Statues and Empty Bowls: Notes on North Korean Iconography and Prospects for European and Chinese Aid

By | February 16, 2012 | No Comments

Fireworks and Empty Bowls: Notes on North Korean Iconography and Prospects for European and Chinese Aid  

by Adam Cathcart

As expected, today’s 70th birthday commemorations for Kim Jong Il find the deceased leader at the burning revolutionary center of North Korean media.  And his son, having teased foreign observers (and, presumably, tickled the curiosity if not the speculation of people in Pyongyang who keep track of such things) by having been out of sight since February 7, reappears:

Kim Jong Un at the center, merging Workers' Party and Korean People's Army; image courtesy Rodong Sinmun, February 16, 2012

According to the Huanqiu Shibao report on this morning’s events in Pyongyang, Kim Yong Nam gave a speech (unsuprisingly) heartily endorsing Kim Jong Un’s leadership and (somewhat more audaciously) proclaiming that the young Kim would lead North Korea forward into “富强繁荣的主体强盛大国 [roughly rendered as Rich, Prosperous, and Powerful Juche Nation].” Rodong Sinmun‘s summary of events, linked via the photo above, has Kim Yong Nam speaking in rather more orthodox platitudes after Kim Ki Nam, and the words quoted by the Chinese do not appear in the Korean version.  Perhaps the comrades at People’s Daily (the parent paper of Huanqiu) gathered the quote from a television feed or other source, thin gruel though it may be for strengthening the desired narrative of a Workers’ Party leadership focused intently on living standards to the minimization of military development. According to Daily NK, foreign currency earners in China are hanging on the locution.

Time Compression on Mangyongdae: Kim Il Song and Kim Jong Il, both looking roughly 40 years old, emerge on February 15, 2012. The large flower pot in the center is from Kim Jong Un. Photo: Rodong Sinmun

The prior day, the North Korean state apparatus made good on its rather strong hints that a statue would be constructed of Kim Jong Il.  (Chosun Ilbo has an interesting visual angle on the above piece.)  What really matters in some ways is the extent to which this particular constructive feat needs to be replicated around the country.  The English version of KCNA seemed to indicate that with the above statue, Kim Jong Un had essentially discharged his duty to heed the purported calls of the people to enshrine their leader in bronze.  Even the Daily NK has not reported on efforts in the provinces to move in a similar direction, but one may have to wait to get more information about what would surely be a rather expensive (though far from unprecedented) use of resources.

I recall a couple of hours I spent near a particular Youth Mine on the DPRK-China border in July 2009, when, in the middle of a “150-day battle campaign” and in plain sight of a bridge which had completely washed out below the factory, an “immortality tower” was being built. Surely similar construction — or assertions of an influx of barbed wire — could be easily checked in places like Hyesan which are visible to the naked eye from over the border, but China has been keeping even its own rather pliable native-English journalistic staff away from such places.

In any event, the sculptors appear to have made a kind of compromise with Kim Jong Il’s own dicta from Hyesan in 1968.  That year, Kim Jong Il was busily gesticulating, having his utterances scribbled down by mermidions, and undercutting any rivals who so much as suggested that memorialization of Kim Il Song’s anti-Japanese legacy was anywhere close to complete in 1968, and doing so in service of the argument that statues of his father depict must depict Kim Il Song in the period of anti-Japanese struggle.  Had his successors followed Jong-Il’s advice literally, making the statues historically accurate, Kim Jong Il would have had to have to have been about four (his age at the Liberation of Korea in autumn 1945) in the present statute to match up appropriately with his father.  Apparently for a precocious family, even this seemed a little much.   Thus, the creative aging, and coming full circle on the creative liberty lent to Kim family members in rendering family origins and revolutionary experience.

Somewhere in Pusan, B.R. Myers is surely generating pages of acidic commentary, perhaps planning to again bring to light the Hirohito metaphors.  (As Owen Miller in London points out, though, even the Japanese iconography of dictatorship had European roots.  Why not a Napoleon reference for this would-be Francophile regime?)

