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November 19, 2004

Power and Portraits in Pyongyang

Been meaning to post this...

On Wednesday, the Times reported on some mysterious disappearances in the North Korean capital of Pyongyang:

TOKYO, Nov. 16—Portraits of North Korea's leader, Kim Jong Il, have been quietly taken down this fall in important institutions in the country's capital, Pyongyang, several diplomats there say..
Analysts are debating the reasons, with explanations that range from a demotion of North Korea's "Dear Leader" to a simple desire to place the portraits in more ornate frames.
In a country where the cult of the Kim family is a primary binding force, people have been sent to prison for failing to dust their leader's portrait or for allowing ink drops to blot his image in a newspaper. A woman who died trying to rescue Kim family portraits from a burning school was elevated by the state-controlled media to national hero.
But according to reports from Pyongyang by the Itar-Tass news agency and an ambassador in the capital, guests at recent Foreign Ministry receptions have seen only portraits of Mr. Kim's father, Kim Il Sung, a former anti-Japanese guerrilla leader who founded North Korea in 1945.
"Only a light rectangular spot on the yellow whitewashed wall and a nail have remained in the place where the second portrait used to be," the Itar-Tass correspondent said of the People's Palace of Culture.
Separately, a European ambassador in Pyongyang has told his country's ambassador in South Korea that he started noticing last month that Kim Jong Il portraits that had been displayed outside some schools and other institutions in Pyongyang were now gone, the Seoul-based ambassador said in a telephone interview Tuesday.
"One possible explanation is some shift of power, a weakening of the position of Dear Leader, who has not been seen in public for some time," the ambassador in Seoul said. "But I wouldn't bet on any explanation."
There has been no official reaction from North Korea to the reports. But a North Korean diplomat in Moscow was quoted Tuesday by Itar-Tass as saying: "This is false information, lies. Can the sun be removed from the sky? It is not possible."

What would a lonely despot be without the obligatory image cult? It does bring to mind a bit of image theory borne out of the Second Council of Nicea (related as it was to an understanding of imperial portraiture and presence):

To make our confession short, we keep unchanged all the ecclesiastical traditions handed down to us, whether in writing or verbally, one of which is the making of pictorial representations, agreeable to the history of the preaching of the Gospel, a tradition useful in many respects, but especially in this, that so the incarnation of the Word of God is shown forth as real and not merely phantastic, for these have mutual indications and without doubt have also mutual significations.
We, therefore, following the royal pathway and the divinely inspired authority of our Holy Fathers and the traditions of the Catholic Church (for, as we all know, the Holy Spirit indwells her), define with all certitude and accuracy that just as the figure of the precious and life-giving Cross, so also the venerable and holy images, as well in painting and mosaic as of other fit materials, should be set forth in the holy churches of God, and on the sacred vessels and on the vestments and on hangings and in pictures both in houses and by the wayside, to wit, the figure of our Lord God and Saviour Jesus Christ, of our spotless Lady, the Mother of God, of the honourable Angels, of all Saints and of all pious people. For by so much more frequently as they are seen in artistic representation, by so much more readily are men lifted up to the memory of their prototypes, and to a longing after them; and to these should be given due salutation and honourable reverence (aspasmon kai timhtikhn proskunh-sin), not indeed that true worship of faith (latreian>) which pertains alone to the divine nature; but to these, as to the figure of the precious and life-giving Cross and to the Book of the Gospels and to the other holy objects, incense and lights may be offered according to ancient pious custom. For the honour which is paid to the image passes on to that which the image represents, and he who reveres the image reveres in it the subject represented.

"Power and Portraits in Pyongyang"
Posted by Dan at 03:45 AM

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Referenced in this post:

Medieval Sourcebook: Decree of Second Council of Nicea, 787
New York Times: Where Kim's Portrait Hung in Pyongyang, a Baffling Blankness—James Brooke