Large statues of North Korean Leaders with visiting locals
Culture & tradition,  Dark tourism,  DPRK,  History,  Lens-Artists,  Travel galleries

Gallery: statues of the Great Leaders

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’.

Rustic buildings and stone column
Eternal Life tower in a village near the DMZ
Stone tower with mosaics of North Korean Leaders
Eternal Life tower on a collective farm

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.

Paying respect

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 …

Large statues of North Korean Leaders with family approaching
In Chongjin – a toddler’s first visit to lay flowers

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!

45 Comments

  • Easymalc

    This post gets underneath the skin of the history of these monuments and once again you’ve done a fantastic job Sarah. Let’s just hope that future generations when they fall out of love with their previous illustrious leaders (as they will surely do) decide to destroy these fabulous monuments.

  • Anonymous

    Brilliant post Sarah and informative too. Much of North Korea is shrouded in mystery so it is fascinating to read about it . You did a super job!

  • Marsha

    Sarah, what an unusual post because like many of your readers, it is not a place that most of us ever expect or desire to go. You sound fearless and respectful at the same time. Obviously you came back with no issues. Fascinating, stimulating and serendipitous all at the same time. 🙂

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thank you Marsha 🙂 And no, definitely no issues! As I explained in my first post about this trip (https://www.toonsarah-travels.blog/why-go-to-north-korea/) a trip here really is safer than many others, as long as you’re willing to follow the rules, because you are accompanied at all times. There’s no risk of straying anywhere you shouldn’t be by accident, for instance. Anyone who gets into trouble on a visit here (and they are rare) does so very deliberately I’m afraid.

      • Marsha

        Thanks for sharing. I enjoy when people send me links to something I might really enjoy reading. I enjoyed reading both the well-written post and the comments. I left you my thoughts as well and tweeted it. Great post! 🙂

  • pattimoed

    Fascinating, Sarah. I think you’re right. It’s important to honor the customs and guidelines–no matter what country we’re visiting. I am very conscious of that when we travel. Your perspective on visiting NK is so eye-opening. The cult of the leader is still evident in places like Italy, where Mussolini’s hometown has a museum honoring him. I didn’t go to Predappio on our last visit, but I’m intrigued, for sure!

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thank you Patti 🙂 I didn’t know about that Mussolini museum – interesting!

      I’m finding myself posting quite a bit about that NK visit because it is something very different from most people’s travel experiences – but it can provoke a mix of reactions 😉

        • Sarah Wilkie

          They are a fascinating breed, aren’t they? What interests me about the Kims is that Kim Il Sung was set up by the Soviets to serve as a puppet leader. They can’t have anticipated that he would seize on the opportunity in the way he did nor that the DPRK would become anything other than a sort of satellite Soviet state. I learned so much about their history while travelling there and it really helps to understand why the country is as it is – it’s not all black and white, as things rarely are.

  • Leya

    Interesting, but not my kind of travel. My husband went to a big anniversary/military parade in 2012 in North Korea. Like you, he is fascinated by different regimes, communities, countries and people. I could never visit North Korea, I have no desire to go to countries with total dictatorships like NK. My husband took many photos, and was stopped at the border, but had the SD cards well hidden. I can understand your fascination, but the chilling feeling such countries give me is just too much. I heard many stories from my husband when he came back, and he is closely following everything about NK. I think he also has read every book written about it and from people who have escaped.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      I understand it’s not for everyone Leya. I’m interested to hear about your husband’s experiences, especially that he attended a big military parade. We were told those are strictly off limits to foreigners – even most locals don’t get to go, only those with the highest social standing!

      I was much more careful about the photos I took and stuck to the rules 99% of the time (I do have one or two photos that might have bent them a bit!). I understand though that those rules are much more relaxed now than they would have been in 2012. A friend of mine has been twice, in 2014 and 2018 (it was his 2014 visit that inspired us to go) and he saw a noticeable relaxation. We did have one guy in our group who continuously pushed the boundaries and that caused some unpleasant friction with our guide. At one point she took his camera (on the pretext of showing it to someone else) and went through and deleted many shots, but I know he’d already backed them up. The rest of us all felt he was being unreasonable, as you can get loads of good shots without having to break the rules and doing so puts our guide’s job at risk. It could even affect her and her family for several generations if she were to be blamed. We have no idea if he had any problems on leaving as he stayed on an extra couple of days and none of us got friendly enough with him to keep in touch!

