare). Maybe for many those concrete positives are worth more than the notions of freedom of expression and choice that we value?

      • thebeerwanderer

        I remember your going there but it was never interested in it for some odd reason. In light how how things are developing in the “free” world, now it seems more interesting and a great point about the trade-offs of what we deem as important and what perhaps really is.

      • katieshevlin62gmailcom

        Yeah I’ve got that book Sarah I must read it again to remind myself what the defectors say. I also read that they get access to movie DVD’s on the black market so know more about the outside world as time goes on. It’s more the ‘who knows’ against those ‘who don’t know’ I was thinking about and why the difference. Hopefully Nothing to Envy will remind me.

Do let me know what you think - I'd love to hear from you

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