North Korean Leaders’ Portrait Badges ‘Merchandized’ in Local Markets

Treatment of the badges as commodities threatens leaders' 'absolute authority,' authorities say.

A North Korean official wears a double-portrait badge at the UN in New York in a file photo.

Badges bearing the portraits of founding North Korean leader Kim Il Sung and his son Kim Jong Il, ordinarily distributed as gifts, are now being sold without official permission in markets across the country, North Korean sources say.

Purchase of the badges bearing the images of current leader Kim Jong Un’s father and grandfather, objects considered sacred and beyond commercial value, is being treated as “a very sensitive matter” by authorities in the reclusive, Stalinist state, a source in North Hamgyong province, bordering China, told RFA’s Korean Service on Wednesday.

“Joint teams of the State Security Service and the police are cracking down on sales of the badges, but this is not easy to do, as they are being sold in secret,” RFA’s source said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Local markets now offer the badges at 10,000 North Korean won per badge, the source said, adding that some vendors have more than 30 badges for sale.

“The badges can also be bought with U.S. dollars, costing $15 per badge,” he said.

“The younger generation, including students, are the merchants’ main customers,” he said. “They do not usually put the badges on to wear as displays of loyalty, though. Instead, they use them as decorative accessories.”

Authorities have declared that purchase and sale of the portrait badges is an act damaging the “absolute authority” of North Korean leaders, and have threatened strict punishment for those caught selling or buying them, he said.

“However, the sale of the badges doesn’t seem to have decreased,” he said.

Seized by police

Also speaking to RFA, a resident of Nampo, a designated “Special City” on the coast of South Pyongan province, said that one vendor was recently arrested in a back alley of a market in the city’s harbor area.

“He had about 20 badges with him, and he was seized by police just as soon as the authorities warned against merchandizing the badges,” the source said, also speaking on condition he not be named.

“Authorities said that treating the badges as commodities will be considered a ‘political violation,’ and that those caught doing it will be severely punished, so it seems like he won’t be able to get away with it,” he said.

North Korean leaders’ portrait badges have been bought and sold before, though, the source said.

“So North Korean residents are confused, because the authorities are being sensitive and calling the badges’ purchase and sale a political violation,” he said.

“People are saying that the authorities should identify the high-ranking party officials who sneaked the badges out [for sale], and punish them instead.”

Double-portrait pins

In a January 2015 report, sources in North Korea told RFA that ordinary North Koreans were illegally buying highly sought-after lapel pins bearing the images of both Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il and using them in lieu of cash to pay for accommodations, meals, and drinks.

Low-level  administrators who work for North Korea’s Workers’ Party and judiciary, university students, and members of the middle class who have money to buy the rare double-portrait pins were obtaining them illegally in local markets, the sources said.

The pins carrying the picture of the dynastic duo of Kims were among more than 10 kinds of badges with portraits of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il that North Koreans are obliged to wear, with the type of pin reflecting social status, the sources said.

The double pins were given only to high-ranking executives and military leaders, but not to ordinary citizens who usually wear pins with a single portrait of Kim Il Sung.

Reported by Myungchul Lee for RFA’s Korean Service. Translated by Leejin Jun. Written in English by Richard Finney.