Hagiography of the Kims and the Childhood of Saints: Kim Jong-il

By | August 12, 2014 | No Comments


A family portrait: Kim Jong-suk, Kim Il-sung, and Kim Jong-il.

If you have ever considered the Trinitarian nature of North Korean politics or tried to analyze who exactly was the Holy Ghost (or Geist), Kim Jong-il or Kim Jong-suk, then Christopher Richardson’s masterful new piece of familial and filial exegesis is absolutely for you. Digging deep into narratives of Kim Jong-il’s infancy and birth found within his official biography and other texts, Richardson navigates the complex academic terrain between Sonia Ryang and BR Myers. In doing so, Sino-NK’s resident expert on North Korean children’s literature reveals a wealth of interpretative directions and intriguing theological approach to the examination of charismatic potentiality bestowed upon the young, soon to be Dear Leader.  — Robert Winstanley-Chesters, Director of Research

Hagiography of the Kims & The Childhood of Saints: Kim Jong-il

by Christopher Richardson

“Learn from the glorious childhood of Generalissimos Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il.”
— Kim Jong-un, Speaking at the 66th Anniversary of the Korean Children’s Union in June 2012.

“And through all His wondrous childhood / He would honor and obey…”
— Once In Royal David’s City

The Chosun Ones: Towards an Incarnational Theology of Revolution | Through literature, art, song and ritual, North Korea meticulously embeds the childhoods of its leaders in the national consciousness. Imitating the medieval lives of saints, and apocryphal infancy narratives of Christ, the lives of the Great and Dear Leaders–known respectively as “Immortal History” and “Immortal Leadership”–are key exempla for the intergenerational transmission of revolutionary ideology, especially for children.[1] Infused with mythic significance, such narratives validate dynastic rule, whilst offering didactic instruction to youth about ideal lives to be emulated. As young saints-in-waiting, Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il exude revolutionary precocity, rebuking elders with words of insight and deeds of virtue, demonstrating a prodigious aptitude for anti-imperialism, socialism and Juche. Much detail is mythologized, or consists of outright fabrication reflecting the state’s determination to maintain authorial control over all aspects of North Korea’s cultural and symbolic landscape, inhabiting the imaginations of its citizens from the cradle to the grave.

In the fog of the North Korean “rumor mill,” truth remains obscure, a matter for internal gossip, the revelations of defectors, and the labor of scholars, whilst the official narratives are relentlessly propagated in Technicolor clarity for mass consumption via the organs of state propaganda. As a defector, named Jae-young, relates:

… when I was little, like many other children I read a collection of books called Memoirs [Reminiscences With the Century]. This long epic was about the birth, childhood, and death of… Kim Il-sung. It was eight volumes long and I read every page with fascination, despite the highly ideological subject matter…. These kind of books were very popular and hard to borrow without a long wait at the library. Despite them being distinctly political works, I guess that ultimately, they were good reading.

It is the genius of these hagiographies–rich in incident, heroic struggle, and kaleidoscopic detail–that they may be read, not only as prescriptive ideological manuals, but adventure stories for the young.

Mindful of the time the state dedicates to the creation and dissemination of these narratives, and the fascinated attention Jae-young–and millions more children–have paid to such narratives, I will explore in exegetical detail the childhood hagiographies of the leaders. In the first of two installments for Sino-NK, I will investigate the early life of Kim Jong-il. In a concluding essay, I will return to the foundation of the revolution itself, exploring the childhood hagiography of Kim Il-sung, before reflecting on the role of such narratives in the maintenance of North Korea’s social system, and asking what the future holds.

“For Unto Us a Child Is Born:” The Once & Future Kim | The first line of the epic three-volume biography of Kim Jong-il is simply constructed, embedding two key details, foreshadowing Kim’s temporal and sempiternal role in North Korean national life. It reads: “Kim Jong-il was born at the [Baekdusan] Secret Camp in the Sobaeksu Valley, Samjiyon County, Ryanggang Province, on February 16, 1942.”[2] The most notable detail is the reference to Baekdu, redacting the widely accepted–outside North Korea, that is–fact that he was likely born in a Soviet military camp in the Russian Maritime Province. Of course, this is not a failure of North Korean historiography, but the triumph of mythology.

