Faculty member and Ambassador Friedrich Lohr looks at the country on an important holiday
April 15th is the birthday of Kim Il Sung, Founding Father of the “Democratic” People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) and one of the highest holidays in North Korea’s shamanistic society: It has thus been named there the “Day of the Sun,” glorifying to the “eternal president” of the hermit state who died of a massive heart attack in July 1994, just a few days before the first summit meeting between the two Koreas was due to take place. Some North Korean holidays are easy to remember since they coincide with, or are close to, Christian feasts: The Founding Father was born near Easter, his wife conveniently at Christmas, their son, the late dictator Kim Jong Il (who died in 2011) was born on February 16th, when Christians celebrate the Virgin Mary.
Kim Il Sung is still officially head of state although his body has been lying in state in a glass coffin for public veneration in his former government palace Kumsusan, on the outskirts of the capital Pyongyang. This looks odd to Westerners but draws on ancient Korean mythology. According to the legend, the first king of Korea, Tangun, born about 2333 BC, reigned for far more than a hundred years before eventually sublimating himself into a mountain ghost.
When Kim Il Sung was in charge he received many gifts from official visitors. They symbolized the respect foreign dignitaries paid to the country’s ruler. Most of them are stored in a special museum, a large mountain cavern some 80 miles north of Pyongyang, conveniently facing another cavernous gift museum dedicated to his son and heir Kim Jong Il. Visitors are invited to admire a motley assortment of precious and semi-precious presents. There are incredibly valuable, six-foot wide miniature landscapes carved out of ivory (and given by China, North Korea’s protector and sole ally), works of art and handicraft, but also plain-looking decorations proffered by emissaries of former Warsaw Pact leaders — and anything in-between. Even annual delegations sent by the Vatican brought gifts until they realized that those precious items were the focus of their visits to the purportedly atheist state rather than the well-being of the few “official” recognized Roman Catholics in the country.
The North Korean people made special gifts to their leader, even ones with political overtones. They were sometimes monumental, as it befitted the leader of a monumental country. For his 60th birthday, Kim Il Sung was presented with a towering bronze statue of himself, more than 60 feet high, on Mansudae, a picturesque hill in central Pyongyang overlooking the capital; last year he was joined by a similar statute of his son. Ordinary mortals cannot help feeling small – and for good reason – in the presence of such towering giants. For another birthday, the elder Kim was glorified by an obelisk celebrating Kim’s state ideology of “Juche” with an over-sized torch at the top that at night conveys the impression of flickering. It is about three feet higher than the Washington monument in D.C. — which had served as its reference point. “Juche” may be roughly translated as “self-determination” but is much more focused on the perpetuation of the Kim dynasty. That is why North Korean calendars are now at “103 Juche,” adding 2014 only in brackets. Their era starts with the year in which Kim Il Sung was conceived. This is why the year 101 in the Juche calendar was a particularly important one. The leadership had promised to make the country a “powerful and affluent state” for the Founding Father’s 100th birthday – and so it was declared.
Military provocations, a staple good in North Korea’s diplomatic toolbox, were not timed to coincide with Kim Il Sung’s birthday. For the “Day of the Sun” needs not to be confused with days of Nemesis, the Greek Goddess of justified rage. Thus, in 1998, the arguably first test of a medium-range ballistic missile was conducted in August and dubbed a gift to Kim Il Sung to extoll his “Juche” ideology from space. How sad that “Paektusan-1,” the civilian version of the “Taepodong-1” missile did not reach its intended orbit and broke up probably after the third stage had been ignited, and the world did not hear from its satellite “Bright Star.” Military provocations, on the other hand, were reserved to coincide rather with the annual military exercises held in the South of the Korean peninsula involving North Korea’s traditional opponent, the U.S. Only last year when dynastic successor Kim Jong Un was in the final stages of consolidating his grip on power, the self-staged crisis dragged on almost until the Great Leader’s birthday. But the bluster ended just before the anniversary since the Obama administration (and the new South Korean President Park Geun-hye) had called their bluff and remained unperturbed in the face of threats of thermonuclear war.
This year Kim Il Sung’s anniversary was celebrated by the usual routine: Queues of ordinary and distinguished mourners visited at the glass coffin, dignitaries and the popular masses convened at Mansudae hill to deposit flowers, where they took a deep bow in front of the two giant statues of The Great Leader and the Dear Leader – and walked home through freshly swept streets, passing polished windows and some budding greenery on the sidewalks. The happy few were admitted to a special greenhouse on the other side of the Taedongang river where an exhibition of thousands of dark blue orchids was staged. They are called Kimilsungyas: The hybrid was created for Kim’s state visit to Indonesia decades ago and was presented by then Indonesian President Sukarno, one of the founders of the Nonaligned Movement and in this respect Kim Il Sung’s half soul mate. The discreet charm of the Kim dynasty made unavoidable the creation of another flower for the son. The Kimjongilya is a large red geranium hybrid that is tended to at the same museum-style glass house. Let us await what nature still has in store for Kim III.
Ambassador Friedrich Lohr is a faculty member in the Master’s in Global Studies and International Relations program and former German Ambassador to North Korea. His 37-year career led him to also represent Germany as Chargé d’ Affaires in Nigeria and Deputy Chief of Mission in Beijing, Khartoum, and Algiers .