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NORTH KOREA NEWSLETTER NO. 217 (July 5, 2012)
*** TOPIC OF THE WEEK

N. Korea Cautiously Stepping Up Idolization of New Leader's Mother

SEOUL (Yonhap) -- North Korea appears to be idolizing the late mother of its leader Kim Jong-un as it attempts to solidify a personality cult around him after the death of his father Kim Jong-il.

   Kim Jong-un's mother, Ko Yong-hui, who died of cancer in 2004, has garnered attention recently after Japanese and South Korean media said they obtained a propaganda film on the late leader's third wife.

   Recently, Seoul's KBS Television aired a 75-minute film about the propaganda film on Ko, which was obtained from Japan. Titled "The Mother of Great Songun (military-first) Korea," the film was produced in 2011 when the late leader was alive.

   KBS and Japanese broadcaster TBS said the North Korean video marked the first time audio of Ko has been made public. She is heard speaking in the film, which shows her inspecting military sites along with her husband Kim Jong-il. It was reportedly screened for top military officers and the Workers' Party.

   Experts say Pyongyang has been trying to boost the personality cult surrounding Ko since May by releasing photos of her with Kim Jong-un as a child. But the film gives neither her name nor any exact dates because Ko is believed to have been born in Japan in 1952 and moved to North Korea with her family in the 1960s. In bloodline-obsessed North Korea, Ko's origins pose a challenge for propaganda outlets as they work to craft Kim Jong-un's personality cult.

   A defector who used to be a senior North Korean official said, "Japanese-born Koreans have a very low social status in the North. Ko Yong-hui hasn't been idolized because the regime doesn't want to reveal where she came from."

   The North relies on such massive personality cults to justify the Kim family rule and is thought to be emphasizing Kim Jong-un's "royal bloodline" as it consolidates his power among the elite and the rest of the population. The junior Kim, thought to be in his late 20s, took power following his father's death in December.

   Japanese media have also reported that they have obtained the propaganda film on Ko Yong-hui. Japanese broadcaster TBS on June 30 aired the film of Ko which was produced by North Korea.

   Japanese newspapers, Yomiuri Shimbun and Tokyo Shimbun, reported they obtained the same video clip produced by North Korea through different routes. And yet another main newspaper, Maininchi Shimbun, claimed they acquired the film independently for the first time.

   Other media said that they gained the same film from Japanese civic groups which are fighting for the freedom of North Koreans from dictatorial regime.

   The film, apparently used to indoctrinate senior military officers, shows Ko watching little Kim Jong-un draw a picture, cleaning a field jumper for her husband Kim Jong-il, and firing a handgun.

   The voiceover describes her as the "respected and beloved general Kim Jong-il's most valuable revolutionary comrade" and a "great person sent from heaven for Kim Il-sung's people."

   It also included her in a roll call of "great mothers" along with Kim Il-sung's mother Kang Pan-sok and Kim Jong-il's mother Kim Jong-suk.

   Japan's Mainichi Shimbun said the regime started showing the film to senior military officers. "The idolization of Ko Yong-hui began in the military in the early 2000s but stopped in June 2004, when she died," a Unification Ministry official in Seoul said.

   Earlier this year, North Korea began to call Ko Yong-hui the "mother of Pyongyang," as the country reinforced Kim Jong-un's personality cult on the 70th birthday of Kim Jong-il, which fell on Feb. 16.

   The expression came in an epic poem praising late leader Kim Jong-il written by a sub-committee of the Writers Union of (North) Korea.

   The poem, under the title "Comrade Kim Jong-il, the Eternal Sun of Songun," was released on Feb. 13 by Rodong Sinmun, the North's ruling Workers' Party newspaper. Songun refers to the military-first ruling philosophy of the late leader.

   According to the newspaper, the poem referred to Ko as "mother of Pyongyang," while describing her as awaiting her husband Kim Jong-il with her son Jong-un until late at night.

   Earlier on Jan. 8, Ko was also referred to as "mother" in a documentary shown by the North's state-controlled Korean Central TV Broadcasting Station.

   "For North Korea to refer to Ko as 'mother of Pyongyang' can be seen as the North's attempt to move forward in the propaganda campaign for the personality cult of new leader Kim Jong-un," a North Korean defector said.

   North Korea watchers also say that Ko Yong-hui's background as a Korean-Japanese makes it hard for the North to show off her status and career, prompting them to idolize her with vague words. Analysts say it one reason the North has been cautious about mentioning Ko in official propaganda.

   "There's an all-out campaign underway to solidify Kim Jong-un's political power, so it's natural for the authorities to re-emphasize his mother," said Park Young-ho, an analyst with the Korea Institute for National Unification. "The same was done for Kim Jong-il's mother as he consolidated power."

   Ko is thought to have been the love of the late Kim's life and is the mother of his three youngest children including the North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. She is also the mother of son Kim Jong-chol and daughter Kim Yo-jong.

   She is said to have been treated with "first lady" status in the North. She was born in Osaka to a father originally from Jeju Island off the southern coast of the peninsula. After graduating from Pyongyang University of Music and Dance in 1970, she became a dancer with the Mansudae Art Troupe in 1971.

   Ko reportedly studied under legendary dancer Choe Sung-hui, who went North Korea in 1946 with her husband and established a dance school.

   Experts say Ko was never exalted by the North's propaganda machine in the same way the late leader's own mother Kim Jong-suk was, in an apparent attempt to hide her background in Pyongyang's ultra-nationalist system.

   Watchers say the regime maintains power in large part by promoting a sense of pervasive nationalism based on a "pure bloodline," a purity best represented by the bloodline of country founder Kim Il-sung.

   Park said it was highly likely that the North would fabricate the details of Ko's life as it exults her. "She's not well known among ordinary North Koreans, so it would be difficult for them to question any fabrications," he said.

   There are rumors that Ko visited Japan multiple times in the past. Ko visited Japan in 1997 and 2000 on her way back from France, where she received breast cancer treatment, the Mainichi Shimbun said citing unnamed sources. Using a fake name, she visited Tokyo and her hometown of Osaka, stayed in posh accommodations and dropped by a high-end shopping district.

   Pyongyang is relying heavily on Kim Jong-un's bloodline to help him consolidate power, as state media footage suggests he has been coached to mimic the behavior of his grandfather. It has also continued to hail Kim Jong-suk for her "leadership" and "revolutionary spirit" while making no mention of Ko.

   Local media, citing intelligence reports, have said that the propaganda department of the ruling Workers' Party has even issued orders not to reveal Ko's background.

  (END)
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