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N. Korea Pays Homage to Its Founding Leader

  • Brian Padden

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un gestures during a men's football match between Sonbong and Hwoebul teams for the Mangyongdae Prize Sports Games at Kim Il Sung Stadium, in this undated photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency April 14, 2015.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un gestures during a men's football match between Sonbong and Hwoebul teams for the Mangyongdae Prize Sports Games at Kim Il Sung Stadium, in this undated photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency April 14, 2015.

North Korea celebrated its biggest holiday of the year Wednesday, commemorating the birth of its late founder Kim Il Sung. The Day of the Sun celebrations make efforts to bolster Kim Jong Un's leadership by recalling the rule of his grandfather.

A military parade and rally on Sunday kicked off a week of festivities marking the 103rd birthday of the late Kim Il Sung, who led North Korea from its founding in 1948 until his death in 1994.

According to North Korea’s state news agency, his grandson, Kim Jong Un, the current supreme leader of the country, paid homage at the Kumsusan Palace of the Sun in Pyongyang, where the embalmed bodies of his grandfather and father Kim Jong Il are displayed in glass coffins.

On Tuesday, Kim Yong Nam, a top-ranking official in Pyongyang, paid tribute to the late leader by recalling his experience fighting against Japanese colonial rule, founding the country after World War II and leading during the Korean War.

Some recall better days

Kim Heung-kwang, a North Korean defector and president of the North Korea Intellectuals Solidarity research group, is a critic of all three generations of the regime.

But he concedes that most North Koreans, especially older ones, remember Kim Il Sung as a patriot who fought for independence and they associate his rule with better economic times.

The international rights group Human Rights Watch pointed out that Kim Il Sung established a ruthless, repressive, authoritarian regime that used deadly force to gain power. It prohibited freedom of expression, a free press, trade unions and any independent organization. The elder Kim executed many dissenters and sentenced others, along with their entire families, to a secret system of political prisoner camps.

Still, many North Koreans have fonder memories of Kim Il Sung than they do of his son Kim Jong Il, who is remembered for the large-scale famine that devastated the country in the 1990s. The loss of foreign aid after the Soviet Union's collapse was a major reason for the severe food shortages that led more than 200,000 people to die of starvation. But Kim Jong Il’s failure to address the dire economic conditions while continuing to pursue the development of nuclear weapons also contributed to the humanitarian crisis.

Seeking reflected glory?

Many have remarked that Kim Jong Un resembles a youthful version of his grandfather. Kim Heung-kwang said the current so-called "dear leader" is consciously trying to reinforce his physical resemblance to the North Korean founder by adopting the same clothing and hair styles, and the same way of gesturing, talking and walking.

He said Kim Jong Un is trying to convince North Koreans that Kim Il Sung has returned in a form of Kim Jong Un and to associate his political ideology and leadership with his grandfather’s.

The North Korean defector said this approach has helped the younger Kim consolidate his grip on power since becoming the supreme commander of the Korean People’s Army after his father died in 2011. Kim Jong Un also reportedly purged numerous North Korean government officials suspected of being disloyal including, executing his uncle and one-time mentor, Jang Song Thaek, in 2013.

Kim Jong Un's wife Ri Sol Ju joined her husband at a soccer match that was part of the week’s festivities. It was the first time she has been seen in public since December, when she attended a ceremony commemorating Kim Jong Il's death.

VOA Seoul Producer Youmi Kim contributed to this report.

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