The Dear Leader is thus born heir to the sacred line of Baekdu, child not only of mortal father Kim Il-sung and mother Kim Jong-suk, but the Korean people as a whole. From Baekdu came the ancient birth of the Korean nation, the sacred mountain a symbol conferring lines of continuity and legitimacy through successive dynastic reigns, reaching its apotheosis and modern re-birth in the House of Kim.

As BR Myers explains, Baekdu’s mythic connotations were revived, indeed elaborated upon, during the 1920s, Korean nationalism reborn in the crucible of Japanese occupation. He writes, “Japanese symbols were transposed onto Korean ones. Mount Baekdu, hitherto known only as the peninsula’s highest peak, suddenly attained a Fuji-like, sacral status.”[3]

This newly minted symbol of ancient power became of central importance to North Korea’s revolutionary mythos. A collection of anecdotes about the life of Kim Jong-il takes the resonance of Baekdu in North Korea’s “charismatic landscape“ further, remarking that:

A saying has it that a man resembles his birthplace; it’s true to say that Kim Jong-il resembled Mt. [Baektu]. The mountain fascinates people with its majestic appearance–the enormous lake at its summit and its chain of high peaks–and its mysterious natural phenomena, and these are symbolic of the traits and mettle of Kim Jong-il, who possesses a far-reaching ambition, outstanding wisdom, firm courage, strong willpower, great magnanimity and perfect leadership ability.[4]

From his secret base beneath Mount Baekdu, Kim Il-sung both literally and figuratively brought new life to the Korean nation, as a revolutionary in the anti-Japanese guerilla struggle, and father to Kim Jong-il. The Dear Leader’s unnamed biographer makes plain the parallel, noting that, “Kim Jong-il was born at a time of turbulent historical change that saw the birth of the great event of national liberation [italics added].”[5]

In the North Korean imagination, these are not merely parallel births. They are the same birth. Kim Jong-il is perceived as the avatar and incarnation of revolution. The sacral role of the new Kim as heir to Baekdu is firmly established, whilst the military camp in which he is born presages the secular basis of his own future political rule, namely military power, which will find its ultimate rationalization in the doctrine of Songun, or military-first politics. Like the Roman Emperor Caligula–or “Little Boots,” as he was known to the soldiers who served his adored father Germanicus on the frontline–Kim Jong-il was born both a living god, and the ultimate army brat.

As his court biographer recounts, Kim Jong-il descended from “a family of ardent patriots who dearly loved their country and the people of their nation.” We are introduced to Kim Family genealogy, learning this revolution has deep roots indeed, as “all members of his family were patriots and revolutionaries renowned in the modern era of Korea.”[6] Just as the line of Christ was traced through Joseph to King David, so Kim’s biographer reveals in detail the exploits of his parents, grandparents, uncles, and granduncles, many of them martyrs.

As with Kim Il-sung, there is a particular interest in Kim Jong-il’s humble birth. Mirroring the Biblical Nativity, there is an emphasis on homelessness, a juxtaposition of anonymity and modesty with a birth of cosmic significance. The military camp from which Kim Il-sung defeated the mighty Japanese Empire was, “made up of two log cabins …[and] it was in the smaller cabin, with no formal address or number at that time, that Kim Jong-il was born.”[7] In a further parallel, the first witnesses to the birth of this sacred child are of humble origins, not illiterate shepherds, but rather “a few women soldiers and a small unit of the KPRA.”

Like their New Testament counterparts, a lack of sophistication does not prevent such witnesses from attaining immediate prophetic insight into the special provenance and destiny of the child they have encountered. Having set eyes upon this child, “wishing him to become the lodestar that would brighten the future of Korea, they hailed him as the Bright Star of Mt. Baekdu,” a powerful response to the vision of a babe in swaddling clothes.[8] Thereafter, news of the child is passed excitedly from one Korean to another. We read that “small units and groups and political workers… were overjoyed at that event and inscribed the words on thick trees everywhere they went.”

