This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.
North Korean authorities are distributing among the country’s elite a newly issued lapel badge featuring the portrait of former leader Kim Jong Il, father of current leader Kim Jong Un. The newest badge is replacing the more common double-portrait badge, which features Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Un together, leading some to speculate that Kim Jong Un is attempting to deemphasize his grandfather in favor of his father, thereby boosting his own importance.
By law, lapel badges officially commissioned by the Pyongyang’s prestigious Mansudae Art Studio must be worn by North Koreans whenever they go out in public. When they first appeared in the late 1960s, the design featured the portrait of a young Kim Il Sung.
According to a 2007 book by North Korea expert Andrei Lankov, around 20 badges have been issued since then. While each new design updated the portrait or changed the shape of the badge, rarer variations or limited issue designs have appeared and gone on to become collector’s items.
These days, most citizens wear badges featuring either a portrait of Kim Il Sung alone, or the double-portrait badge. But the new Kim Jong Il badge is appearing on an increasing number of North Korean lapels.
A source in Dandong, a Chinese city situated close to the border with North Korea, spotted the new badges recently.
“North Korean officials visiting China always wear a portrait badge on the left side of their chest, and a number of them have been wearing a version with only Kim Jong Il’s face on it, which I’ve never seen before,” the source told RFA’s Korean Service.
“[The new badge] started to appear here and there about month or two ago, but now a lot of them are wearing the Kim Jong Il-only badge. The double portrait badge with Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il together is still more common, but officials are increasingly wearing Kim Jong Il by himself,” said the source.
The source from Dandong explained that the most recent badge is not the first to feature featuring only Kim Jong Il.
“Before the double-portrait badge came out, there was a Kim Jong Il single-portrait badge for a while. But the new Kim Jong Il badge has a different shape and color,” the source said.
“The new one has two different designs, a circular badge with the portrait on a red background, and the portrait superimposed on the flag of the [Korean] Workers’ Party. The old Kim Jong Il badge simply had a white background,” explained the source.
The newly issued badge is still a rarity, according to a resident of North Pyongan Province.
“[It] hasn’t been distributed to the general public yet. It has been supplied to some senior officials, perhaps because there weren’t enough [to go around,] the second source said.
“The double-portrait badge looks good. I don’t know why the new single-portrait badge is coming out,” said the second source.
A North Korean defector from Pyongyang, surnamed Lee and living in South Korea, told RFA the issuance of a new badge is no mere fad, it could signify a shift in political ideology.
“In North Korea, the meaning of the portrait badge is much deeper and more serious than what outsiders think,” said Lee.
“It may indicate that there will be some sort of change in the Kim family idolization projects and propaganda, different from what we’re used to seeing,” Lee said.
“If I had to guess, I think there’s a possibility that Kim Jong Un intends to boost his father’s reputation and downplay his grandfather’s.”
Meanwhile Kim Jong Un was granted more authority during the second session of the 14th Supreme People’s Assembly on August 29. Kim can now proclaim law, which had been a power held by the Presidium of the assembly. He can also now appoint ambassadors.