Kim Jong-un’s recent PR stunt may have backfired on him, North Korean defectors told media.
On Dec. 4, North Korea’s Rodong Sinmun reported that the country’s hereditary dictator, his wife Ri Sol-ju, and several military generals had toured Mount Paektu, a national landmark considered sacred for its importance in Korean legend and the founding myth of the Kim dynasty.
However, while the more than 70 photographs of Kim and his entourage are clearly intended to evoke strength and awe in the North Korean people, the luxurious manner in which the leader made his trip could instead harm his reputation.
In the photos of Kim published by the Rodong Sinmun, he and his wife are seen riding white horses, symbolic of the “chollima” — the “thousand-mile steed” derived from Chinese legend. The military officers, meanwhile, are seated on grey horses. The visitors are wearing black rain boots in the snowy scene.
Kim had made the trip earlier in the week. Given the importance of the “chollima” as a political symbol from the early years of North Korea’s communist regime, foreign analysts interpreted the move as being a sign that Kim was going to stand up to demands by the United States and other countries for Pyongyang to give up its nuclear weapons and ballistic missile program.
The Rodong Sinmun spoke of the “unchanging majesty” of Mount Paektu. Official remarks by Kim at the occasion include: “I am moved by the spirit and passion of the revolution the more I come here.”
The South Korea-based website Daily NK reported Dec. 13 that the photos had “come under criticism for embodying the realities and constraints of North Korea’s cult of personality.”
Mount Paektu lies on the border between China and North Korea. According to Korean legendary history, It is the birthplace of Tangun, the founder of the Korean civilization roughly 5,000 years ago.
North Korean propaganda also portrays the mountain as the revolutionary base of founding communist dictator Kim Il-sung, who was a guerrilla commander before rising to power with Soviet support at the end of World War II. Kim, who died in 1994, was the grandfather of Kim Jong-un, the third-generation ruler in what has become a de facto royal dynasty.
North Korean defectors who spoke with Daily NK said that the details of Kim’s trip were “unimaginable” for ordinary citizens of the impoverished totalitarian state.
“Ordinary North Koreans have to climb the mountain on foot; this is meant to help them ‘experience’ the difficulties faced by Kim Il-sung’s band of revolutionaries during their fight against the Japanese” occupying Korea during and prior to World War II, the Daily NK summarized the defectors’ sentiments.
In addition to riding horses: “Kim and his companions all wore rain boots during their ascent. Ordinary North Koreans, however, can’t wear rain boots because of all the walking they have to do on the climb up.”
One defector, in his fifties, told Daily NK that “although the authorities emphasize the spirit of ‘resistance’ and ‘revolution,’ unwavering resolve in the face of difficulty, and comradeship, these qualities were nowhere to be found in Kim’s ascent up the mountain.”
“Watching them ascend the mountain so comfortably likely angered many ordinary people,” the man said.
Daily NK also noted that some of the pictures show Kim Jong-un and his wife Ri Sol-ju warming themselves by a campfire, something that would be a grave violation of the site rules for virtually anyone else in North Korea.
“Kim probably thought that he could kindle a fire as a courtesy to his wife and show his ‘human side’ to the people. It will only cause an uproar among the people,” a man who formerly served as a high-ranking North Korean official said.
“Ordinary people wouldn’t even dream of having a campfire in Miryoung [part of the Mount Paektu grounds],” the defector said. “The Supreme Leader violated a general rule that fires can’t be held on the mountain. Even tour guides and other employees at the local sites in the area don’t have campfires.”
“Essentially, Kim has punctured the image that he is an ‘error-free’ leader,” he added.
Kim Jong-un is said to lack the prestige of either Kim Il-sung or his own father, Kim Jong-il, who succeeded the first Kim and ruled until his death in 2011. Moreover, North Korean society has undergone subtle but pronounced changes.
More and more people are becoming engaged in an unofficial market economy, something increasingly tolerated by the authorities despite the official use of communist central planning. This has led to greater contacts with the outside world via China — where thousands of North Koreans work or trade — and imports of media providing glimpses of life in wealthy South Korea.