The iconography of leadership generally has two purposes: to legitimate and validate the authority of a person, and to unite a country behind that person in a single national purpose. Imagery assumes particular significance at moments of national stress, which is why considerable attention has been paid to recent photos of North Korean despot Kim Jong Un charging up Mount Paektu, a mountain of symbolic importance for the Korean people, on a white horse. The pictures were consistent with that government’s adulatory propaganda, but experts warn that they could anticipate a bold move from Kim that could have profound consequences for the region.
The Kim family has long entangled its history with Korean mythology. Mount Paektu is the birthplace of Dangun, founder of Korea’s first kingdom. Kim Il Sung, Kim Jong Un’s grandfather and founder of the modern North Korean state, purportedly used the mountain as the base for guerrilla forces that he led against the Japanese during World War II. Kim Jong Il, the father of Kim Jong Un, was supposedly born on the peak. (In fact, Kim Il Sung spent much of the war in the Soviet Union and Kim Jong Il was born there.)
The white horse is another such symbol. Korean legends tell of the winged horses Chollima and Mallima, which could run for great distances at high speed. The elder Kim employed that imagery himself: He was often depicted atop a white horse during fights with the Japanese.
If North Koreans needed reminding of the significance of the images, Rodong Sinmun, the country’s national newspaper, obliged. It explained that Kim’s charge showed his “unwavering resolve and willpower to defend the dignity and destiny of the nation and the people without vacillating under any threat or temptation.” Kim reportedly visits the mountain whenever he faces important decisions. Ominously, it suggested that Kim was “making a solemn declaration of history.” KCNA, the mouthpiece of the Pyongyang government, agreed, declaring that “there will be a great operation to strike the world with wonder again and advance the Korean revolution a step forward.”
The photos likely anticipate a move by Kim to break the stalemate in nuclear talks with the United States and force Washington, along with the rest of the world, to take notice of North Korea and treat it accordingly. Kim has warned the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump that it has until the end of the year to strike a deal — essentially demanding the U.S. to take a new approach — or face consequences. Experts expect either a nuclear or intercontinental ballistic missile test, as they seem to be the only things that can get Trump’s attention.
Other governments have used similar imagery to inspire and unite their people. The iconic painting of Napoleon Bonaparte places him atop a rearing stallion, a man mastering the forces of nature to lead. Former U.S. President Ronald Reagan was often pictured on a horse to associate himself with virtues of the American West, conveying machismo and self-reliance. Russian leader Vladimir Putin has also taken to horseback to convey his power and confidence.
Other cultures portray leaders in different ways. In China, leaders are frequently shown at the head of mass demonstrations, making plain the great power — typically military — that they can muster on their and their nation’s behalf. Imagery from the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China tightly focused on President Xi Jinping, standing in place of Mao Zedong and receiving salutes from the military forces that passed by at his feet.
Japanese imagery is much different. Reflecting the democratic, pacifist culture that has been the foundation of the country since defeat in WWII, few pictures associate executive leadership with military might. Japanese prime ministers do not don military fatigues to review the troops. Instead, the prime minister is typically viewed as first among equals, leading various branches of government.
Perhaps even more telling are images from formal events, which focus on the refinement, elegance and detail — and in many cases, the austerity — of Japanese conceptions of power. Pictures from the recent enthronement offer proof. They are devoid of ostentation. Instead, the emperor is draped in an historical cloak that confers legitimacy by rooting him within a long tradition. Emphasis is less on the individual and more on that tradition. It is an important distinction as the world contemplates the spectacle of a North Korean leader charging up a mountain on a white horse.