Younger Kim’s Portraits Unpopular

Portraits of the new North Korean leader are not selling well, sources say.
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Kim Jong Un tours an army unit, in a photo released Feb. 22, 2012.
Kim Jong Un tours an army unit, in a photo released Feb. 22, 2012.

Updated at 5:20 p.m. EST on 2012-03-06

Official portraits of North Korea’s new leader Kim Jong Un have not been well received by the public, sources in North Korea say, as he moves to bolster his support after inheriting the hardline communist regime from his late dictator father in December.

Attempts to market the portraits across the country found few takers, the sources said, as Pyongyang’s propaganda machine rolls into action to shore up the same personality cult for Kim Jong Un that surrounded his father Kim Jong Il and grandfather and North Korea’s founder Kim Il Sung.

Unconfirmed reports have said that Pyongyang's premier Mansudae Art Studio had created a portrait of the new leader since Kim Jong Un appeared at a special Worker's Party conference in September 2010 as his father's successor.

A resident in North Korea’s capital Pyongyang who tried to sell the portraits in northeastern Yanggang province failed to win customers, according to his relative in the province.

“[He] initially tried to sell the pieces for sixteen thousand won (U.S. $5) each, but he could not sell them so he dropped the price down to nine thousand won (U.S. $3), enough to cover his costs,” he told RFA.

“However, he only sold two pieces, and he had to take the rest of the unsold items back to Pyongyang.”

He said that portraits of the young and inexperienced Kim did not sell well because he has not attained the same popularity as a leader that his father and grandfather enjoyed.

“Kim Jong Un has not yet appealed to the people,” he said.

Kim, who is believed to be in his late 20s, took over as North Korea’s leader in December after the death of Kim Jong Il following a heart attack. Little was known about the junior Kim until he was introduced to the world by his father in 2010 .

Another source in Chungjin city in North Hamkyong province said he knew of failed attempts to sell the leader’s portraits in the area as well.

“There were some people who wanted to sell Kim Jong Un’s portraits secretly in Chungjin Market back at the end of January, but now I do not see anyone who wants to sell his portraits,” he said. “Perhaps they were not popular.”


Portraits of the country’s previous leaders have been an important part of the myths and personality cults created around the dynasty.

North Koreans are taught that Kim Jong Il was born at the foot of the sacred Mount Paektu as a new star appeared in the sky. His father, Kim Il Sung, has remained the country’s “Eternal Leader” since his death in 1994.

But while Kim Jong Il was groomed to succeed Kim Il Sung for some 20 years, Pyongyang has had to move more quickly to smooth the transition to the relatively unknown Kim Jong Un.

In September 2010, Kim Jong Un was granted several political positions and given the title of a four-star general, despite never having served in the military.

After Kim Jong Il’s death, North Korea’s state-run media exhorted the country’s people to rally behind the “Great Successor.”

The third-generation transition comes at a delicate time for North Korea, which struggles with a chronic food shortage and faces pressure to dismantle its nuclear weapons program.

Too many portraits

The source in Yanggang added that the official release of portraits of Kim Jong Un will only add to the images to which North Koreans must pay their respects.

“Having too many portraits [of leaders] in each household makes it an even bigger problem,” he said.

North Koreans are already required to hang portraits of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il on the “best” walls of their homes. Many also display figurines of the “Three Kims:” Kim Il Sung, Kim Jong Il, and Kim Jong Il’s mother Kim Jong Suk.

“This is the first time I have seen Kim Jong Un’s portrait. I thought he would be depicted in a military uniform, but he was dressed in a Mao-style suit,” the source said.

He said he had heard a portrait of Kim Jong Un discussing business with his father Kim Jong Il
hinting at the new leader’s closeness with his predecessorwill soon be released.

“When that happens, people living in a single-room home will have no place to hang these portraits,” he said.

Reported by Sung-hui Moon for RFA’s Korean Service. Translated by Carrie Yang. Written in English by Rachel Vandenbrink.





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