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Kim Jong Un and the birth of a personality cult

The North Korean leader’s numerous laurels include basketball star, fashion icon and honorary Nigerian.

Denis rodman kim jong un basketball starEnlarge
Former US basketball player Dennis Rodman shows pictures of him reportedly with North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un as he arrives at Beijing International Airport on September 7, 2013. (Wang Zhao/AFP/Getty Images)

SEOUL, South Korea — Next month will be a big one for North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un, as his nation hosts various conspicuous, cultish festivities.

On Dec. 12, North Korean state media will probably memorialize its satellite launch one year ago, an early boost to Kim Jong Un’s prestige.

The nation will also celebrate the second anniversary of Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un’s rise to the throne on Dec. 17, as well as mourning the passing of his father, Kim Jong Il, who had ruled with an iron fist for almost two decades.

And on Dec. 24, crowds of enthusiastic North Koreans will take to the streets of Pyongyang, celebrating the birth of Kim Jong Un’s grandmother, one of the founding immortals of the nation.

Public events such as these serve a key purpose for the boy dictator: consolidating his grip on power.

It’s been a rocky two years, but Kim Jong Un has survived, purging potential threats and keeping his regime in line at any cost. And like his father and grandfather who ruled before him, Kim Jong Un can offer the world a lesson in holding onto power with an eerie personality cult.

How does he do it?

That’s complicated. The nuclear program is important. So is prestige, which Kim draws from an array of bizarre titles, degrees and talents, many of which are, of course, untrue. North Korea’s state mouthpieces would prefer that you believe the young generalissimo is more than a renaissance man. He’s a living god.

Kim, for instance, is supposedly a brilliant military strategist, capable of defending the nation from an American invasion at the spur of a moment. But he also has more mundane interests — such as the science of, well, vegetables.

Still, that’s nothing compared to the nuttiness of Kim’s father and grandfather, who bolstered their own personality cults starting in the 1940s.

Official biographies proclaim that Kim Jong Il didn’t even defecate.

There’s more. When the Dear Leader was born on the slopes of a holy mountain, a star lit up the night sky. In college, the commander found enough time to author 1,500 books and, later on, six operas in two years. He also took up golf, supposedly setting a world record in 1994 with 11 holes-in-one in a row on an 18-hole course, scoring 18 under par. Seventeen bodyguards witnessed and “confirmed” the miracle.

In other words, the bar is high for young Kim Jong Un.

Having pushed through two difficult years, he’ll have to walk in his father’s footsteps and make himself a legend. So two years out, what grand talents does the regime already claim for the world’s youngest head of state?

Malaysian economist

In October, an obscure Malaysian college, known as “HELP University,” puzzled the world when it awarded an honorary doctorate to Kim Jong Un.

The choice of a degree — in economics — may also baffle you. That is, when you consider North Korea’s food shortages, and the fact that universities tend to admit the descendants of trusted political families.

None of that deterred this institution of higher learning, which was apparently impressed by Dr. Kim’s “untiring efforts for the education of the country and the well-being of its people,” according to the state-run Korean Central News Agency.

Remember, that’s Dr. Supreme Leader to you.

Honorary Nigerian

The Malaysian university isn’t the only institution to take notice of Kim Jong Un’s triumphant skills. This year, a small town in Nigeria also put on its good face for the dictator.

Last April, the mayor of Damatru, a small town in northern Nigeria, granted Kim Jong Un honorary citizenship in a deal that still remains unclear. The announcement didn’t get out, of course, until state media published it — as is usually the case in North Korea.

The justification? “H.E. Kim Jong Un, supreme leader of the Korean people, is successfully carrying forward the cause of the preceding leaders and wisely leading the Korean people with his tireless efforts, extraordinary leadership ability and warm humanity,” KCNA quoted the Nigerian mayor as saying.

Basketball star

Dennis Rodman and Kim Jong Un may be best buddies — and that bond was only made possible by the autocrat’s life-long love for the 1990s Chicago Bulls.

As a youngster, Kim Jong Un attended a German-language school in Switzerland where, friends recall, he was awkward around girls but an ace on the basketball court. One former classmate reported that Kim indulged with his father’s money, bringing home a collection of hundreds of Nike shoes for $100 to $200 each.

The adolescent may have picked up his basketball affinity from his father. In 2000, Kim Jong Il received a basketball signed by Michael Jordan from Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. The rock is still housed in a regime-run museum.

Fashion trendsetter

When Dennis Rodman visited North Korea, refugees in Seoul told GlobalPost that his garish hairdo and piercings made him look like an alien landing in the world’s most isolated country.

North Koreans, on the other hand, wouldn’t be able to get away with such a whimsical style. That’s in part because Kim Jong Un is the nation’s fashion trendsetter.

If you’re North Korean, you’re strongly advised to get one of 28 state-sanctioned haircuts or face discipline. Men are urged to go conservative and militaristic, donning a short back and sides. For women, the list includes the curls and buns you’d expect from a 1980s sitcom.

When Kim Jong Un assumed the throne in late 2011, the trendiest haircut of all quickly became, of course, his awkward and stodgy one. Barbershops reportedly called it the “youth” or “ambition” haircut, perhaps a sign of hope as the nation ushered in a new leader.

Not that much has actually changed in North Korea, of course, other than the name and embodiment of the nation’s new hero.

http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/regions/asia-pacific/north-korea/131106/kim-jong-un-and-the-birth-personality-cult