The birth is a galvanizing event for beleaguered revolutionaries. We read that, “news of Kim Jong-il’s birth spread rapidly… throughout the country, like a legendary tale.”[9] That the quip, “like a legendary tale,” cannot be read ironically, demonstrates the ironclad mastery of Pyongyang’s propagandists in their own self-created information environment.


Kim Jong-il with his mother (and mother of the nation), Kim Jon-suk | Image: KCNA

Inevitably, the wicked Japanese Imperium learns of the birth of Kim Jong-il, and like King Herod of Judaea perceives the child a threat. The biography even quotes a fictitious Japanese document, demonstrating the superstitious dread this birth instilled in Tokyo, purportedly proclaiming that, “it is predicted that the heaven-sent boy will become a general who will bring independence to Korea, Korea will certainly become independent in the near future.”[10] The Japanese sense the imminence of defeat, the Dear Leader’s birth heralding their death.

It is to the task of affirming Kim Jong-il’s vocation as the hammer of imperialists that the infancy narrative then turns, and pursues its goal relentlessly. Kim’s revolutionary precocity is evident before he can even talk, during what Myers terms his “angelic toddlerhood,” his virtues inborn.[11]

Unlike other sons, laboring to attain parental approval, Kim Jong-il “was able to receive his father’s blessing only several months after his birth.” Returning to Baekdu from battle, Kim Il-sung is reunited with his wife and child, declaring, “they should bring up the baby and their other children to be heirs to the revolution.”[12]

Then the biographer places a speech of audaciously pre-emptive self-aggrandizement into the mouth of Kim Il-sung. In a moment that only gains true resonance with the accession of Kim Jong-un, the Great Leader remarks to Kim Jong-suk that should neither he, nor his son, complete the task of building socialism in Korea, then “his grandson would carry it out.”[13] It is a stunning detail in a biography published in 2005, long before Kim Jong-un was unveiled as Kim Jong-il’s successor. The legitimacy of a third generation succession was thus ordained, even at the base of Mount Baekdu, promising not one but many more glorious generations in the lineage of Kim Il-sung.

“Out of the Mouth of Babes:” The Wit & Wisdom of Kim Jong-il | By the age of six, Kim Jong-il was demonstrating a precocious revolutionary sophistication. In his memoir of childhood in North Korea, Kang Hyok recalled the young leader, “bubbling with intelligence and cunning, as the countless parables we were told… sought to demonstrate.”[14] A mural in Rason depicts the plucky and imperious child during Kim Jong-suk and Kim Jong-il’s homecoming near Chongjin port in November 1945. Even Kim’s own mother follows his lead. In a modern twist, a solar panel ensures this image remains illuminated in the North Korean night. His biographer recounts that, from an early age, “Kim Jong-il harbored a bitter hatred for the class enemies who harmed the people… resented the desperate acts of landlords and reactionaries who were trying to thwart agrarian reform.” He also had a clearly articulated contempt for the United States of America. We read that, “Kim Jong-il hated the Americans who had occupied south Korea in place of the Japanese and were trying to enslave the Korean people again. He firmly resolved to destroy the US imperialist aggressors.”[15] It is a position Kim held with tenacious continuity from childhood until the moment of his death.

The account of the calamitous impact of the Korean War in Kim Jong-il’s biography tells the story of the “Fatherland Liberation War” from the perspective of a child eight years old at the outbreak of hostilities. Of course, unlike most North Korean children whose fate was shaped by the bitter exigencies of war, bombing, starvation and displacement, Kim Jong-il is presented in a commanding light.

