Since his accession to power in 2012, Kim Jong-un has come to personify North Korea in the eyes of the outside world. An object of derision as much as fear, he has nevertheless succeeded in strengthening his grip on the country, purging potential rivals and strengthening the personality cult around himself and his predecessors. This process is set to culminate at the Seventh Congress of the Korean Workers’ Party, the first such congress in over thirty-five years, where Kim is widely expected to proclaim the dawn of a new era under his leadership.
In Our Supreme Leader, Paul French explores the ways in which the North Korean regime has evolved under Kim’s direction, with a detailed analysis of the history and development of its infamous cult of The Great Leader. Featuring the first in-depth assessment of the Seventh Congress and its significance within North Korea, French also offers fresh insights into the inner workings of this secretive regime, as well as looking ahead to its likely future direction.
About the Author
Paul French is a British-born author and journalist living in Shanghai. As a leading expert on North Korea and east Asia, he has written extensively on the history, politics, and current affairs of the region. His previous books include North Korea: State of Paranoia (Zed Books, 2014) and the best-selling Midnight in Peking (2011), for which he received an Edgar award.
Paul French has been based in Shanghai for many years as Chief China Representative of research and analysis consultancy Access Asia. He is a regular commentator of China and North East Asia on the international media. He is the author of a number of previous books including the well received North Korea The Paranoid Pensinsula for Zed Books. Sam Chambers has lived in China for a decade and his career as a travel and transport writer has taken him to the four corners of the country. He has co-authored a number of books including a travel guide to Yunnan and Hunan provinces as well as a transportation guide to the Yangtze. Writing for a variety of titles including the Sunday Times and the Royal Geographic Society Chambers follows very closely the day-to-day needs and demands of this rapidly evolving nation. After living in Hong Kong for many years he is now based in the northeastern city of Dalian.
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Our Supreme Leader
The Making of Kim Jong-un
By Paul French
Zed Books LtdCopyright © 2016 Paul French
All rights reserved.
Friday 1 January, Juche 105 (2016) – The Kumsusan Palace of the Sun, Pyongyang
Even those dictators subject to the most expertly crafted and long-lived of personality cults have so far proved unable to finally cheat death. However, like their ideologies, they do linger, in the form of embalmed legacies of legitimacy for their successors. Lenin remains in his tomb adjacent to the Kremlin; Mao in his mausoleum on Tiananmen Square; Ho Chi Minh in a tomb in Hanoi's Ba Dinh Square. None are likely to be removed and buried anytime soon. Few other world leaders have been subject to the practice of eternal embalming, only Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines, Eva Perón in Argentina (despite rumours that several of her fingers have dropped off!), and, most recently, Hugo Chávez in Venezuela have been preserved and displayed. Of course, the political winds change. The little remembered Klement Gottwald, a president of socialist-era Czechoslovakia, embalmed in 1953, was removed and buried several years later due to political changes and, it was admitted, the severe deterioration of his corpse. Josef Stalin's embalmed body lay close to Lenin's for a decade after his death, but was hastily interred in the 1960s during the campaign by Khrushchev to crush the extremes of the personality cult around the Great Marshal.
The idea of embalming and laying in state in perpetuity has been essentially to present a physical embodiment of the continuance of a leader's legacy, the final act in their carefully crafted cult of personality. Entombed and on display, they become lasting reminders of their life's work and its supposed permanence. The tradition that once encompassed the likes of various Egyptian pharaohs, Genghis Khan, Tamerlane and the Qin Dynasty in Xian with their terracotta warriors is now almost overwhelmingly the preserve of communist states with advanced scientific methods of corpse preservation. The mausoleums of communist leaders serve – as do the pyramids, tombs and displayed bones and cloth fragments of Christian saints – to show their continuance.
North Korea is unique in having embalmed both its previous leaders – Kim Il-sung, and his son and heir Kim Jong-il. So perhaps, when seeking to try to understand how the personality cult around the current leader of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (North Korea, or DPRK), Kim Jong-un, is being shaped and will affect the secretive nation, a trip to the Kumsusan Palace of the Sun in Pyongyang is the place to start.
