- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 17, 2004

SEOUL — North Korean leader Kim Jong-il has ordered the removal of his portrait from display throughout the Stalinist state, signaling a scaling back of the decades-old adulation of the supreme ruler, South Korea’s Yonhap news agency reported yesterday.

The order to take down portraits was issued three weeks ago by Mr. Kim himself, who was concerned that he “has been lifted too high,” the agency said.

Also yesterday, North Korea’s official press dropped the glorifying description of “dear leader” for Mr. Kim, Kyodo News Service reported, citing the Japanese monitoring agency Radiopress.

The United States yesterday brushed off both reports.

“I’ll leave it to the analysts,” State Department spokesman Adam Ereli told a press briefing when asked about the reports. “Don’t have a reaction.”

A State Department official, speaking separately on the condition of anonymity, said, “I don’t see anything to get worried about.”

Radiopress said the North’s Korean Central Broadcast, the Korean Central News Agency and other press simply described him as “general secretary of the Workers’ Party of Korea, chairman of the DPRK National Defense Commission and supreme commander of the Korean People’s Army.”

The initials DPRK stand for North Korea’s official name, Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

Yonhap quoted a source who has “good connections” in Pyongyang as saying Mr. Kim’s portraits were being removed from all public places and homes.

Based on a telephone conversation with a North Korean official, the source said that now only the portraits of Mr. Kim’s father — Kim Il-sung — can be seen at public buildings and residences in Pyongyang, Yonhap said.

The North Korean official told the source that the removal of portraits had “nothing to do with any problem” involving Mr. Kim, who visited a front-line army unit yesterday.

Mr. Kim’s portraits have long been ubiquitous in homes, offices and public buildings across North Korea, where they have hung prominently beside a picture of his father.

The junior Mr. Kim took power when his father, who founded the hermit nation, died in 1994.

South Korean government officials said they had not noticed any distinct change in North Korea. But some North Korea watchers said the removal of portraits could signal a political change.

“If confirmed, it signals a major change in North Korea because Kim Jong-il is the only person who can order the removal of his portraits,” Korea University professor Yoo Ho-yul said.

“Taking down Kim’s portraits means there is a shift in the personality cult built around him, or some movement related to the succession of his leadership,” Mr. Yoo said.

Few details emerge from North Korea concerning the private life of Mr. Kim and his family. Information concerning the 63-year-old ruler’s health is considered a state secret.

Mr. Kim has three sons. The eldest, Jong-nam, 33, was born to Sung Hae-rim, who reportedly died in a Moscow hospital in 2002.

His second wife, Ko Yong-hui, now also reportedly dead, gave birth to Mr. Kim’s second son, Jong-chul, 23, and third son, Jong-woon, 18, according to Pyongyang watchers in South Korea.

Norbert Vollertsen, a German human rights activist who once lived in North Korea, told Yonhap yesterday that he has received an e-mail message from an international aid worker in Pyongyang, confirming that Mr. Kim’s portraits were being taken down.

“Since the beginning of August, there is removal of official portrait of Kim Jong-il in Pyongyang and all over the countryside in public places but not everywhere,” the e-mail said, according to Yonhap.

North Korean defectors in Seoul reacted with surprise to the news, it said.

“Removal of Kim’s portraits from homes is something that I cannot even imagine,” a North Korean woman who defected to Seoul in 2000 told Yonhap.

She said a North Korean couple in her former neighborhood were punished after accidentally dropping and breaking a framed picture of Mr. Kim during a family quarrel.

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