Between Dec. 17 and 27, while many countries are immersed in holiday cheer, North Koreans are being required to study intently, brave freezing temperatures to visit cultural sites, then have their loyalty scored in exams – all to mark the life of former leader Kim Jong Il, the father of current leader Kim Jong Un, residents in the country told Radio Free Asia.
And if they don’t pass the test, they could face public criticism.
Kim Jong Il died on Dec. 17, 2011, and every year since, the following 10 days have become an annual mourning period for a man who during his life carefully crafted a cult of personality around himself, including his mythical birth on a sacred mountain, complete with multiple rainbows, a new star that lit in the sky and the changing of seasons from winter to spring, even though it was still February.
During most years, North Koreans were required to visit their local statue of Kim Jong Il to give tribute, and then retire to their homes to watch documentaries to learn about his life and accomplishments.
But this year, the government wants to step things up to make it a bigger, more serious affair, a resident of the northern province of Ryanggang told RFA Korean on condition of anonymity for security reasons.
“On the 16th, the Propaganda and Agitation Department of the Central Party issued an instruction to all institutions, companies, organizations and to residents to solemnly create an atmosphere of remembrance throughout the country on the anniversary of Kim Jong Il’s death,” he said.
“New educational content for the commemoration period of Kim Jong Il’s death included in-depth lessons about the leadership achievements that the greats had accomplished in each resident’s hometown.”
The phrase “the greats” refers to Kim Jong Il and his father, national founder Kim Il Sung.
“The content added visitations to learn about revolutionary historic sites and revolutionary sacred sites, which had not existed before,” the resident said.
On the actual anniversary, the residents of the city of Hyesan attended a two-hour memorial event at 7 a.m., where they presented flowers to the statues of both the late leaders and remained silent for one minute.
“Afterwards, the provincial party and provincial People’s Committee officials who participated in the event visited the Ryanggang Province historic sites,” he said.
Meanwhile, officials from city-level organizations took a tour of Kim Jong Suk University of Education, where Kim Jong Il gave field guidance, and workers of factories, cooperative farms and members of each labor organization visited the greenhouse housing Kimjongilia, an orchid named after the late Dear Leader.
There they saw a newly created mosaic mural of the father-and-son duo, Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il, titled “Always together on the road for the people,” he said.
The mandatory excursions would continue on the 18th, the resident said.
“Workers at factories and cooperative farms, students of elementary, middle, and high school, and members of each labor organization will visit the revolutionary memorial stones erected in various units of Hyesan,” he said. “They have to study the content written on the revolutionary memorial stone as well.”
Braving the cold
Another resident said that many of the sites in Ryanggang province are related to the purported heroic acts of Kim Il Sung during the time he led an army of guerillas against Japanese forces before and during World War II.
“Learning is conducted in the form of directly visiting revolutionary sacred sites and historic sites and studying the stories behind them,” the second resident said.
“The fact that there are more sacred sites and historic sites [in Ryanggang] compared to other regions means that the amount of learning to be done is greater than in other regions.”
The cold weather makes touring remote battlefields a chilly proposition, he said.
“These days, the weather in Ryanggang Province is hovering around minus 20 degrees [Celsius] (minus 4 degrees Fahrenheit), causing great suffering to those who are forced to tour the sites,” he said. “Elementary, middle and high school students are also forced to visit revolutionary sacred and historic sites in this weather.”
Tours of historic and sacred sites are carried out by workers and students not only after work and school, but also during work hours, as many organizations are scheduled back-to-back, he said.
Residents cannot simply go through the motions. At the end of their visits, they must take a test.
“There is a study review held on the 23rd,” he said. “If you do not successfully pass the question-and-answer format of the study review, you may be put on the stage for public criticism at the annual study review.”
Translated by Claire Shinyoung Oh Lee. Edited by Eugene Whong and Malcolm Foster.