In this photo released by Korea News Service in Tokyo, vehicles pass by propaganda posters in Pyongyang, Wednesday. / AP-Yonhap
By Andrei Lankov
No ideology can survive without a hero ― or, rather, a large number of heroes. Religions need martyrs, to be remembered for centuries, nationalisms cherish the fallen freedom fighters, and states create elaborate rituals to preserve the memory of selfless soldiers.
I don't want to sound too cynical; most people who have been enshrined in various pantheons are indeed worthy of the greatest respect, since one's willingness to sacrifice one's life for the country, race, deity, or other similar institutions, whatever the cynics say, is testament to great human qualities.
However, it is also naive to deny that heroes' cults are carefully manipulated and maintained by manifold political and social forces. Heroes and martyrs give us examples to emulate, and varied ideologies want us to follow this glorified path if circumstances require.
Well, who are the worshipped heroes in North Korea? Whose names are North Korean children supposed to know, and which great deeds brought them to fame? A look through North Korean publications will show that there are four people, three men and one woman, whose lives are officially recognized as examples to follow.
The North Korean list of revered heroes starts with the name of Yi Su-bok (Ri Su-bok in North Korean spelling). Yi was a Korean War soldier who was killed in October 1951 during a battle near the 1211 Hill, the much-glorified site of the North Korean resistance to the "yankee invaders".
When a North Korean attack was halted because of machine-gun fire, Yi jumped in front of the enemy machine gun and closed it down with his own body, making possible the advance of his friends and saving their lives. Shortly before his death, he also allegedly wrote a long and suspiciously well-written letter, which is still widely studied in North Korean schools. In the letter, he professed his willingness to give his life for his motherland. In times of famine, young North Koreans were encouraged to become "Yi Su-boks of the 1990s" (this was the name of a mass movement - or rather mass propaganda campaign - in North Korea).
For a Russian, the story of Yi Su-bok is very familiar. It is essentially a copy of the Alexandr Matrosov story, which is known to virtually every Russian. Matrosov was a Soviet soldier who similarly advanced on a German machine-gun with his body, protecting his friends from deadly fire. His deed became one of the best-known vignettes in Soviet mythology and was well-known in war-time Korea, so it's not surprising that the North Korean ideologues used a similar incident to create a local copy of the Matrosov cult There is a difference, however: nobody in the USSR stated that Matrosov who spent his childhood in an orphanage, wrote patriotic letters.
Another wartime hero was a girl called An Yong-ae, whose name is second to that of Yi Su-bok. She was an army nurse killed during a US air raid trying to save some soldiers. Mortally wounded, she asked the Party secretary to take care of her Party ID card. Frankly, it was this gesture alone that had her inducted into the pantheon, since she was by no means the only nurse to die while trying to save people under bombs and shells.
In the 1970s, her great spirit was extolled in a movie and in a "revolutionary opera" (for some reason, in both productions, her name was changed to Kang Yong-ok ― perhaps to emphasize that the story deals with a typical North Korean girl of her generation, and not with a particular personality). Since in North Korea there were merely five "revolutionary operas", to be featured in such a production was indeed a very high honor.
Our third hero is Kil Yong-jo, an air force pilot who died in a crash in 1992. His plane malfunctioned over a city, so he did not eject from but continued to fly his plane away from the crowded area. Once again, the story sounds familiar to this author, since every Soviet teenager of my age was repeatedly told about two Soviet pilots who did the same thing in the 1960s (actually, their names were Yuri Yanov and Boris Kapustin, and the incident took place in 1966 over East Germany). This is not to say that Kil Yong-jo's story was invented. Most likely, he was a real hero, like Yanov, Kapustin, and many other pilots worldwide who've done similarly. However, the decision to promote Kil Yong-jo was probably influenced by the Soviet tradition of the 1970s and 1980s.
The final entry on the roll call of North Korean propaganda heroes is officer called Kim Kwang-chol. In 1990, during a training exercise, a soldier mishandled a grenade that fell near a group of soldiers, and Kim threw himself on it. He was killed by the explosion, but a dozen people around him survived. Since the incident occurred in January 1990, Kim Kwang-chol was hailed as "the first hero of the 1990s".
Frankly, most of these people would be seen as heroes in any country. However, there is a uniquely North Korean type of martyr: one who sacrificed his or her life to save a portrait of the Great Leader or his son, the Dear Leader. However, these incidents warrant another story.