Tuesday, January 26, 2010


The news media has recently circulated stories of posthumous awards being given to North Korean sailors who reportedly drowned while trying to save portraits of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il.

This appears to be a case in which foreign media is connecting a series of dots that may or may not actually result in an accurate portrait of the DPRK. It is true that, when first reporting on the ship's sinking last year, the KCNA did note that some of the sailors bravely attempted to rescue portraits of both Kims. Here's the relevant quotation in Korean (English-language version of the story here):

광란하는 파도와 싸우면서 먼저 위대한 수령 김일성동지의 초상화와 위대한 령도자 김정일동지의 초상화를 안전하게 모신 우리 선원들의 소행은 사람들을 크게 감동시키였다.

And yet, when one reads of the awards being made just a few days ago (KCNA report here), there apparently is no mention of attempting to save the portraits; rather, there is more general praise for the sailors' courage and revolutionary spirit. Curiously, the English-language version of this story on the KCNA website carries roughly the same headline but the story is about an entirely different and unrelated matter.

Moreover, a search for the term "portrait" (초상화) reveals no mentions in the on-line DPRK media for the entire month of January.

It may be the case that the powers that be expect that the North Korean people will remember the original reference to the portraits and make the connection to the more general and vague invocation of "displayed the spirit of defending the headquarters of the revolution, the heroic self-sacrificing spirit and the revolutionary comradeship"(혁명의 수뇌부옹위와 영웅적희생정신, 혁명적동지애의 미풍을 보여주었다). But, given the lack of explicit reference to portrait saving in the description of the awards, one wonders whether these musings of so-called analysts are justified:
Analysts say such awards drive home the sense of personal sacrifice called for by Kim's cult of personality.

"North Korea trains its people in the religion of Kim Jong Il so that they are unconditionally loyal. As part of their policies, people are required to show blind, absolute loyalty," said Cheong Seong-chang, a senior fellow at the Inter- Korean Relations Studies Program at the Sejong Institute near Seoul.

Portraits of Kim and his father, known as the nation's "eternal president," hang in most North Korean homes and public places.

"North Korea has always offered a commendation to citizens who saved portraits of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il when their house was on fire," Cheong said. "People know that even images of their leaders are more precious than their own lives."

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