Follow my leader: How Kim Jong Un builds his personality cult

It helps to be the grandson of a god-king

The Economist/June 8, 2017

Seoul -- Few could hope to rival the engineering feats of Choe Song Chon. One was a device to hoist a 45-tonne red metal flame atop the Juche Tower in Pyongyang, the showpiece capital of North Korea; the pillar, named after the country’s clunky state ideology, was built with 25,550 blocks of granite—one for each day to the 70th year of Kim Il Sung, the country’s founder and eternal president. Other exploits were the city’s May Day Stadium, the world’s biggest, and a 22-metre bronze statue of Kim outside his mausoleum.

So it was only fitting that Kim Jong Un, Kim’s grandson, who took power in 2011, should send flowers to Mr Choe’s funeral on May 28th. Among North Korea’s pre-eminent architects, Mr Choe helped build the props to make Pyongyang less a city for people to live in than a gigantic stage upon which to glorify the Kim dynasty.

After American bombs flattened Pyongyang during the Korean war, Kim Il Sung remodelled his capital on Moscow’s master plan from the 1930s. Kim died in 1994. His son and successor, Kim Jong Il, penned a witty treatise calling for statues of his father to play “the leading role” in urban planning. Only after Kim Jong Il’s own death in 2011 did he too begin to appear in the statuary, starting with him and his father astride mythical horses.

The news, then, that the first big monument to Kim Jong Un would be unveiled in August beside the pristine caldera lake atop the sacred Mount Paektu, on the border with China, caused a stir among regime-watchers—though this one will be dedicated to all three Kims. The Kim family claims ties to Mount Paektu—Kim Jong Il is said to have been born on its snowy slopes (he was actually born in Russia). It follows other fresh attempts at cult consolidation: portraits of the three generations of Kims, each standing on Mount Paektu, have appeared as triptychs in museums. Work on mosaic murals of Mr Kim, to be displayed in each province, is under way. Appearing by himself on such a scale would be a first.

These exercises in idolisation follow an old manual, says Oh Gyeong-sup of the Korea Institute for National Unification in Seoul, South Korea’s capital. The most junior Mr Kim made his debut on a postage stamp within days of his father’s death. Last October a documentary film on his rule was first broadcast. New twin statues of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il across the country emphasise his lineage. Unlike his grandfather, the young Mr Kim has no anti-Japanese revolutionary exploits to advertise—nor, like his father, any birth myth.

Instead, he emulated his grandfather early on, from suit to hairstyle. State media often present him as the “father of the people”. In February Moranbong, a state-approved all-girl rock band that was formed in 2012, released a hit entitled: “We Call Him Father”.

Mr Kim is now making his youth part of his appeal too, says Tatiana Gabroussenko, an expert on the North’s propaganda. His pet architectural projects, such as water parks and department stores, are aimed at the growing middle class. Nowhere is his message of material progress clearer than in the capital, an unending building site. In April Mr Kim cut the ribbon for the opening of Ryomyong Street, a cluster of new high-rise apartments, shops, restaurants and pharmacies. He, rather than its architects, is portrayed as the mastermind behind its design—just as his father was for the Juche Tower.

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