Their portraits must be framed and hung in every home and public building, in classrooms and subway cars. They are enlarged to epic proportions at great monuments. And whenever anyone is seen in public, law dictates that they must wear pin-size portraits on their lapel.
Wherever one turns in North Korea, the faces of the communist country’s former two leaders – founder Kim Il Sung and successor Kim Jong Il, the “Sun” and the “Shining Star” of the Korean people – are everywhere, and they are accorded the utmost respect. At least publicly.
But recently, the lapel pins seem to have lost their cachet, sources inside the country tell Radio Free Asia.
Limited edition lapel pins depicting both men against the red flag of the Korean Workers’ Party – called the “double badge” – used to be considered extremely rare, because they were only issued to government officials. They once traded on the black market for 400,000 won, or about U.S. $50, a huge sum in North Korea.
But these days, they are going for about 20,000, or about U.S.$2.40, less than a kilogram of pork, a source in eastern province of South Hamgyong told RFA’s Korean Service on condition of anonymity for security reasons.
Another lapel pin that features Kim Il Sung alone, known as the “single badge,” sells for just over $1, the source said.
“The double badge… was once recognized as a symbol of power,” she said. “Now they have been devalued into low-priced goods.”
Who sold them?
North Korea’s ever-vigilant security officers have taken notice, and are trying to trace the badges back to the officials who first sold them, she said.
The reverence given to these two former leaders and their portraits is so great that the energy-starved country diverts electricity to keep their outdoor portraits illuminated at night. And state media lionizes dead school children whose final action was to rush into the flames of their burning home to save the portraits from the fire.
But in South Pyongan province, the badges are selling for the same low prices – less than several heads of napa cabbage, the variety used to make kimchi, a source there told RFA on condition of anonymity to speak freely.
“In other words, the value of these badges, which should be symbols of idolization, is less than a few cabbages,” she said.
Another double badge that was once a collector’s item, issued by the Chongnyon Jonwi newspaper to the officials of the Socialist Patriotic Youth League, is also now practically worthless, according to the second source.
“Until October, it was going for 8,000 won [98 cents] on the black market, but now it is so common that nobody bothers to pick it up if they see it on the ground,” she said.
The second source said that authorities previously had no problem with the badges changing hands on the black market when the price had been much higher. But because they are now treated like cheap trinkets, authorities are trying to trace them back to the officials who first sold them, she said.
“I don’t know what kind of punishment the officials who leaked the badges to the market will face if they get caught in the investigation,” the South Pyongan source said.
There are many different variations of single and double badges, and some are more collectable than others. According to a 2007 book by North Korea expert Andrei Lankov, by that time around 20 badges had been issued since they first appeared in the late 1960s.
RFA reported in Sept. 2019 that North Korea issued a new single badge to elites that featured Kim Jong Il by himself on a red background.
Sources in that report speculated that giving the second-generation leader his own badge might have been an attempt by current leader Kim Jong Un to de-emphasize his grandfather in favor of his father, thereby boosting his own importance.
Translated by Claire Shinyoung Oh Lee and Leejin J. Chung. Written in English by Eugene Whong. Edited by Malcolm Foster.