Perhaps, then, a quote from one treatment of the statuesque theme will suffice from a top Korea site:

Le leader décédé, promu “généralissime” aurait eu 70 ans aujourd’hui. KCNA tourne à plein régime pour présenter les festivités, défilés de fleurs, statues géantes et autres réunions des élites de la nation…La Corée du Nord célèbre le 70ème anniversaire de la naissance de Kim Jong-il. Le dirigeant décédé en décembre serait né en haut du mont sacré Baektu dans la nuit très étoilée du 16 février 1942, d’après l’histoire officielle. Cette date a récemment été proclamée jour férié, et baptisée “Jour de l’Etoile brillante”.

The leader has died, and is promoted to “Generalissimo” on his 70th birthday today.  KCNA has turned completely to a program of presenting the festivities, the rows of flowers, the giant statues and other gatherings of the national elites…North Korea is celebrating the 70th anniverary of the birth of Kim Jong-il.  The dictator, who died in December, was said in official histories to be born on sacred Mount Paektu on a star-drenched night on 16 February 1942. This date has recently been proclaimed a festival day, baptised as “Day of the Brilliant Star.”  — Claude Lely, “70 ans de Kim Jong-Il, le ‘Jour de Etoile qui brille’ en Coree du Nord,” Aujourd’hui en Coree, Feburary 16, 2012.

New Kim Jong Il Inscription in South Pyong'an Province, Feb. 12 Ceremony Attended by the Great Orchestrator, Kim Ki Nam. Photo: Rodong Sinmun

Beyond Feeding WKP Egos: Prospects for European Food Aid | After the deluge of propaganda, it shouldn’t take long for the haggling over food aid to resume, if indeed such negotiating ever ceases at all.  Pyongyang’s man in Paris, Yun Yong-il, just completed a three-day swing through Dijon, where he has been having dinners and discussing prospects for further cultural cooperation, meeting with folks who will make the case in various local French papers that North Korea needs more food aid from the E.U.

Nordkorea-info, easily Germany’s top blog for DPRK analysis, posted the following entry on February 7, which I’m translating somewhat roughly.  (No safety net was used, so do double check with your own dictionary.)

Here is the brunt of the February 7 essay on Nordkorea-info on the DPRK’s dance with one German parliamentarian and then the EU:

Themes which had been submerged through the entire tide of events surrounding the recent death of Kim Jong Il are now coming back into focus.  And so it was with this case: at the beginning of November, a North Korean parlimentary delegation lead by Ri Jong-hyok was in Europe [Anfang November eine Delegation nordkoreanischer Parlamentarier um Ri Jong-hyok] and, among other things, went to Berlin and Brussels.  At the time, apart from a few photos, there was not much by way of actual information.

Solms und Ri beim shake-handsSo I wrote an e-mail to Hermann Otto Solms (pictured above), and asked him what he talked about with Mr. Ri.  And so it seems he (or someone on his staff) wrote back to me.  No one spoke with any surprise or shock over the actual economic situation in North Korea which Mr. Ri (himself not surprisingly) discussed, and it can be gathered that North Korea needs to improve its aid situation. Apart from that, Solms and Ri talked about the Euro crisis, and what the underlying role of the national parliaments were in the crisis (perhaps Mr. Ri asked if, like his own, the European Parliament was beset by a combination of crisis mechanisms and ‘lack of alternatives’?).  Later on, Mr. Solms got into the issue of North Korea’s nuclear weapons. Then, as a quality conclusion, another theme which would cause some conflict, namely, the possibilities of a Korean reunification.  Mr. Ri threw before the Germans all the various Korean situations, and it was not astounding to see that for North Korean functionaries, a German-style reunification is a worst-case situation. Finally, Mr. Solms brought one more case forward which had become known to him (quite opposed to “power politics”) and upon which Mr. Ri might bring his influence to bear.  It was the case of a daughter, born in North Korea, whose mother had gone missing since her last visit. In such cases the North Korean dialogue partners can be very helpful throughout, as seen in the case of Claudia Roth.  Already, from these “small” humanitarian face-to-face talks, some meaning is gained and more contacts had with North Korean side.

