This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.
North Korean propaganda authorities sprang into action recently after images of leader Kim Jong Un and his predecessors from recycled publications were found in scrap paper, ordering inspections and “ideological education” in regional offices of the ruling Korean Workers’ Party, sources in the country told RFA.
Kim Jong Un took power in 2011 on the death of his father Kim Jong Il, who succeeded his father, North Korean founder Kim Il Sung, when the eldest Kim died in 1994. The Kim family – the only rulers the country has known since it was founded in 1948 – has been the focus of government-enforced worship for decades.
When the Central Party’s Propaganda and Agitation Department discovered that the so-called “No. 1 publications” – those featuring the leadership – were being treated as scrap paper, it announced the investigation, saying local officials would be held responsible for the lack of respect.
While officials scrambled to prepare for visits, some residents dismissed the inspection as a way to provide more opportunities for inspectors to collect bribes, and said enforcing respect for the Kims was mostly a means of control by fear.
“Under the supervision of the Central Party’s Propaganda and Agitation Department, the ideological inspections are being conducted on the party committees of each province, city and county,” an official of North Hamgyong province, on the border with China in the country’s northeast, told RFA’s Korean Service Tuesday.
“The purpose of this inspection is to further strengthen the ideological education of local government officials and residents through the process of censuring and criticizing the effectiveness of the local government agencies’ ideological education projects,” said the official, who requested anonymity for security reasons.
“The inspection is all because people are allowing books and newspapers containing No. 1 portraits, or artwork by Kim Il Sung, Kim Jong Il and Kim Jong Un to be damaged,” said the official.
“The people are further undermining the authority of the ‘great people of Mt. Paekdu’ by selling the damaged publications as scrap paper,” the source said, referring to the three North Korean leaders, who have mythical ties to the mountain sacred in Korean culture, located on the Sino-Korean border.
“The authorities ordered strict punishment of such acts, because they go against the party and compromise its authority and that of its leaders,” the official said.
‘Educate and control the people’
The order went out to officials, workers and members of the Kimilsungist-Kimjongilist Youth League, a youth group modeled after the Soviet Komsomol, “to thoroughly manage No. 1 publications… and to educate and control the people so that they don’t sell them as scrap paper.”
“The authorities will thoroughly check each provincial party committee on how No. 1 publications are distributed to lower-level organizations. The officials are nervous because the authorities mentioned punishing responsible officials for the damaged publications,” the source added.
The source said that the officials in North Hamgyong are scrambling to correct any problems ahead of the inspection.
“The regional party committees conducted a project to pre-inspect the No. 1 publications and took countermeasures against any issues they found in preparation for the Central Committee’s inspection,” the source said.
“We have not yet had inspections in this area, but because it is coming soon, the local party officials are disconcerted. They are moving fast to correct any issues found as soon as possible as it is their only way to avoid punishment,” said the source.
Another source, a resident of North Hamgyong’s neighboring Ryanggang province, told RFA the same day that the inspection goes beyond printed materials to include old videos of the leaders that have deteriorated in quality over time.
“The party, labor organizations and Group 109 are also collecting substandard videos,” said the resident, referring to Pyongyang’s censorship unit that specializes in crackdowns on those who distribute or watch illegal videos.
“So far, there have been several instructions and inspections to root out the old videos, but it was concluded that nothing has improved, so the authorities are trying to find problems and take more stringent measures,” said the resident, who requested anonymity to speak freely.
Fear and bribes
But the Ryanggang resident said the directives are aimed mainly at stoking fear and only offer more opportunities for officials to solicit bribes.
“The Central Committee has conducted a number of inspections under various pretexts. However, this is the first time that the Central Party ordered an inspection on damage to No. 1. Publications, so not only local party officials, but also local residents are worried,” the second source said.
“Inspections and censorship are very common, but in reality, you can be spared from the inspections by bribing inspectors. As they inspect more, it will only increase the corruption of the inspecting officials.”
North Koreans are forced to display respect for the Kim family in all facets of their daily lives.
Citizens must wear lapel pins bearing their visages whenever in public. The portraits of the two former leaders are also widely known to adorn every home, public building, and workplace and it is a crime to allow them to collect dust.
The government even lionizes those who risk personal safety to rescue the portraits in emergency situations.
State media reported in 2012 that the government posthumously honored 14-year-old Han Hyon-Gyong with the Kim Jong Il Youth Honor Award when she drowned attempting to save the portraits from her home during a flash flood.
Her parents, teachers and youth league leaders also received awards, and her school was renamed after her.
Those who fail to save the portraits, however, face strict punishment. South Korea-based Daily NK reported in January that the Ministry of State Security launched an investigation into a North Hamgyong woman who saved her children from a house fire instead of saving the portraits.
That report said the mother was not allowed to see her children in the hospital while she was under investigation.