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.
I visited North Korea in 2019