The palace lies in the north-east of the North Korean capital. It is an extremely large building that dwarfs the mausoleums of Lenin, Mao or Ho Chi Minh quite considerably. It is bordered on two sides by a moat, while a 500-metre-long square stretches out from the entrance. Despite its sarcophagus-like appearance, the Kumsusan Palace was originally built, in 1976, as Kim Il-sung's official residence. When Kim died in 1994, his son and successor Kim Jong-il had the residence converted into a mausoleum at a reported cost of at least US$100 million (some sources have quoted figures as high as US$900 million for the refit). Kim Il-sung, now the DPRK's Eternal President, lies in a clear glass sarcophagus. His head rests upon a traditional Korean-style pillow and his embalmed corpse is covered by the flag of the Workers' Party of Korea (WPK). After his death in 2011, Kim Jong-il was similarly embalmed, placed in an identical glass case, with the same Korean-style pillow supporting his head and with a red flag draped across his body. Russian scientists, whose sole job is monitoring and maintaining Lenin's corpse in Moscow, performed both embalmings. For Kim Jong-il, they reportedly added some overhead filtered lights to maintain a constant rosy glow on his face. Surrounding the two sarcophagi are velvet ropes to prevent anyone getting too close and soldiers permanently on guard with bayonets fixed.
All visitors to the Kumsusan Palace must deposit their personal belongings in a cloakroom. They then enter the inner sanctums of the palace on long travellators, similar to those you find in airports to transport you between terminals. The first stop is a room with marble statues of the two Kims, father and son, with a 3-D representation of them on Korea's sacred Mount Paektu covering one wall. The second room features an audiovisual display of the mass mourning in Pyongyang on the day, in July 1994, when Kim Il-sung died alongside life-size busts of ordinary North Koreans grieving. After passing a dust-blowing machine, which prevents any outside contamination of the so-called Hall of Immortality, visitors encounter the sarcophagi. Red rope barriers surround both glass cases; visitors enter in groups of four and are expected to bow before the embalmed leaders. The mood is sombre while the message is obvious. These are the men who have led the Democratic People's Republic of Korea so far and their legacy and ideology will continue to do so. The experience is one that combines political fealty, patriotic respect and Confucian filial piety writ large. The embalmed bodies are perhaps a blunt message to visitors – we're here, we're staying and our legacy continues outside.
Kim Jong-un has visited the Kumsusan Palace on a number of known occasions, the most recent being on 1 January 2016 – Juche 105 in the North Korean calendar, as the years now start from 1912, the year of Kim Il-sung's birth (and, coincidentally, he was born on the same day, 15 April, that the Titanic sank). On New Year's Day, Kim placed his own personal floral tribute to his father and grandfather in the Hall of Immortality alongside those from the Central Committee and the Central Military Commission of the WPK and the National Defence Commission of the DPRK. According to the official (North) Korean Central News Agency, KCNA, Kim Jong-un paid, 'New Year greetings to Kim Jong-il in the humble reverence'. Despite the pomp and circumstance of the occasion, the much-photographed display of filial piety and the obvious symbolism of continuity from grandfather to son and now grandson, he must have paused for thought. The visit and the attendant publicity were clearly part of the ongoing campaign to build a new cult of personality around the young leader, one that both continues his ancestor's nation building and defines his own style of leadership and ultimately his legacy. That does not, so far, appear to be quite as unproblematic as it was for his grandfather and father. Yet, creating that personality cult is essential to Kim Jong-un and the entire regime survival strategy of the DPRK. Breaking a cult tradition – as Khrushchev did after Stalin's death (the 'De-Stalinisation' programme) or as Deng Xiaoping was able to do after Mao's demise (the famous 70 per cent good/30 per cent bad formula) – is not on the current political agenda in North Korea. Criticism of the Great Leader or the Supreme Leader is not possible at the moment and this shibboleth shows no signs of changing. Just how Kim Jong-un plans to raise his own stature and create his own cult of personality to the high bar achieved by his father and grandfather is the subject of this short book. Whether he will achieve an equally vaunted status and ultimately join them in the Kumsusan Palace (there is certainly room) is a question that still does not have a definitive answer ... even after his five years of service as Supreme Leader of the DPRK.
Friday 6 May, Juche 105 (2016) – The April 25 House of Culture, Pyongyang
There was some surprise in October 2015 when KCNA announced that North Korea was to convene the Seventh Congress of the Workers' Party of Korea. Most Pyongyang-watchers had, frankly, forgotten about congresses and assumed that the WPK had simply dispensed with them as a waste of time. Previous ones – and the last had been way back in 1980, several years before Kim Jong-un was born – had been the expected 'rubber stamp' affairs, devoid of debate and simply excuses for the mass adulation of Dear Leader Kim Il-sung. There had been no congresses at all during Kim Jong-il's seventeen-year reign, despite a rule of the WPK constitution requiring congresses to be held every four years. The Political Bureau (the politburo) of the Central Committee of the WPK announced that the congress would be held in early May 2016, saying:
The Political Bureau of the WPK Central Committee decides to convene the 7th Congress of the WPK early in May Juche 105 (2016), reflecting the demand of the party and the developing revolution that witness epoch-making changes in accomplishing the revolutionary cause of Juche, the cause of building a thriving socialist nation.
