The Right Coast

November 23, 2004
Not A Good Picture For Kim Jong Il
By Maimon Schwarzschild

If pictures of "Dear Leader" Kim Jong Il really are coming down in North Korea, it's difficult to imagine that he is still in charge, dictator-wise. The Communist tradition is that leader-icons disappear only when a leader falls.

In one of his books, Arkady Vaksberg tells a story of his mother going to the Central Post Office in Moscow in the early 1950s and seeing a patch of walpaper where Lavrenti Beria's framed photograph had been: she understood immediately that Beria had fallen from power. (Khrushchev and Co. had arranged for Beria to be arrested, "tried", and -- in very short order -- shot.) Subscribers to the Great Soviet Encyclopaedia soon afterward received a package with a covering letter instructing the recipient to cut out pages such-and-such from the Encyclopaedia, and to paste in the enclosed new pages instead. It turned out that the pages to be excised were the Encyclopaedia's fawning entry on Beria; the substitute pages were photographs of the Bering Sea...

The story, apparently being offered by North Korean officials, that Kim's portraits are down so that the frames can be refurbished, would be laughable in just about any context. In the Communist context it is even more laughable.

UPDATE: The New York Times has this interesting background story on possible "cracks" in the North Kroean regime.

And Peter Connolly, of Washington DC, recalls this passage from Milan Kundera's Book of Laughter and Forgetting, on Communists and photos:
In February 1948, Communist leader Klement Gottwald stepped out on the balcony of a Baroque palace in Prague to address hundreds of thousands of his fellow citizens packed into Old Town Square. It was a crucial moment in Czech history - a fateful moment of the kind that occurs once or twice in a millennium.
Gottwald was flanked by his comrades, with Clementis standing next to him. There were snow flurries, it was cold, and Gottwald was bareheaded. The solicitous Clementis took off his own fur cap and set it on Gottwald's head. The Party propaganda section put out hundreds of thousands of copies of a photograph of that balcony with Gottwald, a fur cap on his head and comrades at his side, speaking to the nation. On that balcony the history of Communist Czechoslovakia was born. Every child knew the photograph from posters, schoolbooks, and museums.

Four years later Clementis was charged with treason and hanged. The propaganda section immediately airbrushed him out of history, and obviously, out of all the photographs as well. Ever since, Gottwald has stood on that balcony alone. Where Clementis once stood, there is only bare palace wall. All that remains of Clementis is the cap on Gottwald's head.

It is 1971, and Mirek says that the struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.