Insight: Talk of succession off limits in secretive N. Korea

Reuters News
Posted: Sep 03, 2011 10:49 PM
Insight: Talk of succession off limits in secretive N. Korea

By Jeremy Laurence

RAJIN, North Korea (Reuters) - In North Korea, talk of succession and the third son of the secretive state's leader is strictly taboo.

"Don't ever mention Kim Jong-un's name," whispered a source, glancing over his shoulder to check the conversation wasn't being overheard. "You'll get in very big trouble, it's just not talked about."

The advice was delivered to a Reuters correspondent during a state-sanctioned visit to the far north, the first such escorted trip to that part of the country in living memory.

Entering into a discussion about succession in North Korea is tantamount to accepting the mortality of the state's current leader Kim Jong-il who, like his father before him, is worshipped like a god by his people.

Very little is known about Kim Jong-un, only that he is in his late 20s and was educated in Switzerland. Last year, the youngest son of the state's iron ruler was effectively anointed as the next leader when he was given prominent positions in both the military and ruling party.

The state has fostered a personality cult for its leaders over the past 60 years. Experts say this is possible only in a country as totally isolated as North Korea.

After his death in 1994, Kim Il-sung was proclaimed the eternal president and even his son did not dare lay claim to this title.

Instead, Kim Jong Il erected so-called "eternal life towers" dedicated to his godly status, in all the cities, towns and villages. There are believed to be over 3,000 of these plinths around the country.


The propaganda machine is constantly at work in the secretive North, idolizing the leadership of what was communism's first dynastic succession, as well as broadcasting the virtues of its 'songun', or military-first policy.

In every town and village a giant portrait of Kim Il-sung, known as the Great Leader, is on display in the main square.

In Rajin, the main city of the Rason Special Economic Zone, the portrait is presented as an ornate work of mosaic tiles. A local woman sells plastic flowers to offer as a show of respect and place at the foot of the portrait.

Visitors are told, when taking photos, to ensure the entire portrait is captured, because censors at the border will order the photo deleted if any part of it is missing. In all likelihood, the military guards will at the same time delete the entire collection of photos stored in the camera.

It is not just incomplete images of the leader that are destroyed. Any "sensitive" images are removed as well.

Sensitive is not strictly defined but loosely means photos of the military or any image casting the country in a bad or poverty-stricken light.


At the age of 17, North Koreans are given a small red badge of Kim Il-sung to wear over their heart. The pins come circular, rectangular or flag-shaped.

"We get given them by the state, and I have five different ones to go with my shirts," a North Korean guide said, when asked about the pins.

Asked if foreigners could buy them, he sharply replied they were strictly not for sale and were a symbol of national pride and not a commercial commodity.

He said workers do not have to wear them while laboring in factories or on farms.

As well as portraits of Kim Il-sung appearing in every main square, pictures of the two Kims hang side by side in the main room of every building -- home, hotel and public building -- with the elder Kim to the left.

The portraits are treated as a sanctity in themselves, reportedly polished on a daily basis by state order.

Kim Il-sung is usually wearing a dark jacket and tie, while his son favors communist-style khaki attire.

The ultimate accolade for every person in North Korea is to be on hand for a so-called "field guidance" visit by their leader.

On board the Mangyongbong ship, which was used this week for a 'test' cruise for Chinese travel industry representatives accompanied by foreign journalists off the east coast of the peninsula, a photo of Kim Il-sung visiting the boat in the 1970s hangs in the main meeting room.


At an art gallery in Rajin, paintings are mostly of the Kim family or of soldiers.

A family painting shows the elder Kim, with a young boy of about 5 years of age sitting to his left. The child is in a military outfit.

When asked the identity of the little boy, the North Korean guide replied, "that is not a little boy, that is General Kim Jong-il." Clearly offended by the perceived slight, he added, "You must respect our culture, it is General Kim Jong-il."

The same rule applies for "Kim Il-sung." Even in an unofficial situation, one must say: "The Great Leader Kim Il-sung."

Both Kims are also immortalized in verse, and North Koreans, who enjoy singing, know countless songs that worship the two leaders. When Kim Jong-il was visiting Russia last month, North Koreans sang a song longing for his safe return.

Videos are also used to ram home the nationalistic message.

The foreign visitors aboard a tour bus were shown patriotic videos of soldiers fighting the "imperialists" -- either Japanese or Americans.

One showed a woman soldier with a grenade running toward a tank flying the U.S. flag. Seconds later it disappeared in a sea of flames.

(Editing by Yoko Nishikawa)