Clearly, like the earlier congresses, this was not to be an open debate of policy, foreign affairs, party personnel and the state of the nation. Rather, from the moment the Seventh Congress was announced, it was seen as Kim Jong-un's 'coming-out party' as Supreme Leader of the DPRK. The Seventh Congress was to be the culmination of a difficult five years of assuming power, consolidating that power, removing any potential opposition, and maintaining the survival of the regime, the continuity of the ruling Kim clan and the major theoretical line of Juche (Chuch'e or 'self-reliance') thought. It was to be Kim Jong-un's 'coronation' and would effectively show the world the dynamics of his own, individual, cult of personality.
The squat April 25 House of Culture is on Pipha Street in Pyongyang's Moranbong District. It was built in the 1970s and is typically vast in the Soviet-inspired style, often referred to disparagingly as 'Stalinist wedding cake'. It had hosted the WPK's Sixth Congress in 1980 and the ground-breaking summit meeting between Kim Jong-il and then South Korean President Roo Moo-hyun in 2007. The structure is actually two large theatres and a big cinema with, reportedly, a further 600 rooms for meetings. It is named after the date on which the national resistance army to the Japanese occupation was supposedly founded – the country's Military Foundation Day is 25 April – thereby tying the resistance to the Japanese explicitly to the Korean People's Army (KPA) and the WPK.
On Friday 6 May, 3,400 delegates filled the main theatre. Pyongyang had been spruced up, the city's wide boulevards and imposing central buildings covered with plain red flags alongside the flag of the WPK – a crossed hammer and sickle over a traditional calligraphy brush symbolising the unity of the workers, peasants and intellectuals. Around 130 members of the world's press had been granted admission to North Korea to cover the event. While allowing access to the international media is not unheard of in the DPRK, it was rare to allow so many (though, in the event, they were not granted admission to the congress). Ordinary North Koreans had been forced to endure a seventy-day-long 'speed battle' or mass mobilisation campaign (officially referred to as the 'Seventy-day Campaign of Loyalty'), with workers forced to up production, undertake 'voluntary' work and often begin their activities as early as 5am. Campaigns of this sort have been a fairly regular part of North Korean life since the state's foundation in 1948, though they rarely last for as long as seventy days. Like WPK congresses, speed battles have become rare since the 1980s. Following the speed battle, a five-day public holiday was granted for the duration of the congress. Images of the opening of the congress shown on state television revealed the usual scenes of a large WPK event: the theatre's red seats packed with ranks of straight-backed men in sombre grey suits of Soviet-era vintage, plenty of older soldiers in military uniform weighed down by long bar brooches of elaborate medals and ribbons, and here and there a few women.
Kim Jong-un took to the stage to predictably thunderous and prolonged applause. His address formally opened the proceedings. The thirty-three-year-old Supreme Leader took the rostrum in front of a large floral rendition of the WPK flag. He was wearing brown spectacles, a dark suit that did nothing to hide his obvious girth (though when Rupert Wingfield-Hayes, the BBC's correspondent in Pyongyang for the Seventh Congress, referred to him as 'corpulent' he was promptly expelled from the country), and a grey tie. He appeared to read from notes rather than use a teleprompter. He was surrounded by senior members of the WPK in a mix of suits and elaborate military uniforms with plenty of gold braid. Many of them were familiar to Pyongyang-watchers; some less so. What is perhaps most interesting when trying to understand how, in the last five years, Kim Jong-un has consolidated his power is to note who was not present at the congress.
Thursday 29 December, Juche 100 (2011) – Kim Il-sung Square, Pyongyang
Speculation about who might succeed Kim Jong-il began quite some time before he actually died. Rumours of the Great Leader's ill health had swirled for years – unconfirmed, of course. Sclerosis, gout, diabetes, cancer, a brain tumour, stroke, early-onset Parkinson's disease and other various motor neurone conditions. Pictures of Kim on his on-the-spot 'inspection tours' to factories, schools and military establishments, among other places, were pored over by Pyongyang-watchers, the media and doctors to try to divine his ailments. Stories of his legendarily louche life were also rampant – the famous intake (or at least orders of) Hennessey Paradis cognac, his penchant for Rothmans cigarettes, his trencherman appetite.
Still, his actual demise, when it came, was something of a shock. Wolf had been cried many times, but now it appeared that he was actually gone. On the morning of 19 December, the North Korean people were warned to be prepared for a major statement at noon. Kim's death was announced on a television newscast at midday by a sombre newsreader in a black suit and tie. The people were told that Kim Jong-il had died two days previously on the 17th. The official reason given was a massive heart attack while travelling on a train outside Pyongyang. There was no confirmation of who the Great Successor was to be. However, the newscaster listed all 233 members of Kim Jong-il's Funeral Committee in descending order of rank – significantly, Kim Jong-un was the first named. The intervening fifty-one hours between Kim Jong-il's demise and the official announcement to the North Korean people were to be a time of furious political jockeying for power as well as discussions on how best to manipulate the coming funeral and potentially unstable few weeks after it to best advantage.