In the first of many exempla, Kim’s biographer records the young Kim obtained a map of the Peninsula, tracking the liberation of south Korean cities. His father was impressed at Kim’s early interest in strategy, remarking, “Here is a great frontline commander… you seem to be already preparing for the operation to liberate Pusan.”[16] The Great Leader was only half joking. Perhaps not even half. Following a stint at a school in Janggang County, Kim Jong-il is granted his wish to transfer to the Supreme Headquarters in Sinuiju, standing at his father’s side to assist the war effort. He is now ten-years-old. Watching an aerial skirmish between twenty American fighters, and two from the DPRK, Kim Jong-il accurately predicts the two will defeat the twenty.[17]

Of course, Kim was not the only child serving patriotically in the war to resist America. Admiring fellow boys and girls singing revolutionary songs, Kim proclaimed to his father, “Probably no other people hate the enemy and love their country more than our people do.”[18] And Kim Jong-il, even if in Manchuria, was surely suffused at school with stories of American inhumanity in Korea and over the skies of the Chinese Northeast. Yet there is never any doubt Kim Jong-il is unique, absorbing and asserting the authority of his father, even over Kim Il-sung’s personal entourage.

In a ludic inversion of Confucian norms, a ten-year-old Kim rebukes and instructs his elders. In one example, Kim Il-sung orders his driver to take a “bumpy” road instead of the highway. When the driver questions his decision, Kim Jong-il interrupts: “We must take the road indicated by the General without any hesitation… the way the General indicates is the right way in all circumstances.” The moral of the story is swiftly confirmed, as “Yankee planes showered bombs on the highway.”[19] This tale is instructive, emphasizing the authority of the young Kim invested in his name. Equally importantly, it reminds the reader that the orders of the General, however counter-intuitive they seem at first glance, will always prove just and wise, the only guarantee of protection against the enemies of revolution.


Kim Jong-il, as a child, saluting the camera. | Image: KCNA

Kim Il-sung’s tutelage of his son continues, reminding him of the patriotism of his grandfather Kim Hyong-jik as he bequeaths to Kim Jong-il his grandfather’s pistol. It is a powerful symbol of things to come. The Great Leader explains: “Take it and look upon it as the ‘relay baton’ with which to continue the revolution…. A revolutionary must never lady down his gun… the gun helps you to guarantee the victory of the revolution.” [20] As Jae-cheon Lim writes, “guns held multiple meanings for Kim Jong-il, reappearing frequently along the stages of his life,” as a symbol of his father, a symbol of Korean independence, and a symbol of the militarism that would define his own stewardship of state.[21]

Assenting to his father’s wishes with a pledge, the Songun policies of the Kim Jong-il era are retrospectively consecrated in a biography published sixty years after the events it allegedly describes. It is notable Kim Jong-il receives his father’s gun at the tender age of ten, whereas Kim Il-sung only received Kim Hyong-jik’s at the age of fourteen. Moreover, as Kwon and Chung note, this gift was bequeathed to Kim Jong-il, not merely at the height of the Korean War, but during an episode in the hills of Kangwon Province. In their emblematic text, North Korea: Beyond Charismatic Polics, they argue:

… postwar North Korean military history… records these hill battles as strategic victories over the technologically superior American forces that broke the enemy’s will to fight. The glory of these hill fights is associated primarily with Kim Il-sung’s actual physical presence on the battlefield and his military genius in leading the troops to victory…. It is no coincidence that the place where Kim Il-sung is said to have given his son a gift of such tremendous value… was the important, victorious battlefield of North Korea’s sacred war against American imperialism.[22]

Anxious to assert the heir’s credibility, the hagiography stretches further, suggesting Kim Jong-il’s precocity exceeded even that of Kim Il-sung. Thus armed, the young Kim spends his hours in the Supreme Headquarters, or on field trips with his father, imbibing tactics as his father’s confidante, almost an extension of his own persona. Kim Jong-il recalled that aged ten, “I followed him and learned his pre-eminent art of leadership,” his biographer proclaiming that, “in the course of his stay at the Supreme Headquarters, Kim Jong-il developed the intelligence and resourcefulness of a brilliant commander.”[23]

“And the Government Shall be Upon His Shoulder?” Revolution, Hagiography, & Succession | The first generation of leadership in North Korea surrounding Kim Il-sung forged and asserted its legitimacy to rule through participation in the anti-Japanese guerilla struggle, and subsequent feats in the Korean War. For these men and women, their very survival was evidence of a type of victory.

