Argument

Kim Jong Un Rides to His Family’s Battles

North Korea’s new propaganda campaign looks to old myths.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un rides a white horse to climb Mount Paektu in an image distributed on Oct. 16, 2019, by the North Korean government.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un rides a white horse to climb Mount Paektu in an image distributed on Oct. 16, 2019, by the North Korean government. Korean Central News Agency/Korea News Service via AP

A new film has been airing daily on North Korean television recounting Kim Jong Un’s “legendary miracle year of 2019.” Opening with a smiling Kim astride his white horse on the snowcapped summit of Mount Paektu, the two-and-a-half-hour feature shows the portly dictator hosting Chinese leader Xi Jinping in Pyongyang, greeting Russian President Vladimir Putin in Vladivostok, and defiantly facing down U.S. President Donald Trump at summit after summit as he denounces U.S. sanctions and vows to follow a “new path.”

There have been repeated hints since the start of the year as to what this new path might involve, with Kim threatening to unveil a “new strategic weapon” and warning that North Korea is no longer bound by its self-imposed nuclear test moratorium. While he has not closed the door entirely to further talks with Trump, the message the North Korean leader is now delivering to his citizens is that they should be prepared for a prolonged struggle and no short-term sanctions relief, with blame squarely aimed at the “hostile forces” whose scheme to “isolate and crush us to death is at its height.” The film ends with Kim and his top officials riding into the sunset on Mount Paektu, accompanied by rousing martial music, as the narrator urges viewers to follow the leader’s example and “advance, advance, advance.”

Behind these horseback exploits and the fiery rhetoric is an old, almost entirely fictional story that the Kim regime has relied on for generations. With stalled denuclearization talks now deadlocked and a return to military threats, it’s important to understand this familial-national myth and the reality Kim Jong Un presents at home, as he insists he is protecting his country from the nuclear threat posed by the United States and that the hardship his citizens must endure is the result of American hostility.

A good place to start is Mount Paektu, where the current leader’s grandfather, Kim Il Sung, supposedly waged a guerrilla struggle to liberate the country from Japanese colonial rule in the mid-20 century. Revered both north and south of the border as the ancient birthplace of the Korean people, the first Kim is meant to have fought from secret bases around the sacred mountain, conveniently linking the family dynasty with existing mythology. His son, Kim Jong Il, is said to have been born during the conflict (his birth preceded by the appearance of a new star in the sky and a double rainbow), neatly tying him to the story and reinforcing his claim to rule as a direct descendant of the “Paektu bloodline,” as the Kim family now refers to its lineage.

In some North Korean books, you can still find references to the Soviet army’s role in defeating Japan, but most of the credit is given to Kim Il Sung, who is described in the regime’s propaganda as “the anti-Japanese legendary brilliant commander.” As the Pyongyang-published Outstanding Leadership and Brilliant Victory explains, “President Kim Il Sung, the peerless patriot … led the Korean people to victory in the anti-Japanese revolutionary war by employing Protean tactics of guerrilla warfare, and liberated the country on August 15, 1945.”

In fact, the future leader was not even in the country at the time, let alone mounting a great liberation war. Japan’s control of Korea ended with its surrender to the Allied powers at the conclusion of World War II, not as the result of a battle with Kim Il Sung. While it is true that he was a guerrilla fighter, Kim fought primarily in Manchuria, northeastern China, not on Mount Paektu, and his struggle was over by the winter of 1940-1941, when he fled across the border into the Soviet Union. According to a report from the Soviet archives, he spent the rest of the conflict with a Red Army unit in the Russian far east, where Kim Jong Il was really born. When he returned home in September 1945, it was not at the head of a victorious army but as an unremarkable young man on board a Soviet naval ship.

Fortunately for Kim, he had some powerful help building up his image. With Cold War tensions escalating and the better-known U.S.-backed Syngman Rhee in the south, Soviet leader Joseph Stalin needed a credible leader to hold his own in the north. Kim Il Sung was not the Soviets’ first choice, but once he had been selected, Stalin’s officials set about promoting him, embellishing his guerrilla credentials, and laying the foundations for the cult of personality that persists to this day.

That first purported victory over Japan became the basis for Kim’s second great myth, as he claimed to have harnessed his earlier guerrilla experience to defeat the United States in the Korean War. Here, too, the history has been twisted and wildly distorted, with the Kim regime telling its citizens that North Korea was attacked by the United States and its “puppet army” in South Korea at the start of the conflict in June 1950, instead of the truth that Kim Il Sung invaded the south. But thanks to their leader’s strategic genius, so the official story goes, Kim’s forces prevailed, winning the conflict known there as the Fatherland Liberation War.

“On the basis of the rich experience and diverse tactics he had accumulated and created in the days of the arduous anti-Japanese armed struggle,” Kim’s propagandists explain, “he defeated the US imperialists who had been making a show of their power, believing in their numerical and technical superiority.” It was, they note, his second great victory, as he vanquished “two imperialisms—Japan and the United States—in a single generation and demonstrated the heroic mettle of the Korean people to the whole word.”

This is the history his grandson Kim Jong Un now invokes as he positions himself as the new great savior of the nation, securing the country this time through his pursuit of nuclear weapons and intercontinental ballistic missiles—or as he put it in his latest speech, “defending ourselves by bolstering up our power sufficiently enough to keep the hostile forces at bay.”

And it helps explain why Kim has taken to touring these mythical battle sites on horseback of late, reminding his compatriots of the great struggle his ancestors are supposed to have waged and in whose illustrious footsteps he purports to follow. “Riding a steed across the vast area of Mount Paektu,” the report on Kim’s December outing noted, “he recollected the bloody history of the guerrillas who recorded dignity on the first page of the history of the Korean revolution by shedding their blood in the vast plain of Mount Paektu.” Calling on his people to “instill the indefatigable revolutionary spirit of Mount Paektu,” he urged them to defy the “unprecedented blockade and pressure imposed by the imperialists” and to prepare for “the harshness and protracted character of our revolution.”

Just as his grandfather faced down their past enemies on this battlefield, in other words, so Kim Jong Un claims to be waging his own battle against the country’s contemporary adversaries, chief among them of course, the United States.

This does not just apply to military matters. When Kim opened a new ski resort and hot springs facility last month, for instance, the party newspaper described the achievement as a “decisive match fought without guns” and a victory over “the enemies who adamantly attempt to halt our advance.” All of the country’s problems—its citizens’ hunger, isolation, and hardship—are blamed on these external enemies, not the policies of the leadership.

As Kim now returns to the path of overt weapons development and provocation, he will double down on this narrative, framing any new crisis as just the latest campaign in the country’s decadeslong struggle for survival and sovereignty. While his citizens continue to suffer the consequences of his actions with another year of sanctions and shortages ahead, Kim will continue to insist that he is the hero, not the villain, of the story.

Katie Stallard-Blanchette is a History and Public Policy Program and Asia Program fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C.

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