Reports that portraits of North Korean leader Kim Jong-il had been removed were a U.S. plot to overthrow the government and a “groundless fabrication,” Xinhua news agency quoted a North Korean official on Friday as saying.
Some diplomats in the North Korean capital and experts in the South said this week portraits of Kim had been removed from some public places, starting as far back as August, in what may be a bid to soften the personality cult surrounding Kim.
“It didn’t happen before, and will never happen,” the North Korean Foreign Ministry official, Ri Gyong-son, was quoted as saying.
“The words are an intrigue that the United States and its attaching countries want to overthrow the DPRK,” he added, referring to the North’s official name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.
“General Kim Jong-il is the fate of the Korean people and the DPRK’s socialism, it is unimaginable that DPRK people and army can separate their fates from Kim Jong-il,” he said.
“It is nothing but stupid and ridiculous acts just like trying to remove the sun from the sky.”
The portrait reports caused jitters in South Korea’s foreign exchange markets after rumors in the United States that they signaled a possible coup, but U.S. State Department spokesman Adam Ereli said Washington saw nothing to “raise alarm bells.”
North Korea has been mired in a two-year-old crisis over its nuclear weapons programs, and there are fears that multilateral efforts to try to resolve the issue could be derailed if there were to be any changes in the North’s secretive leadership.
But a Pyongyang-based Western diplomat said that, although he had noticed fewer people wearing buttons of Kim Jong-il, there were otherwise no changes in the capital to indicate a change in Kim’s fate.
“Nobody knows if it means anything at all. But of course in this country, you have to look for small indications, you have to read between the lines,” he said.
“We don’t see any clear signs yet of something within the leadership going on ... Daily life is completely normal. There’s no markedly higher police presence. Everything is as it has been through the summer,” the diplomat said.
Portraits of Kim are ubiquitous in homes, offices and public buildings across North Korea, where they have hung prominently for years beside a picture of his late father, the communist state’s founder, Kim Il-sung.
Some diplomats and visitors said they had not noticed any portraits missing while others said they had noticed as early as August that some had been removed.
Some analysts have suggested that any removals could be an attempt to lessen Kim’s personality cult.
Kim himself has poked fun at it and analysts said removing portraits could be an indication he wanted to tone it down in line with incremental economic reforms.
But Ri, the North Korean Foreign Ministry official, said there were no changes to Kim’s status.
“The adoration for the leader originated from people’s life, it will never change,” he said.