The Mangyongdae Revolutionary School evolved from the School for the Offspring of Revolutionary Martyrs, established by Kim Il Sung. As Bruce Cumings writes, the school was, “the central educational institution for the North Korean power elite, and the symbolic crucible for molding the astonishing ‘family state’ created out of the ashes of two devastating wars.” Indeed, it remains so, retaining a link to the original partisans and guerrillas of the anti-Japanese struggle.

In 1971 Yi O-song was appointed Headmaster of the school. Yi had impeccable revolutionary credentials, a perfect exemplar of the guerilla state. As Cumings recounts, Yi’s father had “starved to death in a guerilla base… [his] brother-in-law was executed, and his two sisters, part of his guerilla group, both died of starvation. Extremely malnourished himself, Yi never reached full adult growth.”[24] By contrast, born at the end of the guerilla campaign, too young and geographically remote to meaningfully contribute to the Fatherland Liberation War, Kim Jong-il and his propagandists were burdened with an urgent need to cultivate credentials as impeccable as his father; difficult, given his lack of them.

On the one hand, there was perhaps no choice but to use Kim Jong-il’s childhood as the fundamental layer of this project, the period of his life most temporally proximate to the greatest accomplishments of the North Korean guerillas, and the KPA. As the hardships of the 1990s progressed, flood, drought and famine, North Koreans needed to believe they could trust Kim Jong-il to defend them, as they had trusted his father. On the other hand, the vision of a sainted youth and heaven-sent child fulfilled a powerful prophetic role within North Korea’s revolutionary mythology, bestowing a powerfully elevated status upon Kim Jong-il.

If such hagiography redrafts the childhoods of the leaders (indeed their whole lives), what does a comparison of fact and fiction reveal about what demands redaction and replacement? What further emphases do such changes illuminate? As Sonia Ryang writes:

According to today’s North Korean political mythology, Kim Jong-il’s childhood was filled with virtuous episodes and noble sagas. Basically, however, he had an extremely secluded, protected, and comfortable childhood, far out of touch with reality, to say the least… [but] who Kim Jong-il truly is and what he is really like… are not as important as where he stands in the overall cosmological scheme of North Korean society… in the symbolic topography of leadership.[25]

If we follow Ryang’s admonition to survey that “symbolic topography,” we quickly apprehend that the alterations begin at the beginning. As we have already seen, the military camp at the base of Mount Baekdu confers guerrilla credentials on the newborn Kim, locating his birth at the geographical and spiritual epicenter of Korean history. To have acknowledged he was born either at the Vyatskoye Camp in Khabarovsk, or the Voroshilov Camp in Nikolsk, would be to locate Kim Jong-il’s birth within the wider and murkier context of international Communism and Sino-Soviet influence in East Asia, diminishing the distinctively Korean characteristics of his incarnation as genius loci of the revolution. Of course, rumors yet abound, Kang Hyok recalling from his childhood a forbidden song about an unnamed “illustrious character,” secretly born in Russia.[26]

As to the question of Kim Jong-il’s birthday, there remains uncertainty whether he was born on the officially stated February 16, 1942, or the more likely February 16, 1941. Through a close study of the guerilla movements of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-suk throughout Manchuria in the early 1940s, Lim concludes that, “if Kim Il-sung’s memoirs are accurate, it would have been biologically impossible for Kim Jong-il to have been born on 16 February 1942.”[27] That this change was a deliberate fabrication, rather than, say, an error in the paperwork, cannot be doubted. Indeed, Kim’s fortieth birthday was celebrated twice in Pyongyang, once in February 1981, and again the following year. Whether this alteration followed on the suggestion of Kim himself, something was contested in the state imagination around the time of 1981.

By 1982, Kim Jong-il had been privately touted his father’s successor for almost a decade since the 1974 Eighth Plenum of the Fifth Central Committee of the Korean Workers’ Party, but he had only recently been revealed to a wider public. Lim argues that the Baekdu-birth fabrication “should be understood in the context of the political justification of Kim Jong-il’s succession,” but is less sure of the importance of the date fabrication.