      • Leya

        I’ll ask him to write something if you want. Or just about the parade maybe. And as I remembered it I think many of those with “bigger” cameras were checked and photos were deleted. I think they were not allowed to photograph ordinary people’s lives or military people.

        • Sarah Wilkie

          That would be interesting – I’d love to compare notes. We weren’t allowed to photograph any military, which is pretty normal practice everywhere, but it’s more complicated there because the army do a lot of the construction work. So when we drove through an area where a new resort was being developed, which would have been interesting to photograph and which you’d think they’d be proud of, it was ‘cameras down’! We also couldn’t photograph any signs of poverty – they’re embarrassed about that sort of thing and think it shows the country in a bad light. Photos of ox carts or oxen ploughing were strictly forbidden – we couldn’t convince our guide that countries all over Asia use similar methods and it wouldn’t reflect badly! But plenty of ordinary people were happy to be photographed, as you can see from the wedding shots I’ve included.

          You and your husband might be interested in my https://www.toonsarah-travels.blog/why-go-to-north-korea/ post which gives some background to our trip, or the other posts I’ve done, archived here: https://www.toonsarah-travels.blog/category/destinations/asia/dprk/. I’d love to hear how my experiences compare with his some years before!

  • Tina Schell

    What an interesting post Sarah. Like I.J. I think I would pass on a visit but I’m sure many there feel the same way about the U.S., even if they were allowed by their leaders to come here. The world is made up of so many cultures – some may seem unreasonable to us, but who are we to judge?

    • Sarah Wilkie

      I think it’s fair enough to make some judgements of the regime here Tina (as elsewhere too) but not to extend that to the ‘ordinary’ people. Even more than in most places, they have little choice about how and where they live, but they want similar things out of life that people do everywhere. Connecting with them through a visit is probably the only means we have to give just a few of them a slightly more balanced view of the world – at least to demonstrate that there are other people out there not so dissimilar to themselves.

  • margaret21

    I don’t remember statues of public figures being ‘a thing’ in South Korea, though of course they have very different recent histories. And yes, of course if I’d been on that statue tour I’d have respected local customs, but maybe not to the extent of buying flowers.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      I would imagine that in this respect North and South are very different! This is all linked to the personality cult around the Kims, which is designed to ensure total and unquestioning commitment from the people. You wouldn’t see (or need) this in a democracy.

      In retrospect I’m not sure now why we bought the flowers! We’d gone there thinking we would have to, as I’d read it was expected of all visitors, but our guide said that just a few in the group needed to do so. We volunteered, and I think in my head (and my husband’s, as he actually did the buying) was a sense that we wanted to have the full experience 🙂

  • wetanddustyroads

    So many statues … I wonder if that is seen anywhere else in the world? It was very interesting to read about the guidelines of how visitors are supposed to take photo’s of these statues 👀👀.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      I think maybe nowhere else nowadays, but in the past there was the proliferation of Lenin statues across the Soviet Union and Eastern Bloc countries. The guidelines are there because they are concerned people will make a joke out of the statues which they would see as hugely disrespectful. In a similar way, if Kim Jong Un appears on the front of the English language Pyongyang Times (as he does in every edition I suspect), you aren’t supposed to fold the paper in such a way that his face is creased or disfigured 🙂

        • Sarah Wilkie

          Probably both. They are brought up from tiny children to believe that the country owes everything to Kim Il Sung, who ‘liberated’ them from Japanese rule (history as told there omits the role of the Soviet Union and US in liberating the region!) and who lead the country to victory (another re-telling of history!) in the Korean War. He and his son and grandson have built themselves up almost as demi-gods – they can do no wrong and they are experts in everything! Of course there must be some among the people, especially those few who have had contact with the west, who have some doubts about the Kims’ infallibility, but they would have to keep those to themselves and go along with the expected norms.

          As a visitor to the country you are expected to also go along with them to some degree and show respect, even while it is of course understood that you won’t have the same level of devotion as the locals.

          I don’t normally ‘self-promote’ but you might find it interesting to read some of my other posts about our visit. If so, choose Destinations/Asia/DPRK from the menu at the top – and let me know what you think!

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

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