In North Korea, there’s no escaping the Kim family.
“Eternal President” Kim Il Sung continues to reign — according to North Korean lore — 21 years after his death. “Dear Leader” Kim Jong Il, his son, died in 2011 but lies in state with his father in a mausoleum the size of Buckingham Palace on the outskirts of Pyongyang. And “Great Successor” Kim Jong Un, a grandson, is ensuring that none of his subjects forget about the family line — by strengthening the bizarre personality cult that the family has perpetuated during the past 60 years.
The latest outlet for Kimism: new statues. The regime has been tearing down statues of Kim Il Sung across the country — an act that must be requiring all sorts of hoopla because it’s a treasonous offense to even place a newspaper with a photo of one of the Kims face down — and replacing them with huge new statues of Kim senior and Kim junior.
“This looks like part of Kim Jong Un’s plan to solidify his hereditary succession, carry on his father’s mantle,” says Curtis Melvin, a North Korea researcher at Johns Hopkins' U.S.-Korea Institute at SAIS, who has studied the country’s geography extensively using satellite imagery. He has noted the steady replacement of the statues over time, thanks to his knowledge of the country through Google Earth.
The first statue to go was the one of Kim Il Sung that stood at Mansudae, a hill in the center of Pyongyang that was the required first stop for all delegations visiting Pyongyang. There, visitors were given bouquets to place at Kim Il Sung’s feet and were expected to bow. But in 2012, soon after Kim Jong Il’s death, the statue was removed and replaced with two statues: a new one, or at least an extensively remolded one, of Kim Il Sung, with a new statue of Kim Jong Il next to it. But that statue, which showed the second Kim in a light coat, didn’t last long and was soon replaced by a statue of him in a heavier winter coat (like his father).
The statues are thought to be about 70 feet tall and appear to be made of bronze.
Since then, the authorities have been methodically going around the country pulling down the statue of the senior Kim and replacing it with new likenesses of him and his son.
Thanks to these satellite photos, Melvin has been able to see that in addition to Mansudae, a single statue of Kim Il Sung was replaced with new statues of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il in cities such as Chongjin in the north, Hamhung and Wonsan on the east coast, and Kanggye and Sinuiju on the Chinese border.
The addition of the statues has been widely noted in the North Korean news media.
“The erection of the statues in the province is a noteworthy event in glorifying the revolutionary careers and feats of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il," the state-run Korean Central News Agency reported this week when new statues in Pyongsong were unveiled. A representative "called on all officials and working people in the province to firmly defend and glorify their idea and exploits forever as befitting descendants of the President and soldiers and disciples of the leader,” it said.
Google Earth has also revealed to Melvin that two entirely new statues were installed on a hillside in Rason and that new Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il statues are under construction in the cities of Sariwon, Nampho and Haeju.
There is only one other provincial capital that does not have a Kim Jong Il statue: Hyesan, in Ryanggang province, up on the border with China.
Aside from the city squares, the North Koreans have built new statues at several facilities, including the Ministry of State Security and its associated university, the State Academy of Sciences; Kim Il Sung Military University; Kim Il Sung University; and the Mansudae Art Studio — where the statues are almost certainly made. There are even miniature statues of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il at the Pyongyang Folk Park, a theme park that features tiny versions of North Korean landmarks, including the Kumgangsan mountains and Pyongyang’s Juche Tower.
The cost of the statues is unquantifiable — it’s not clear exactly how big they are or what they are made of — but Adam Cathcart, a North Korea specialist at Leeds University, says they would have required “huge expenditure.”
But the statues are not the extent of it. “In addition to the statues, there are Kim Il Sung/Kim Jong Il monuments going up across the country. I have counted 233 of those, and they are still going up,” Melvin says. Furthermore, the marble statues of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il that used to stand at Kumsusan, the huge mausoleum where the two leaders lie in state, have recently been swapped out for Madame Tussaud-style wax figures.
At least there's one sector that North Korea can say is really booming.