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Portraits of a Dynasty: North Korea's Ever-Present Kims


FILE - Residents pass a painting of late North Korean leaders Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il in Pyongyang, North Korea, Sept. 6, 2018.

One of the first things any traveler to North Korea notices is a huge portrait of Kim Il Sung, pictured in front of an airplane and workers alongside the road as you drive out of Pyongyang International Airport. It's an image that soon becomes very familiar.

Millions of portraits, mosaics and paintings of Kim Il Sung, founder of North Korea, and his son Kim Jong Il, the father of current leader Kim Jong Un, offer daily reminders to the public of the central role of the Kim dynasty in their nation's story.

Smiling images of the Kims are everywhere you go. Portraits are mandatory not just in public places like train stations, hospitals, schools and factories, but even in private spaces such as the living rooms of apartments.

FILE - Portraits of late North Korean leaders Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il are seen on a train as it leaves a subway station in Pyongyang, North Korea, Sept. 11, 2018.
FILE - Portraits of late North Korean leaders Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il are seen on a train as it leaves a subway station in Pyongyang, North Korea, Sept. 11, 2018.

Portraits must be hung high, so that no one can stand above the leaders, according to government minders who accompany visiting media and tourists.

As the night falls over Pyongyang, giant portraits on various buildings get lit up.

North Korea remains one of the most tightly controlled societies on earth, with most of the country closed to outsiders, but groups of tourists are allowed to visit Pyongyang and a few other sites, providing the impoverished country with one of its few remaining sources of foreign currency.

FILE - Portraits of late North Korean leaders Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il are seen early morning at a memorial park in Pyongyang, North Korea, Sept. 8, 2018.
FILE - Portraits of late North Korean leaders Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il are seen early morning at a memorial park in Pyongyang, North Korea, Sept. 8, 2018.

For those visitors, another reminder of the all-encompassing influence of the Kim family is the lapel badge, bearing the image of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il, worn by all North Korean citizens.

The badge is presented to every North Korean when he or she turns 12, and from then on they are required to wear it whenever they leave their home. The badges are considered sacred and are not for sale, say government minders.

FILE - A bridegroom wears a badge with portraits of late North Korean leaders Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il in Pyongyang, North Korea, Sept. 11, 2018.
FILE - A bridegroom wears a badge with portraits of late North Korean leaders Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il in Pyongyang, North Korea, Sept. 11, 2018.

"We, all North Koreans, always wear the portrait badge like this. The most important part of a human body is the heart, right?" said An Sol Yong, a music teacher at a teacher training college in Pyongyang, during a government-organized visit for foreign reporters. All her students wore the badges pinned to their white shirts.

"Being together with our dear leaders through a badge hung on the closest place from our heart means that our belief that we won't be alive if the great leaders had not existed is kept in all our hearts."

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