Kim Jong Un's portrait is displayed in North Korea, elevating his cult of personality

For the first time, photos released by Pyongyang’s state news agency KCNA showed the dictator’s portrait hung next to those of his father, Kim Jong Il, and grandfather Kim Il Sung.

NBC News/May 22, 2024

By Mithil Aggarwal

Two’s company but three’s a dynasty — at least it is now in North Korea. The country has displayed the portrait of its leader, Kim Jong Un, next to those of his father and grandfather, a possibly significant step in elevating his status alongside his predecessors.

For the first time, photos released by Pyongyang’s state news agency KCNA on Wednesday showed the dictator’s portrait hung next to those of his father, Kim Jong Il, and grandfather Kim Il Sung. Large portraits were seen on the wall of a building, and smaller versions hung in a classroom as Kim spoke with officials, at the recent inauguration of a school for training new party cadets.

When Kim last visited the school, on Thursday, his portrait was not shown on the wall in the photos released at the time. It is unknown if Kim’s portrait has also been hung alongside the others in more places across the country.

While KCNA’s news releases are restricted to foreign audiences, the photos were also publicized in the country’s state newspaper Rodong Sinmun, which is widely available to North Koreans for domestic consumption.

Portraits of the country's leaders are ubiquitous in the totalitarian state, featured everywhere from domestic households to the subway to offices, as a core feature of the cult of personality that has underpinned the family's decadeslong rule.

Analysts said this appeared to be the first time North Korea had displayed images of Kim next to his forebears, who enjoy the status of demigods in the reclusive, nuclear-armed state.

“Chairman Kim’s decision to bring back the photos of his father and grandfather along with his photo on the walls can be interpreted as a symbolic step to send the message of hereditary continuity,” said Cheong Seong-Chang, director of the Center for Korean Peninsula Strategy at the Sejong Institute in Seoul, South Korea.

Kim has been building up his own personality cult for a while, but he’s now doing it at a level that had been reserved for his grandfather, who founded the nation, and his father.

Without that "revolutionary" background to tout in propaganda, experts say Kim may have felt the need for something more to solidify his public standing.

Last month, Pyongyang released a song titled “Friendly Father” and described Kim as a “great leader,” titles that were also traditionally reserved for his ancestors.

The song was a surprise hit on TikTok, including in the U.S., with people making dozens of variations of the tune and garnering hundreds of thousands of views.

The video showed exuberant children singing, "Let’s sing, Kim Jong Un the great leader," and, "Let’s brag about Kim Jong Un, a friendly father." Emergency workers wearing protective gear and military officers crowding the cockpit of a fighter jet also joined the chorus.

On Monday, the South Korean government banned access to the video under its national security act, saying the video glorifies Kim.

“The video is typical content linked to psychological warfare against South Korea,” Seoul’s communications regulator said in a statement. The regulator has blocked access to other North Korean propaganda videos in the past.

Songs are almost like newspaper editorials in North Korea, said Keith Howard, a professor emeritus of music at the SOAS University of London and an expert in North Korean propaganda music.

“They’re promoted everywhere,” he said. “Everybody knows the words very quickly so the song becomes the message.”

And that message is clear.

“It is that Kim Jong Un is the undisputed leader and he’s leading the whole of the country, and he should be regarded as the father and the person to look up to,” Howard said. “It’s starting to diminish the role of grandfather and father.”

Kim has also cast aside his ancestors' official goal of unifying with the South while escalating his nuclear testing and rhetoric, raising concerns that he may be preparing for an attack on U.S. ally South Korea.

In late 2022, when Kim was unveiling a new ballistic missile that could reach the U.S., he brought along a surprise guest: Kim Ju Ae, his daughter.

Since that first public appearance, she has joined her father at numerous events, sparking speculation that she might be in line to succeed him.

Cheong said the elevation of Kim alongside his grandfather could pave the way for her rule. “This could be a move to secure the fourth-generation rule led by his daughter,” he said.

It also comes at a time when North Korea is struggling economically under international sanctions. For Kim, maintaining the link with his grandfather as he tries to galvanize his population and modernize his cities is important, Howard said.

"There is an air of change going on and Kim needs to lean into it to ensure that he can survive as a leader," he said.

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