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March 2012: The First North Korean Statue of Kim Jong Il - An Evaluation


The First North Korean Statue of Kim Jong Il – An Evaluation

In celebration of the 70th anniversary of his birth, North Korea erected a six metre high statue of its late supreme leader, Kim Jong Il. Straddling a colossal rearing horse, the piece presents a fresh-faced bronze Kim the younger on horseback beside his father, the founder of the North Korean state, Kim Il Sung. The sculpture is the first of its kind. Kim Jong Il, having turned down proposals for similar works during his life, has finally been cast in bronze by the Mansudae Art Studio in Pyongyang – a defining moment in Asian artistic contemporary history. Yet within the sphere of military sculpture, the work is not exactly cutting-edge, artfully tapping into an age-old political aesthetic tradition long forgotten by most in 2012.

The History of Heroic Bronze Horsemen
Similar works have been erected for millennia. Within the ancient Roman tradition, bronze equestrian statues symbolised active military leadership, perhaps typified by the 175 CE figure of Marcus Aurelius displayed in Rome’s Campidoglio. This trend flourished throughout the Italian Renaissance and into the to French age of Absolutism, with valiant larger-than-life-size monarchs and lionhearted military leaders flaunted from Venice to Versailles well beyond the Middle Ages. The motif poured into the other arts. Aleksandr Pushkin’s The Bronze Horseman (1833) describes the rage-fuelled ‘coming to life’ of Peter the Great and his horse, a transformation from statue to slayer, hunting the wretched Evgenii for his cursing Pushkin’s beloved St Petersburg. This poem was a favourite of Stalin’s – the triumph of the public good over the tribulations of the individual, a theme very much in line with Kim Il Sung’s political ideology of juche. Equestrian statues are heavily laden with connotation, and it is no accident the Kims are sat on horses.

Illustration to Pushkin’s The Bronze Horseman, by Alexandre Benois (1904)

A Rough Outline of the New Sculpture

Both figures are portly, clad in the same shirt-coat combination and are gazing gallantly into the horizon with chins held high. With just one hand subduing his horse, Kim the elder rides in front of his son as the leader of the pair, a theme reminiscent of Republic’s press releases from the 1980s. Il Sung placed firmly as the wise elder statesman, Jong Il is presented in a more physical role – his horse standing on two hind legs, the younger Kim is calmly restraining the disobedient and strikingly burly beast with an effortless yank on the reins. There is a touch of the superhero here; his fists pulled to his chest as his coat flails behind him like a cape. Despite the established hierarchy, the age difference between the pair is not noticeable – an indistinct healthy and bright-eyed middle age. Disappointingly, the trademark rectangular glasses are nowhere to be seen, and similarly, the receding hairline that continues to plague the Kim family has been downplayed significantly, a thick head of hair being particularly apparent on the virile young Jong Il. Nonetheless, the likeness is appreciable, with body and face shape only partially glamorized.

A Possible Interpretation
The commemorative equestrian sculpture after the Battle of Gettysburg during the American Civil War established certain symbolic precedents, or so some critics claim. The positioning of the horse’s hooves within this genre supposedly display the nature of death – one front leg raised (Kim Il Sung) indicating death from a battle wound, with two (Kim Jong Il) representing death in battle. An heroic passing in the ongoing struggle against capitalism? Whether this was intended by the Mansudae Art Studio or not, certain symbols of the statue seem more straightforward, the horses themselves fulfilling a deeply significant role. As Il Sung’s beast pensively tilts his head towards the floor, Jong Il’s rears with hooves blazing and mouth open wide. Is this uproar the wrath of his might? Certainly, Jong Il’s brawn appears to be an attempt to paint him into a military role he never had, a strengthening of his credentials as a warrior leader he was never able to achieve in life. Similarly, the meditative pose of Il Sung’s horse may be presenting a scholarly, cerebral picture of an intellectual visionary – very much the image he holds in the PDRK.

Saddam Hussein and Kim Il Sung – in predictable postures

Does it work?
Rarely – for such brazen propaganda – yes. The North Koreans have created an image that is both fresh and orthodox, dodging the immediately obvious for something far more enthralling. Don’t let the Kumsusan Mausoleum fool you - Kim and Kim live on, one as the lawmaker, the other as its enforcer. From the limited promotional footage of the opening ceremony, Kim Il Sung can be seen brandishing a pair of binoculars – the Eternal President of the Republic’s omnipresent eyes perpetually surveying his kingdom from beyond the grave. A paranormal ghostly Pushkinian force is almost palpable here, acting as a warning to disconcerted troublemakers. The sculpture is far from subtle, and like most DPRK art, is terrifically old fashioned, conjuring Soviet imagery of blood-and-thunder in the name of the state. This renders the work vulnerable for a full on assault by politically charged critics, of which many will undoubtedly dismiss the sculpture as a mediocre item of boorish propaganda. Aesthetically however, it is invigorating. The juice of movement, refined maroon bronze colouring and realism of form stand in stark contrast to both previous depictions of the Kim family and to the art of a comparable recently deceased leader – Saddam Hussein – whose poorly proportioned portrait stood in Baghdad’s Firdos Square until April 2003. Unapologetic political symbolism and immortal totalitarian nuance aside, the sculpture should be applauded as an impressive, albeit partisan, piece of contemporary Asian art.


Sam Nallen Copely

Sam Nallen Copley was born in Cambridge in 1988, and became a chorister for King’s College at the age of eight. He later studied at London University’s School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) and Waseda University in Tokyo, while working as a translator for Cambridge Mechatronics. Sam went on to complete a master’s degree from Oxford University, and currently lives in Paris.

His interests include literature, art, politics, music, the martial arts and film. He writes for Global Politics, Cha: An Asian Literary Journal, New Business Ethiopia, the 1847 Press, the Somaliland Sun and Malawi Voice.


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