North Korea's Kim dynasty: the making of a personality cult
Alice Clearwater

On former leader Kim Jong-il's birthday, Christopher Richardson examines the way epic accounts of heroic feats formed a foundation for the totalitarian state


Two of the most interesting reactions to the Sony film comedy "The Interview" attacked it for failing to understand that many, if not most, North Koreans are all too aware of their predicament, trapped between colliding forces of hagiography and history. As Jang Jin-sung says: “[I]t’s not that people really believe all this propaganda about Kim Jong-un, that he’s a God, and need someone to tell them otherwise or show them another way of thinking. North Koreans are people, and they aren’t stupid. In the North Korean system, you have to praise Kim and sing hymns about him and take it seriously, even if you think it’s only a shit narrative. That’s the block, you see? It’s not that people are brainwashed and think he’s God. These are things that people know, but that they don’t dare to challenge.”

Or, as Kim Joo-il simply complains, “in this movie it looks like we are too stupid to realise our government is bad.”

In the past, perhaps, it was different. Writer Kang Chol-hwan remembers how, “during my childhood, Kim Il-sung had been like a God to me”.” Defector Park Yeon-mi has even admitted that, as a child, “I had to be careful of my thoughts because I believed Kim Jong-il could read my mind.”

Yet increasingly exposed to the material and cultural temptations of the west and South Korea, even children are less convinced by their leader’s prowess.

As North Korea is now learning, there are perils in extolling the virtues of a leadership beyond the reasonable. A storm of propaganda is an effective strategy whilst it prevails, but can rapidly dissolve as circumstances change. Take Muammar Gaddafi’s cult of personality in Libya, which demanded the avowal of extraordinary claims of his revolutionary intellect and virtue. Such was the climate of fear his family engineered that it was difficult to find residents of Tripoli in the months before his demise willing to speak against the dominant state narratives. Yet following Gaddafi’s death, the signs and symbols of the old regime hastily crumbled, the Libyan population free to reject claims they had been compelled to accept. It is easier, perhaps, to forgive a mortal politician who has failed his people, than to keep the faith when God betrays his children.