For generations, myths pertaining to the god-like status of North Korea’s leaders have flourished in the hermit kingdom. Kim Jong-un, along with his father Kim Jong-il and grandfather Kim Il-sung, have long been enshrined by a national cult of personality: a mystical narrative that has, since at least the 1950s, made some fairly audacious claims about the family’s supernatural abilities.
Among these is the allegation that Kim Il-sung never urinated or defecated; that Kim Jong-il was born on the volcano Mount Paektu under a spontaneous double rainbow, and learned to drive at age three; and that Kim Jong-un, like those leaders before him, is capable of folding space itself in order to travel great distances in a short period of time.
Last week, however, North Korea’s official newspaper admitted for the first time that some of these assertions are not necessarily true: namely, that the regime’s leaders are not quite capable of manipulating time and space.
“In fact, people can’t disappear and reappear by folding space,” the Rodong Sinmun newspaper reported on Wednesday, according to Radio Free Asia. The concession is the first time that state media has flatly denied the verity of a Kim family myth, South Korea’s Unification Ministry said, and the latest indication that the North Korean regime may be turning away from the tradition of deifying its leaders.
South Korean officials who analyse North Korean media indicate that since Kim Jong-un came to power in 2011, supernatural tales about him and his bloodline have seen a decline. Experts have meanwhile suggested that Kim Jong-un is actively engaging in a process of demystification, shifting towards a more realistic historical narrative so as not to tarnish his credibility in the eyes of the North Korean people and the world at large.
“If they continue using the same idolisation and propaganda methods that they did in the past, [the rest of the world] will have a bad impression of North Korea, and the people won’t believe [what they are saying],” Yoo Dong-ryul, of the Korea Institute of Liberal Democracy told Radio Free Asia. “So I think the [Rodong Shinmun] report is a result of this shift toward realistic thinking in propaganda projects.”
“Idolisation of the former leaders is important, but Chairman Kim showed his idea that everything should be based on reality.”
An official at South Korea's unification ministry described the current trend of demystification as “noteworthy”, telling the Yonhap news agency that it “appears to stress patriotism and love for the people rather than mystification of the leaders.”
Even Kim Jong-un himself addressed the importance of this demystification last year, following the breakdown of negotiations with US President Donald Trump in Hanoi.
“Mystifying a leader's revolutionary activity and appearance would result in covering the truth," Kim was quoted as saying in state media. "Absolute loyalty would spring up when [they] are mesmerised by the leader humanly and comradely."
Rodong Sinmun, the state-sanctioned organ of the North Korean regime, apparently felt that the Kim family’s alleged teleporting abilities didn’t quite align with this more “human” narrative.
This power to bend space and time is known as “chukjibop”—literally a “method of shrinking the earth”—and is described as the ability to race towards an enemy’s blind spot so fast that the attacker seems to temporarily disappear. The pre-existing myth stated that Kim Il Sung was able to use the chukjibop technique to win a battle against imperial Japanese soldiers during the early twentieth century, when Korea was a colony of Japan and he was allegedly leading Korean guerillas in exile.