From that moment, North Korea went into official mourning. The funeral was declared to be on 28 December with a national memorial service the following day. The funeral was in itself a culmination and continuation of Kim Jong-il's personality cult from life into death. A three-hour procession trailed in blizzard-like conditions through central Pyongyang. Kim's portrait adorned a black Lincoln Continental; his funeral casket was carried in a second, draped with the flag of the WPK. A procession of Lincolns and Mercedes followed all the way to the Kumsusan Palace, the route lined with tearful mourners.
On 29 December, the national memorial service for Kim Jong-il was held in Kim Il-sung Square. The square forms the effective centre of Pyongyang and was built in 1954 on land devastated by bombing during the Korean War. The Taedong River and the central buildings of the North Korean party-state apparatus flank it. The square is overlooked by the 150-metre-tall Juche Tower, completed in 1982 and topped by an enormous illuminated red torch that is never switched off despite much of Pyongyang suffering intermittent power outages on a regular basis. It is not, as the North Koreans occasionally claim, the largest square in the world, but is in fact only the thirty-seventh largest. Still, it is vast and, on a December day, invariably freezing cold and bone-chillingly windswept. On this day, the portraits of Kim Il-sung that intermittently lined the square were soon to be joined by large portraits of Kim Jong-il.
The square was packed with mourners, mostly higher-ranking party cadres and their families. Kim Yong-nam, the eighty-three-year-old President of the Presidium of the Supreme People's Assembly of the DPRK (effectively North Korea's head of state) addressed the crowd. He told the mourners that
[t]he great heart of comrade Kim Jong-il has ceased to beat ... such an unexpected and early departure from us is the biggest and the most unimaginable loss to our party and the revolution
and that North Korea would
transform the sorrow into strength and courage 1,000 times greater under the leadership of Comrade Kim Jong-un. Respected Comrade Kim Jong-un is our party, military and country's Supreme Leader who inherits Great Comrade Kim Jong-il's ideology, leadership, character, virtues, grit and courage.
The twenty-eight-year-old, slightly chubby, Kim Jong-un was anointed. The succession was announced. The world knew next to nothing about him ...
Excerpted from Our Supreme Leader by Paul French. Copyright © 2016 Paul French. Excerpted by permission of Zed Books Ltd.
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Table of Contents
ContentsFriday 1 January, Juche 105 (2016) – The Kumsusan Palace of the Sun, Pyongyang,
Friday 6 May, Juche 105 (2016) – The April 25 House of Culture, Pyongyang,
Thursday 29 December, Juche 100 (2011) – Kim Il-sung Square, Pyongyang,
Thursday 29 December, Juche 100 (2011) – Grand People's Study House, Pyongyang,
Monday 28 April, Juche 82 (1993) – Schule Liebefeld Steinhölzli, Liebefeld, Switzerland,
Juche 91 (2002) – Kim Il-sung University, Pyongyang,
Sunday 10 October, Juche 99 (2010) – Observation Platform, Kim Il-sung Square, Pyongyang,
Sunday 10 October, Juche 99 (2010) – The May Day Stadium, Pyongyang,
Monday 9 January, Juche 101 (2012) – Kumsusan Square, Pyongyang,
Wednesday 11 April, Juche 101 (2012) – Fourth Korean Workers' Party Conference, Pyongyang,
Friday 6 July, Juche 101 (2012) – Mansudae Art Theatre, Pyongyang,
Wednesday 25 July, Juche 101 (2012) – Korean Central Television (KCTV), Pyongyang,
Sunday 31 March, Juche 102 (2013) – WPK Central Committee No. 1 Office Building, Pyongyang,
Monday 8 April, Juche 102 (2013) – Kaesong Industrial Zone, Kaesong Special Administrative Industrial Region, North Korea,
Sunday 8 December, Juche 102 (2013) – Meeting of the Political Bureau of the Central Committee of the WPK, Pyongyang,
Friday 10 October, Juche 103 (2014) – Location unknown,
Monday 13 May, Juche 102 (2013) – The Mansudae Art Studio, Pyeongcheon District, Pyongyang,
Friday 6 May, Juche 105 (2016) – The April 25 House of Culture, Pyongyang,
Tuesday 10 May, Juche 105 (2016) – The Ryongsong Residence, Ryongsong District, Northern Pyongyang,