As regards Ri’s visit to Strasbourg, I also found some relevant and interesting information.  On the website of the Delegation for Relations with the Korean Peninsula [Delegation für die Beziehungen zu der Koreanischen Halbinsel], there were two protocols for meetings with delegations at the end of last year which were completely interesting.  One was from Ri’s trip..(discussion of nuclear issues)….ECHO has begun an aid program which:

can not really be seen generally as emergency aid, but rather addressing a systemic problem.

This I find interesting.  Would there be another program for aid, or self-aid, set up?  I mean to say that in the realm of short-term famine relief that tend to go on for a few months, there can be few systemic results.

Even more interesting was the other point:

Last but not least, Members were also briefed about the wish of North Korean Authorities to open an embassy in Brussels. It was noted that there is no majority in Council for such a move at the moment, which would also depend on further developments.


As can be gathered from Nordkorea-info’s post, clearly the outlook for aid from EU countries is something to watch in the months and weeks ahead.  One might further speculate that the Eurozone crisis — clearly noted by Ri on his junket — only strengths North Korean tendency to look to China as a more reliable partner, albeit one that needs significant hedging against.

Soprano State Seeks Aspiring Regional Hegemon for Expressions of Mutual Respect | Finally, a few words about the Chinese role — or, more correctly, lack thereof — in the Kim adulation-fest.  Stephan Haggard, with an ear to sources in the NGO community that deal regularly with grain shipments to the DPRK, indicates that the Chinese aid package to North Korea in the direct aftermath of Kim Jong-il’s death may have been far less than previously indicated.

There are a few other data points out there, minor media skermishes really, that indicate that China is not real happy with the DPRK or at least more prone to give them pressure at the moment.

Seemingly lost in the somewhat self-indulgent kerfuffle over the “Kim Jong Un is dead” trope which overtook Weibo on February 9 were the ideas that the whole thing could have been relatively easily nipped in the bud by Chinese authorities — it was not — and that its narrative so clearly ran counter to last October’s not entirely inconsequential KCNA-Xinhua meetings in Beijing.

On Feburary 12, as if to confirm China’s willingness to sacrifice the DPRK on the rocks of great-power politics, China’s English-language media published this rather strongly-worded editorial on the idea that North Korea was disrespecting China, and that Kim Jong Un had yet to acknowledge China’s centrality.  The Korea Times amplified significantly on the story here (h/t Richard Horgan @liberatelaura).

The original Chinese version of the story is from a second-tier semi-official blog, a typical outlet for Chinese venting about North Korea which can then be harvested and held up (or translated in English, how convenient!) by Xinhua when useful.  As tends to happen, the original text in Chinese is even more critical of the DPRK; the author complains about China’s refugee fatigue and the possibility of a regime collapse. Along with holding up Kim Jong Nam as a possible reformer, the Chinese media discussion of regime collapse in North Korea is a subject that moved in a rapid manner from taboo (during Kim Jong Il’s funeral) to quite possibly encouraged.

No wonder the North Koreans appear to be following precisely the script for stiff-arming the Chinese that they followed in the mid-1980s, an episode which Charles Kraus and I documented in China-North Korea Document Dossier #2 : cozy up to the Russian Ambassador (on February 14, a high-level visit this year) and demand a little respect for the young successor.

Further Reading:

Kim Jong-il, “Let Us Develop Ryanggang Province into a Firm Base for Education in Revolutionary Traditions: A Talk to Senior Officials of Ryanggang Province and Anti-Japanese Revolutionary Fighters,” July 21, 1968, Kim Jong Il Selected Works, Volume 1, 1964-1969 (Pyongyang: Foreign Languages Press, 1992), 364-379.

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  1. On the issue of statues for Kim Jong Il, it’s worth going back to look at the Jan 18th publication/revelation of a 1999 internal document about his aversion to having statues built in his honor. Close watchers of the North Korean media were gobsmacked by the release of the sensitive document (even if manufactured for the here and now) — published prominently on the front page of the party daily — given how extremely rare it is for the leadership to publicize such deliberations outside of the discrete drab green and now brown-covered works compilations. Take the main theme from that document — Kim rejecting proposals to amp up his cult of personality w/ statues — and trace it back to its origin in central media. You’ll be surprised to see how early on, following the death, it began. It suggests that the issue of statues might be a political hot potato in the North, one that the Kim Jong Un and the senior leadership anticipated and have been trying to address.

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