When Kim Il Sung, President of North Korea, died in 1994, the role of Leader passed to his son, Kim Jong Il, but the title of President did not. Instead, Kim Il Sung was declared ‘Eternal President’ of the nation, and the presidential office was written out of the constitution.
To ensure that his father lived on in the hearts and memories of the people, Kim Jong Il set about establishing very visible reminders in every village, town and city in the country. These Eternal Life monuments are slim stone columns inscribed with the words: ‘Great Leader Comrade Kim Il Sung is with us for eternity’.
The statues of the Great Leaders
The larger towns and cities were further blessed, with a statue of the Great Leader; although indeed, Kim Il Sung himself had even before his death commissioned some of these statues. The earliest appeared in 1949. It was located at the Mangyongdae Revolutionary School, an orphanage for the children of fallen revolutionaries which later developed into a military boarding school. But it was not until the 1960s that the statues started to proliferate across the country, in an effort to firmly establish the cult of personality seen as central to the DPRK’s policy of self-reliance – the Juche idea.
With Kim Il Sung’s death came more of these statues, erected according to the strict guidelines established by his son. He declared that under no circumstances should a statue be in the shade. They were to be placed on top of a natural or artificial hill, shining under the bright rays of the sun.
Unlike his father, the Dear Leader Kim Jong Il didn’t deem it necessary to erect statues of himself. It was only after his death, in 2011, that his successor, Kim Jong Un, embarked on a programme of adding his father’s statue to that of his grandfather at many of the sites across the country. This was of necessity a slow process; each huge statue takes time to produce at the Mansudae Art Studio, a dedicated state-run facility for the creation of all the country’s great monuments. Incidentally, the studio also exports monuments abroad … but I digress.
At the same time, many of the statues of Kim Il Sung were redesigned. In the earlier versions he was usually depicted with a stern expression, wearing a Mao-style suit or military uniform. After his death, the standard depiction showed him with a broad smile and a softer expression, as befitting the father of the nation, and of his people. From 2012 onwards many of the earlier statues were remade to conform to this new image of the benevolent founding father.
As North Koreans go about their daily lives, this benevolent smile, and the jovial face of Kim Jong Il, look down on them. Not just from the statues but from the giant mosaics; from huge photographs on the front of all public buildings; on the walls of every room within those buildings (classrooms, offices, shops, factories); and even in their own homes, where it is compulsory to have at least one pair of photos – and to look after them well.
Today the huge statues dominate most large towns and cities, and are crucial to all the significant occasions in the people’s lives. Public holidays, weddings, birthdays; all are celebrated with a visit to the Leaders to bow and lay flowers at their feet.
In Chongjin we watched as a small girl, two years old, was taken by her proud parents for her first visit to pay respect to the Leaders, captured on video. All went well until she had placed the single flower she carried at their feet. As her parents led her away she started to scream; she clearly hadn’t realised that she would be expected to leave the flower behind. She will learn …
Visiting the statues
Visiting tourists are encouraged – no, expected – to also pay their respects. On our 2019 tour we visited several of the monuments, first among them the statues on Mansudae Hill. These statues are twenty metres high and appear even taller, thanks to the stone plinth on which they stand, and the fact that you approach them from below. Behind them is the building of the Korean Revolution Museum, on which is a mosaic mural of the Korean sacred mountain, Mount Paektu.
We had come here expecting to be asked to buy flowers to lay at their feet; and although our guide said that not all of us in our group needed to do so (as long as we had several bouquets between us), Chris and I decided to buy some from the conveniently situated (i.e. right next to where our bus had parked) small booth.
We approached the statues as a group. All of us who had flowers laid them; then we lined up in front of the statues and bowed in unison when prompted by our guide. After that she told us a little about the statues before we were free to take some photos, obeying the rules not to zoom in on the statues, not to cut off any part, not to make silly poses in front of them.
This ritual, minus the flowers, was repeated at several other sites during our tour – Chongjin, Hamhung, Wonsan. Of course North Koreans, including our guide, don’t expect visitors to have the same deep devotion to the Eternal Leaders that many of them genuinely have, and that all of them are required to demonstrate. But they do demand that you show respect – respect for the Leaders and respect for their customs.
I don’t find that an unreasonable expectation – do you?
S is for statues, of course, so this is my contribution to the Lens-Artists Photo Challenge #136: Subjects Starting with the Letter–S
I visited North Korea in 2019. Some of these photos have already appeared elsewhere in my blog but I am including them here to bring all my ‘statue’ images together in one place!