5.7

Cult of personality

As you learned in step 5.2, Kim Il Sung was more cautious in his economic policies than Mao, whose Great Leap Forward industrialization plan in the late 1950s led to disaster. Kim was also more conservative in his cultural politics than Mao, whose Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution in the 1960s and ‘70s, featuring campaigns to “Destroy the Four Olds” and “Criticize Lin Biao and Confucius”, was intended to eradicate every trace of tradition and heritage from Maos’ revolutionary “New China”.

There were other aspects of Maoism, however, that Kim embraced, and the cult of Mao was one of those.

After 1966, a cult of personality emerged around Chairman Mao that came close to deification. Frenzied young Red Guards traveled thousands of miles to catch a glimpse of the elderly Mao, who was something more like a god than mere mortal. The Little Red Book, which distilled Mao’s most brilliant utterances into one pocket-sized publication, became like scripture, a text to be committed to memory, indeed, virtually the only text worthy of study. When Mao wrote the four character phrase, “Bombard the Headquarters,” his slogan instantaneously took on the authority of a biblical commandment, inspiring brazen acts of revolutionary fervor by youth rebelling against their teachers, cadres, even parents. Red Guards literally dressed themselves in devotion to Mao—olive fatigues signified their militancy in carrying his revolution forward, red armbands identified their “unit” in the Maoist crusade, and badges with Mao’s bust were pinned to their breasts—keeping the Chairman close to their hearts. Even fruit could become sanctified in the presence of the Great Helmsman—art historian Alfreda Murck’s volume Mao’s Golden Mangoes, for example, reconstructs the extraordinary tale of how a mango given to Mao by the Pakistani foreign minister in 1968 ended up as an object of devotion in Maoist rites held by students and workers.

North Korea’s Great Leader was not to be outdone in veneration by China’s Great Helmsman. Gukmin University professor Andrei Lankov explains, in his colorful collection North of the DMZ: Essays on Daily Life in North Korea, that Kim Il Sung badges were introduced a couple years ahead of Kim’s 60th birthday in 1972, so that the whole nation would be wearing a pin of fidelity by the time the big day came. The birthday also inspired a rash of monumental architecture in honor of Kim: most notably the 20-meter statue of the Great Leader with hand outstretched on Mansudae Hill in central Pyongyang.

Both Kim and Mao were working off a Soviet blueprint, but their cults suffered very different fates. China in the end followed the Soviet model– Stalin had arguably been the first true master of communist cult of Big Leader, but his successor Nikita Khrushchev, in famous “secret speech” of 1956, denounced “the cult of the person of Stalin… which became at a certain specific stage the source of a whole series of exceedingly serious and grave perversions of Party principles, of Party democracy, of revolutionary legality”. Mao Zedong eventually picked up the baton that Khrushchev discarded in the de-Stalinization campaign, and even at Mao’s death in 1976, the Chinese masses mourned, outwardly at least, as if God was dead and the sky had fallen. But once Deng Xiaoping took power, he condemned the cult of Mao, just like Khrushchev had the cult of Stalin.

Not so Kimist Korea. By the Deng era, Kim Il Sung was well on his way to establishing himself as the apotheosis of the 20th century communist cult of personality. By handing down power to his son Kim Jong Il, not only did Kim Il Sung’s “godlike” status remain intact after death, the omniscience and omnipotence of Supreme Leader passed into the 21st century.

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Lips and Teeth: Korea and China in Modern Times

Yonsei University

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