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The cult of personality around the supreme leaders of the Kim Dynasty has long been a fundamental ideological pillar of the North Korean totalitarian regime. Key elements of this worship include the quasi-religious commemoration of the birthdays of Kim Il-sung, the “eternal president” considered the founding father of the North Korea and his son Kim Jong-il. 

The anniversary of April 15, the date of Kim Il-sung’s birth, is thus celebrated annually as the “Day of the Sun”, echoing the honorary title of “Sun of the Nation” given to the late Supreme Leader. This annual event gives rise to popular festivities and propaganda in the state media exhilarating the “revolutionary achievements” and “brilliant genius” of man designated as the living embodiment of the Korean nation (Suh 2002).

This is why South Korean experts’ observation of a striking avoidance of the phrase “Sunday” in the reports of the 2024 celebrations by North Korean official media such as KCNA agency created surprise. Instead of this traditional name, these media have been seen using more generic formulations such as “April Day” or “Spring Festival” (Yun 2024).

This unusual avoidance of the usually highly codified rhetoric of the worship of Kim Il-sung could signal a symbolic questioning of the previously untouchable status of the “Eternal President” by grandson Kim Jong-un, who may be seeking to distance his regime from ancient icons. Such an evolution would represent a major ideological break in the last communist dynasty in the world.

In this article, we will therefore analyse in depth this phenomenon of avoiding the term “Sunday” by the North Korean official media during the 2024 celebrations, putting it in the broader context of recent political and ideological developments under the leadership of Kim Jong-un. First, we will study in detail the content of the various media to quantify this surprise lexical breakdown. We will then examine how Kim Jong-un can fit into Kim Jong-un’s path of consolidating personal power and redefining the key ideological and cultural markers of his regime, including reaffirming the preponderance of the founding myth of Mount Paektu. Finally, we will explore the various assumptions that would allow us to interpret this development, whether it is a targeted questioning of the worship around Kim Il-sung, a generational transition of leadership, or potential reorientations of the legitimization strategy of the current regime.

Part One

Detailed Content Analysis on North Korean Official Media (Year 2024)

To support the initial observation of a striking avoidance of the term “Sunday” in the media coverage of Kim Il-sung’s birthday celebrations in 2024, we conducted a systematic content analysis of North Korea’s main state propaganda media, KCNA, as well as Rodong Sinmun and Minju Choson newspapers covering the period from April 1 to 30, 2024.  

Our examination revealed a near absence of the phrase “Day of the Sun” (태양절) in the minutes of the 15 April festivities by KCNA. Of a total of 27 dispatches published by the official agency that month in connection with the celebrations, we noted only 3 occurrences of the term “Day of the Sun”, all in a single article on April 16 relating to Kim Jong-un’s official speech the previous day (KCNA 16/04/2024). 

In the 24 other dispatches covering events before, during and after 15 April, the KCNA systematically used much less specific wording, referring to the “important holiday of April”, the “spring festival” or the “celebration of President Kim Il-sung’s birthday” (KCNA 08/04/2024; 15/04/2024). No other explicit mention of the “Day of the Sun” appeared.

The same striking avoidance of terminology associated with Kim Il-sung’s cult was also observed in the North Korean official print media in April 2024. Thus, the Rodong Sinmun, the voice of the ruling Workers’ Party, used the phrase “Day of the Sun” only once in its special editions of 15 and 16 April, compared with 16 times in April 2023 (Rodong 16/04/2024; 16/04/2023). Similarly, the Minju Choson, a journal of satellite political formation, did not use the term once in its coverage in 2024.

This semantic contrast is all the more striking because it marks a sharp break from the usually highly codified rhetoric of the North Korean media for these kinds of events celebrating dynastic worship. As shown in the previous year’s and the previous year’s data, the term “Day of the Sun” was previously prominent in the descriptions of the April 15 festivities (KCNA 2022-2023; Rodong 2022-2023).

