Low interest in events hailing North Korea’s warm relationship with Russia

While much of the Western world views Russia as a pariah state over its invasion of Ukraine, North Korea’s autocratic government called on its people to focus on the Cold War comradeship it shared with its powerful neighbor and sponsor.

As part of the celebration to commemorate the 110th birth holiday on April 15 of Kim Il Sung (1912-1994), the country’s founder, North Korea published a photo book promoting solidarity with Russia and its lost Soviet Union empire.

“The Great Years of North Korea and Russia” encourages readers to relive the relationship much like a family photo album does, only in this case the focus is on Kim Il Sung’s friendship with Soviet dictator Josef Stalin.

“The photobook emphasizes North Korea’s friendship with Russia,” an official from Pyongyang told RFA’s Korean Service April 18 on condition of anonymity for security reasons. “The book was displayed at the exhibition halls for the Day of the Sun celebration in Pyongyang from April 8th to the 18th. … It is a photo book of 219 pages of propaganda.”

Kim Il Sung, the grandfather of current leader Kim Jong Un, was born on April 15, a major holiday now known as the “Day of the Sun.”

The book was on display at three exhibition halls in Pyongyang, including the one that hosted the celebration’s opening ceremony, according to the source.

But North Koreans, many of whom are struggling under dire economic circumstances largely due to trade restrictions related to COVID, did not seem interested in reliving past glories, even as they were forced to attend celebratory events, sources said.

“Only the officials from the Propaganda and Agitation Department, and workers from the publishing house attended the opening ceremony the first day. But the exhibition hall was quiet because the number of visitors was small from the next day,” the source said.

“Only a few copies of the booklets were displayed, and copies were distributed as e-books instead, so that reduced the effectiveness of the propaganda,” the source said.

Authorities encouraged state-run organizations, universities and factories to send employees to the exhibition halls, but the people were less than enthusiastic about attending, he said.

“Residents who reluctantly visited the exhibition hall under the direction of their affiliated supervisors complained, questioning the intent in emphasizing the friendship between North Korea and Russia at this time,” the source said.

A resident of the city told RFA that authorities forced people to attend exhibitions that glorified Kim Il Sung, including the photobook exhibition, but actual turnout was lean because companies and organizations reported more attendees than they actually sent.

“The authorities are trying to emphasize the blood alliance with Russia and focus on promoting long-standing friendly ties,” he said.

“The Pyongyang citizens had no choice but to visit the exhibition emphasizing our friendship with Russia, but that does not change the people’s opinion on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine,” this source said.

The Kim Dynasty owes its early legitimacy to Soviet backing. Kim Il Sung led guerilla campaigns in and around the Korean peninsula against the occupying Japanese in the 1930s and 1940s, eventually earning the rank of major in the Soviet Army.

When Japan surrendered at the end of World War II, Stalin installed Kim as first secretary of the Korean Communist Party north of the 38th parallel, a position that enabled him to consolidate power and wage war on the South in 1950, largely with Soviet military equipment.

Soviet aid played a huge role in propping up the North Korean economy up until its collapse in 1991. The sudden cutoff of aid to the country, along with Kim’s death in 1994, resulted in a famine that killed millions of North Koreans.

Translated by Claire Lee and Leejin J. Chung. Written in English by Eugene Whonng.

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