November 19, 2004


The case of Kim's missing portraits: Speculation is feverish as North Korea watchers try to divine the meaning of the removal of leader Kim Jong-il's portraits from some public places in Pyongyang - and dropping his honorific Dear Leader. Theories include a power struggle, tactical feint, downsizing the world's last great personality cult to win friends - or just getting new pictures. (Kosuke Takahashi, 11/20/04, Asia Times)

Faced with recent mass movements of refugees from North Korea - more than 460 in July - Kim might have wanted to play down the personality cult to stem the outflow, with some so desperate to leave the worker's paradise that they even climb the walls of various embassies and consulates in China, to Beijing's great embarrassment. Moreover, the decision to lower the profile of the dictator in the reclusive communist state is in line with the extremely adverse situation that North Korea has created for itself. In the past four years, US President George W Bush has applied increasing pressure to thwart North Korea's nuclear-weapons program and chronic human-rights violations. This approach appears to have been reinforced by his appointment of the tough and pragmatic Condoleezza Rice as new secretary of state in his second administration once Colin Powell leaves that post.

As for Japan, Pyongyang has continued the risky cat-and-mouse game of diplomacy with Tokyo as its economy continues to deteriorate - in a bid to run up the amount of potential Japanese economic aid and post-World War II reparations for past wrongs. Today in Tokyo, however, not a few lawmakers and citizens are asking the administration of Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi to consider economic sanctions on North Korea. The anti-North Korea attitude has become even more acute after a Japanese delegation's week-long stay in Pyongyang did not yield good news about the fate of abducted Japanese. Instead, they brought back to Tokyo the ashes of at least two persons, including Megumi Yokota, who was kidnapped in 1977 at age 13 (see The ashes of little Megumi, November 18).

North Korea now can only rely on South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun's center-left, pro-Pyongyang administration. South Korean political circles are sharply divided into conciliatory pro-North progressive camps of the Uri Party and antagonistic conservatives of the main opposition, the Grand National Party. Capitalizing on these divided political circles, Kim basically appears to have adopted a conciliatory strategy toward South Koreans by downsizing the personal cult of ideology.

Professor Lee Young-hwa, who said Pyongyang is trying to get more Seoul sympathizers, also pointed out that Kim once ordered his portraits alongside those of his father Kim Il-sung to be taken from public buildings in 1978, four years after Kim Il-sung officially nominated his son as his dynastic successor. Lee, an associate professor of economics at Kansai University, said that at the time Kim Jong-il was testing his people's loyalty to him: those who actually took down his portraits as ordered were said to have been punished and sent to gulags, or prison camps, often meaning death. This is one of the major reasons, Lee said, that Koreans cannot take what appears to be Kim's direct order at face value this time around. They are cautious: wanting to obey their leader who says take down his pictures, but also aware that obedience may carry a price.

Moreover, concerning the removal of the glorifying - though some find it odious - honorific "Dear Leader" from Kim's title, Lee said that also signifies Kim's efforts at conciliation toward South Korea. "Recently North Korea has intensified its media campaigns towards [the] South Korean audience, especially in Hangul [the Korean alphabet] on the Internet," said Lee. Now North Korea is coming to realize that the "Dear Leader" title inspires disgust among Korean audiences, especially the young.

Because he's a lunatic it's hard to rule anything out, but the notion that he's taken actions that undermine his own rule in the hopes that it will influence school choice seems over-ingenious.

Posted by Orrin Judd at November 19, 2004 9:36 AM
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