North Korean state television has released cherubic photographs of dictator Kim Jong-un as a child after the photos were shown during a special Air Force concert held in his honor. The undated pictures alternately depict Kim as a chubby-cheeked toddler in military uniform, a studious student in epaulets and laurels, and a moon-faced elementary schooler in a uniform that appears to denote him as a Taejang, or a general, in the North Korean military.
At first glance, the photographs appear to prove that the youngest son and successor of the late Kim Jong-il has been groomed for the dictatorship since childhood, a latter-day version of the Roman Emperor Caligula, who earned his epithet (“little soldier’s boots”) after wearing military footwear as a child. The propagandist importance of these photos extends far beyond dynastic education, however. More than just an assertion by the North Korean government that Kim Jong-un has been raised since birth to replace his father as the Supreme Leader of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, the photos are an example of North Korea’s “child cult,” an often ignored aspect of the North’s cultural ideology that informs nearly every aspect of its government.
As presented in B.R. Myers’ The Cleanest Race, North Korea’s cultural and political identity isn’t based on its (dubious) status as “the last bastion of Stalinism.” Rather, North Korea’s self-perception is rooted in a racist ideology of virtue and innocence, with the Korean race standing alone as the world’s “purest” race. As Myers puts it, “The Korean people are too pure blooded, and therefore too virtuous, to survive in this evil world without a great parental leader.”
The philosophy has its roots in colonial Korea. After Japan invaded the Korean Peninsula in 1905, the conquerors sought to co-opt local pride to reinforce Japanese hegemony. Propaganda asserted that Koreans shared the same racial progenitor as the Japanese, meaning that citizens of both nations belonged to one “imperial race,” superior to all others. The hallmarks of this superiority aren’t necessarily in physical or mental supremacy—propaganda freely acknowledges that Americans are much taller—but moral supremacy: Koreans and Japanese are the sole light in a dark world.
Although Japanese colonialism ended with the Empire’s defeat in World War II, the legacy of racial superiority remained. Familiar Japanese symbols were transposed into Korean ones—the “founder” of the race was changed from a mythical Japanese figure to a Korean one; holy site Mount Fuji was replaced with North Korea’s Mount Paektu as the nation’s most sacred mountain, as well as the putative birthplace of Kim Jong-il.
This “unique” virtuousness is closely linked to childlike qualities that North Korean racial dogma insists the race embodies: In state propaganda, men are depicted as robust but boyish, women plump but girlish. Children are ubiquitous, and Supreme Leaders are depicted at their most content when being climbed over by hordes of smiling Korean children. Parables of complex societal problems being solved in a simple way by a pure-minded child are ubiquitous in North Korean culture. This “child cult” has a worrying corollary, however: To be as virtuous as a child in an evil world is to be as vulnerable as a child. The nation’s historical vulnerability to attack is often ascribed in state literature to the absence of a great leader who could turn the race’s purity into a source of strength.
The released photos of Kim Jong-un as a scholarly, military-minded youth reinforce this ideology. When North Koreans see these photos, they are seeing proof that, by virtue of his childlike innocence and nature, Kim Jong-un is the only leader pure enough, morally and racially, to lead the North Korean people through this wicked, wicked world. That a leader can be the embodiment of nativity and a brilliant strategist and revolutionary is only one of North Korea’s many contradictions.
Kim Jong-un isn’t the first second- or third-generation dictator to have images of his childhood used as state propaganda. Viewed through the lens of a racist ideology, however, this childhood photo album paints a much more sinister portrait.