According to expert Park Hwee-rhak, professor at Kookmin University, “It is as if the usual and emblematic term of ‘Day of the Sun’ was almost prohibited in the 2024 propaganda, which is quite astonishing when you know the cultural significance of the name” (Park 2024). This surprising lexical rupture in the official speech appears all the more intentional as it is not observed for the birthday of Kim Jong-il, still referred to as the “Day of the Bright Star” as usual.

Comparison with Previous Years

This sharp contrast to previous years underscores the determined and systematic nature of avoiding the term “Day of the Sun” in 2024. Clearly, this is not a mere slip or an innocuous evolution of the vocabulary used, but a desired break in the rhetoric of the official media.

“This year, all semantic markers that previously referred to the cultural and quasi-religious dimension of commemoration have been methodically eroded from reporting. This is a striking change from the previous years when the expression ‘Sunday’ was pervasive and constructed as a real slogan in propaganda,” analyses Kim Seok-hyang, a professor at Inje University who specializes in North Korean media.

This remarkable semantic development also cuts with continuity in the treatment of Kim Jong-il’s birthday in February, still referred to as the now traditional term “Day of the Bright Star” with no significant change in the rhetoric employed (Rodong 16/02/2024).

The scale of the breakup could thus reveal deeper ideological shifts in the dynastic worship strategy of the Kim Jong-un regime. Perhaps he would seek to break with some symbolic legacies of the Kim Il-sung period, while maintaining a similar approach towards his father Kim Jong-il’s figure.

Support for Academic Analysis of North Korean Propaganda Discourse

In order to properly interpret this remarkable development of North Korean propaganda discourse, it is essential to refer to the academic studies conducted by experts on the subject. Indeed, they extensively analyzed the highly codified rhetoric and highly structured cultural symbols surrounding the cult of the supreme leaders of the Kim Dynasty.

Thus, Professor Suh Dae-sook, author of a reference analysis on North Korean media, regards the phrase “Sunday” as “a highly symbolic and charged term with a quasi-mystic dimension in the official speech, directly connected to the divination of Kim Il-sung as the nation’s guardian figure” (Suh 2004).

According to him, the systematic deployment of this expression in propaganda around 15 April was fully involved in the construction of a true cult of personality built around the “Eternal President”. A cult carefully maintained by the regime and its media outlets since Kim Il-sung’s death in 1994.

“This term ‘Day of the Sun’ referred to a whole sacred symbol shaped for decades by the North Korean propaganda machine, making it a celebration of ideology and revolutionary achievements on loan to the Great Leader,” says Brian Reynolds Myers, North Korean ideology specialist at Dongguk University of International Studies (Myers 2015).

It is therefore the remarkable avoidance of this highly symbolic and codified term in 2024, which represents a real break in the traditional rhetoric of the regime. A striking semantic turnaround, which these academic analyses suggest may mark a form of rewriting North Korean dynastic worship under the Kim Jong-un era.

Part Two

Kim Jong-un’s Policy

To fully understand the scope and potential meanings of the marked avoidance of the term “Day of the Sun” in propaganda around the celebrations of April 15, 2024, It is essential to place this phenomenon in the broader context of the political and ideological reorientations that Kim Jong-un has driven since he came to power at the end of 2011.

From the early years of his leadership, the young supreme leader sought to print his personal mark on the North Korean regime, standing out on some aspects of the legacy left by his grandfather Kim Il-sung and his father Kim Jong-il. This commitment to assert its own authority has, inter alia, resulted in a gradual reorganization of political priorities and an ideological readjustment.

On the economic front, Kim Jong-un quickly made “byungjin”, that is, economic development parallel to the nuclear and military program, one of the major pillars of his action (Choi 2022). This marked a relative inflection of the line the regime had so far followed, more focused on military power alone.

