State media image of Hyon Song Wol front and center surprises residents

Seol Song Ah  |  2018-02-03 10:33
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A January 23 story published in the North Korean state newspaper Rodong Sinmun includes a
striking image of inspection team leader Hyon Song Wol preparing to disembark into a crowd of
South Korean press and police. Image: Rodong Sinmun

North Korean residents have been voicing their opinions after the state-run newspaper Rodong Sinmun published photos of Samjiyon Orchestra leader Hyon Song Wol's visit to South Korea on January 23.

The image shows Hyon preparing to exit a bus in the eastern city of Gangneung, where numerous Olympic events are scheduled to take place. During her visit, she inspected the citys Arts Center as a potential venue for the Samjiyon Orchestra's performance. Sources in North Korea told Daily NK that some residents are perceiving the image as more important than its Page 4 appearance suggests, and that it is being seen as a "No. 1 photo."

The term "No. 1 photo" – which roughly translates to a "picture of the leader" – refers to images depicting Kim Il Sung, Kim Jong Il, and now Kim Jong Un, frequently used by the Propaganda and Agitation Department as a means of glorifying the leadership. The population has been conditioned to perceive the importance of such images over decades, with the authorities consistently placing images of the leader on the front page of newspapers.

"More than other stories in the Rodong Sinmun, people are interested in the picture of Hyon Song Wol in South Korea," a source in North Pyongan Province told Daily NK on January 30. "People are calling it a 'No. 1 photo,' centered on her alone at the top of the image, separate from the scores of South Koreans in front of her."

The source said that people are comparing it to a scene from the movie "Star of Joseon" where Kim Il Sung is shown elevated in the center of a crowd. "People are interested in the regimes motivations for publishing this kind of photo."

A scene from the North Korean propaganda movie 'Star of Joseon' depicting
Kim Il Sung over a crowd of anti-Japanese socialist youth,
which some are comparing to the recent picture of Hyon Song Wol in
South Korea published in the Rodong Sinmun. Source: Youtube

The "Star of Joseon" was released in 1980 and marked the first appearance of Kim Il Sung as the protagonist of a film, aiming to glorify the leader. It depicts anti-Japanese socialist youth in the 1920s, and espouses the deification of Kim Il Sung by showing his "rise to become the star of the nation." The publication of Hyon Song Wols image may be an attempt by North Korea to arouse nostalgic reactions.

"People are actually reacting with disbelief at Hyon's apparent 'warm welcome' in the enemy country South Korea, saying 'it must be a fake image.' I have also heard negative reactions of people who are displeased with her status, saying she seems 'too strong," the source continued, noting the reactions of shock in North Korea - traditionally a patriarchal society.

Hyon has experienced a rapid rise in status, first becoming the leader of the Moranbong Band, then being appointed to Alternate Member status of the Central Committee in the 2nd Plenary Session of the 7th Workers' Party Central Committee in October 2017, and now as the head of the inspection team visiting the South ahead of the Pyeongchang Olympics.

But a source in South Pyongan Province explained that there are rumors spreading among the population that Hyon "must be especially important to (Kim Jong Un)" and that she may "pose a threat to his wife (Ri Sol Ju)."

An image published in the Rodong Sinmun on January 27 showing members of the
South Koreaninspection team visiting the Masik Pass ski resort in North Korea.
Image: Rodong Sinmun

In addition, there is apparently growing interest amongst locals for the prospects of improved North-South relations. "The Rodong Sinmun also published information about the South Korean inspection team that came to visit the Masik Pass ski resort, and people are saying that it feels like relations with the South could soon improve," the South Pyongan Province-based source said.

"Even people who normally have no interest in this sort of thing are completely caught up in the news of cross-border activity in the run-up to the Olympics."

*Translated by Colin Zwirko

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