[KS] Gold leaf on the Kim Il Sung statue in the Mansudae Grand Monument?

Kirk Larsen kwlarsen67 at gmail.com
Thu Dec 20 12:19:23 EST 2012

Rudiger’s comments both illuminate and complicate the gold leaf statue
story somewhat.

It is definitely the case that DPRK rhetoric is filled with stories of the
benevolence of its leaders and their constant desire to share the meals,
working conditions, and lifestyles of the average citizen. Kim Il Sung was
renowned for this and there were at least some attempts to cast Kim Jong Il
in the same light (c.f., the “Story of the Returned Boots” being taught to
schoolchildren and teachers alike in the film *North Korea: A Day in the
Life*). This impulse is arguably consistent with the socialist aim of
leveling and creating a classless society (more than a little paradoxical
in the land of *sŏngbun*). It also echoes at least some older traditional
Korean/Confucian practices. I am reminded of King Sejong mourning his

“It was the hottest season of the year but he discarded his softer
yo(mattress) and used only a rough mat to lie on. Those about him
oil-paper beneath lest the dampness should harm him, but he refused it and
had it taken away.”

But the original question of whether there actually was gold leaf on Kim’s
statue at one point remains unanswered. It seems to me that there are a
couple of possibilities here:

--there was gold leaf but it was later removed. This may have been for
cosmetic reasons (too shiny), ideological reasons (Kim wanted to burnish
(pun intended) his “man of the people” image), or for more practical
reasons (desire to keep Chinese aid flowing), or some combination of the

--there never was gold leaf but the regime either tolerated or actively
encouraged the story of loyal and respectful workers calling for gold leaf
only to be gently declined by the magnanimous Kim Il Sung. If so, perhaps
the story of Chinese criticism was added later by critics of the regime.

If the reality is that there never was gold leaf on the Kim statue, this
raises some interesting questions about the credulity of the largely
foreign North Korea-watching and commenting community. How many other
things have we gotten wrong but continue to repeat and recirculate simply
because the stories are too good, too lurid, too engaging to pass up.

On the other hand, one could make an argument that even if the actual story
isn’t “true” in the sense of actually having happened, it still conveys
deeper “truths” about the nature of the DPRK regime and its leadership:
cult of personality, pragmatic and calculating concession-seeking, etc.

Will the real North Korea please stand up?


Kirk Larsen

On Thu, Dec 20, 2012 at 1:49 AM, Ruediger Frank <ruediger.frank at univie.ac.at
> wrote:

>  Dear Kirk,
> I have no photo of the golden one, but the story I was told by the NKs
> about 20 years ago was slightly different: that the workers (sic!)
> originally wanted to have it covered in gold leaf, but the great leader, in
> his typical humbleness, insisted on "simple" bronze. Of course I don't know
> whether this was a mere ex-post modification of the official "text". In any
> case, it would correspond well with the ages-old ideal (rarely achieved)
> that rulers "go down" to the people and lead a "simple" life. North Korean
> literature and art is full of examples; just think of the often told and
> pictured story at the Ch'òllima steelworks (
> http://www.flickr.com/photos/josephferris76/6974483452/) where the leader
> refused to sit on a chair and rather sat on a piece of debris (which is now
> preserved as a national treasure). Funny, in the 1970s in the Soviet Union
> I heard similar anecdotes about Lenin. Speaking of historical precedents,
> isn't there also a section in Ch'angdòkgung (the yòn'gyòngdang residence, I
> believe) where the Korean king occasionally took upon himself the alleged
> hardship of leading a "simple" life?
> Another, different story I heard was rather technical: that the original
> golden statue reflected the light too strongly. In 1991, the statue was for
> sure bronze. But there are list members who visited the country earlier, so
> perhaps they can help.
> Cheers,
> Rudiger
> on Donnerstag, 20. Dezember 2012 at 00:27 you wrote:
>  Hello all,
> I have often heard it said that the mammoth Kim Il Sung statue that long
> graced the Mansudae Grand Monument (before recently being updated and
> placed side by side with a similarly large statue of Kim Jong Il) was
> originally covered in gold leaf. But, as the story usually goes, an
> expression of distaste by a visiting PRC official (sometimes Deng Xiaoping,
> sometimes someone else) and a threat to reduce Chinese aid to the DPRK
> resulted in the gold leaf being removed.
> My question is whether anyone has seen or has access to a photograph of
> the original gold-plated version of the statue? My cursory fumbling around
> the web has not resulted in any such image. I am beginning to wonder
> whether the story is actually true (and whether perhaps some early visitors
> mistook the new, shiny bronze for gold?).
> Any experts able and willing to weigh in on this?
> Cheers,
> --
> Kirk W. Larsen
> Department of History
> Assistant Director, Academic Programs and Research
> David M. Kennedy Center for International Studies
> 2151 JFSB
> Provo, UT 84602-6707
> (801) 422-3445

Kirk W. Larsen
Department of History
Assistant Director, Academic Programs and Research
David M. Kennedy Center for International Studies
2151 JFSB
Provo, UT 84602-6707
(801) 422-3445
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