Ideological Reaffirmation, Reminders of Mount Paektu vs Kim Il-sung Worship

But it is probably ideologically that Kim Jong-un’s desired reorientations are the most striking in recent years. Indeed, the new supreme leader seems to be seeking to redefine the cultural markers and symbolic foundations that legitimize his power.

With this in mind, Kim Jong-un strongly reaffirmed the importance of the founding myth of Mount Paektu in his official speech and the regime’s propaganda since 2021. This mountain strategically located on the Sino-Korean border is presented by North Korean rhetoric as Kim Jong-il’s mythical birthplace and the “revolutionary cradle” from which the heirs of the ruling “Paektu Line” are believed to have originated (Faubert 2022).

Many symbolic events were orchestrated by the regime on Mount Paektu, such as the erecting of an imposing memorial complex on its summit in 2022 or the relocation of the Party’s Central Committee to a nearby town in order to get closer to this sacred high ground (Rodong 21/01/2022). Many high-ranking North Korean dignitaries have even been sent to perform ritual “peregrinations” on the mountain (KCNA 2022-2023).

“This unprecedented reaffirmation of Mount Paektu’s fabricated cult seems to be in response to Kim Jong-un’s willingness to anchor himself in a founding myth directly related to the revolutionary legitimacy attributed to his lineage. There is a real ritualized staging of the Kim family’s transmission of dynamic power,” analyses North Korean historian Andrei Lankov (Taehan Maeil 28/06/2022).

This reinvestigation of the Mount Paektu myth has grown so large that some experts are beginning to interpret it as a deliberate effort to gradually replace Kim Il-sung’s historical cult with new symbolic markers that emphasize Kim Jong-un’s direct filiation with his deceased father.

Analysis of Policy Decisions and Changes During 2022-2023

Beyond this ideological reaffirmation of the myth of Mount Paektu, several major political decisions made by Kim Jong-un in 2022 and 2023 also appear to be part of a strategy to redefine the foundations of the legitimacy of his personal power, breaking with certain legacies of the past.

One of the most significant developments took place at the 8th Congress of the Labor Party in January 2023, when Kim Jong-un dramatically broke up with the “revolutionary reunifying line” defined in 1980 by Kim Il-sung, which made reunification with South Korea the ultimate strategic objective of the regime (NCNK 2023).

Breaking away from his grandfather’s direct legacy, the current leader has re-articulated the regime’s doctrine around a new approach now considering the two Koreas as “institutionally hostile two states.” A major ideological shift that would be part of a broader rewriting of the road map drawn by Kim Il-sung.

“In his speech at the 8th Congress, Kim Jong-un took a 180-degree turn from the historic line on reunification inherited from the eternal president. It is an extremely strong gesture of dissociation from the dogma that has long prevailed under the first two generations of the Kim dynasty,” comments Cho Han-bum of the Korean Institute for National Unification (Chosun Ilbo 29/01/2023).

This ideological break was amplified a few months later by the promulgation of a new offensive nuclear doctrine, in which the Pyongyang regime gives itself the right to strike first with the atomic weapon in the event of an existential threat to its leadership (KCNA 09/09/2023). A posture once again hardly compatible with the principles once advocated by Kim Il-sung.

For experts, this successive repositioning of 2022-2023 is part of Kim Jong-un’s willingness to imprint his mark on the regime by gradually emancipating himself from the background of doctrines inherited from the past. “We’re witnessing a process of thorough rewriting of directions

A first hypothesis, widely discussed so far, sees this phenomenon as indicative of a strategy to redefine the cultural markers and symbolic legitimacy of the Kim dynasty under the leadership of its new leader Kim Jong-un. He would seek to print his personal mark by gradually emancipating himself from the tutelary shadow of his grandfather Kim Il-sung, perhaps considered too heavy.

“There is likely to be a willingness by Kim Jong-un to distance himself from the iconic figures of the past to better embody the new generation of leadership now embodied by the Paektu line,” summarizes Kim Sung-han, former South Korean Vice Foreign Minister (Munhwa Ilbo, 16/04/2024).