Nevertheless, Lim posits two theories that are not only plausible, but almost certainly part of the same process. He notes that the altered date makes Kim Jong-il precisely thirty years younger than his father. Thus, “by linking the two Kim’s birthdays, the state seemed to try to connect Kim Il-sung’s authority with Kim Jong-il’s.”[28] Moreover, he suggests 30 years was perceived as the ideal gap between generations, 30 years of age ending a North Korean’s membership of the Kim Il-sung Socialist Youth League, marking the start of full adult citizenship.

Another possibility, not considered by Lim, is suggested in the Anecdotes of Kim Jong-il’s life, noting that, “[Baekdu] is located at 42 degrees North Latitude. Kim Jong-il was born in 1942. There are too many significant facts associated with the mountain to say they are coincidental.”[29] Yet a further detail serves to strengthen the legitimacy of Kim Jong-il from birth.

Kim of Kims: “Spring Rests on the Gun Barrel of the Lord”| In a recent essay for Sino-NK, Adam Cathcart explored the shifting contours of Kimist hagiography leading up to this year’s Victory Day celebrations in the DPRK, noting a resurgent emphasis on the childhood exploits of Kim Jong-il during the Korean War, and the concomitant marginalization of the role of the People’s Republic of China in “defeating” the American imperialists. Once again, history is on the chopping block, for as Cathcart rightly notes, Kim “actually spent most of the Korean War not in Korea but in Manchuria, within the relatively peaceful embrace of the People’s Republic of China and the city of Jilin.”

By now, it will not be difficult to see why the state redacted such inconvenient details, crafting and projecting a more useful mytho-biography for the Dear Leader, but why the emphasis now, in 2014? Arguing that “the renewed emphasis on Kim Jong-il’s youth goes beyond standard hagiography,” Cathcart contended that, “it may indicate a level of concern among North Korean propaganda officials that Kim Jong-un is seen as illegitimate, that there are doubts about the depth to which he has mastered—or even understands—the North Korean system over which he presides.” In the concluding installment of this investigation, I will explore the childhood hagiography of Kim Il-sung–the master narrative from which all others derive–before returning to ask whether Kim Jong-un is indeed destined to fulfill a similarly prophetic role in the unfolding mythology of revolution, or to become the god that failed.

[1] BR Myers, The Cleanest Race: How North Koreans See Themselves and Why It Matters (New York: Melville House, 2010), 103.

[2] Kim Jong-il: Biography, Volume One (Pyongyang: Foreign Languages Publishing House, 2005), 1.

[3] Myers, The Cleanest Race, 34.

[4] Anecdotes of Kim Jong-il’s Life (Pyongyang: Foreign Languages Publishing House, 2012), 2.

[5] Kim Jong-il: Biography, Volume One, 1.

[6] Ibid,2-3.

[7] Ibid, 1.

[ 8] Ibid, 3.

[9] Ibid, 3.

[10] Ibid, 4.

[11] Myers, The Cleanest Race, 115.

[12] Kim Jong-il: Biography, Volume One, 4.

[13] Ibid, 4.  [emphasis added]

[14] Hyok Kang, This Is Paradise! My North Korean Childhood (London: Abacus, 2007), 57.

[15] Kim Jong-il: Biography, Volume One, 14.

[16] Ibid, 20.

[17] Ibid, 23.

[18] Ibid, 23.

[19] Ibid, 24.

[20] Ibid, 26.

[21] Jae-cheon Lim, Kim Jong-il’s Leadership of North Korea (New York: Routledge, 2009), 24.

[22] Heonik Kwon & Byung-ho Chung, North Korea: Beyond Charismatic Politics (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2012), 101-102.

[23] Kim Jong-il: Biography, Volume One, 26-27.

[24] Bruce Cumings, The Korean War: A History (New York: Random House, 2010), 56.

[25] Sonia Ryang, Reading North Korea: An Ethnological Enquiry (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2012), 31-33.

[26] Kang Hyok, This Is Paradise!, 80.

[27] Lim, Kim Jong-il’s Leadership of North Korea, 11.

[28] Ibid, 12.

[29] Anecdotes of Kim Jong-il’s Life, 1.

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