Leadership Transition-Kim Jong-un’s Personal Affirmation

This interpretation is part of a reading of a generational leadership transition at the top of the North Korean regime. After taking care to legitimize his assumption of supreme power by placing himself in the continuity of the two previous heirs of the Kim dynasty, the grandson is now said to have acquired sufficient stature to seek to define his own political and ideological brand.

“Kim Jong-un first had to show that he was the rightful successor to his grandfather and father at the head of the ruling line. But now well-established as an undisputed leader, he seems to want to display his independence from the ancient figures to better establish her personal authority,” says the expert


The detailed analysis of the phenomenon of remarkable avoidance of the highly symbolic term “Day of the Sun” by North Korean official media during the April 15, 2024 celebrations reveals complex dynamics at work at the heart of Pyongyang’s totalitarian regime. While this semantic break with the traditional rhetoric of Kim Il-sung’s cult appears to be intentional and systematic, its precise meanings remain subject to different interpretations among experts.

A first reading sees it as a sign of a deliberate strategy of Kim Jong-un’s symbolic distance from the tutelary and pervasive shadow that continues to be weighed by his grandfather’s iconic icon on the evolution of the regime. By gradually eroding the strongest references to the “eternal president”, the grandson would seek to better assert his personal authority as supreme leader and redefine the cultural and ideological foundations for legitimacy. 

This would be part of a broader dynamic of generational affirmation at the summit of the North Korean state. After initially positioning himself in the direct line of his predecessors Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il, Kim Jong-un would now enjoy sufficient stature to seek to print his own brand, operating a subtle “leadership transition.”

The reinvestigation of the founding myth of Mount Paektu, the questioning of certain inherited dogmas such as the “reunifying line” formulated by Kim Il-sung, or the purges targeted in the surroundings of the late “eternal president” would be part of the same symbolic and ideological emancipation strategy. All in order to fully establish the personal leadership of the young leader, who would have developed a form of “dynastic jealousy” towards the still enormous cult surrounding his grandfather.

Some experts go further by suggesting that this ideological reshaping may be the prelude to more substantial economic reforms in North Korea. By mitigating the most strictly revolutionary and juicy dimension inherited from Kim Il-sung, Kim Jong-un’s power may seek to give itself theoretical leeway to engage the country’s prudent economic opening.

The multiple challenges facing the North Korean economy could indeed make such a “perestroika” for the North Korean woman indispensable for getting out of isolation. Rebalancing some distance from the old most orthodox dogmas would facilitate Pyongyang’s gradual reintegration into international economic circuits, while preserving the dynastic cultural dimension essential to the legitimacy of the regime.

But other analysts remain sceptical about the possibility of substantial economic reforms, despite these symbolic and rhetorical adjustments. They believe that the North Korean regime remains fundamentally too constrained by the security and ideological balances and imperatives inherited to truly break away from the revolutionary doctrinal shell and traditionally juices at the heart of its legitimization.

Thus, the avoidance of the “Day of the Sun” could be merely a semantic rearrangement on the margins, without real economic, political or ideological structural scope. A simple communications operation aimed at giving Kim Jong-un’s personal power some air and flexibility, without fundamentally questioning the totalitarian and dynastic foundations of the system.

Regardless of the expert speculation, this unexpected lexical rupture is still a significant political fact in the history of the North Korean regime, which calls for a thorough analysis. While it is still too early to grasp all its implications, this case reveals the complexity of the equilibria at work at the heart of the world’s last totalitarian and dynastic regime, perpetually being driven by plural dynamics of inertia, reform and ideological reinvention. Monitoring it carefully will help to better decipher developments in a political system that is as opaque as it is unpredictable.

Title image courtesy: Al Jazeera

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect the views of the Government of India and Defence Research and Studies


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By William Favre

William Favre is a researcher in international relations of Asia with a focus on Korean studies, graduated from Seoul National University