The propaganda behind North Korea leader Kim Jong Un riding a white horse up a sacred mountain

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un rides a horse during snowfall in Mount Paektu.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un rides a horse during snowfall in Mount Paektu.PHOTO: REUTERS/KCNA

SEOUL - The Internet exploded with jibes and jokes when photos of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un riding a white stallion up a snow-topped mountain went viral.

Some people were worried about the welfare of the horse, some were reminded of the American fantasy drama Game of Thrones, while others edited the photos in the name of mockery and fun.

But Mr Kim - the third in the Kim family to rule North Korea - was far from horsing around.

Experts said the photos released last Wednesday (Oct 16) were brimming with historical symbolism and meant to project an image of strength - just like the kings of ancient Korea who were also fond of white horses.

Critics may laugh, but the message to the people of North Korea is clear - their leader is a powerful, legendary man who will protect the country and lead them through periods of hardship.

To go horse-riding on Mount Baekdu adds another layer of meaning. The highest peak in the North is held sacred by many Koreans as it is believed to be the nation's birthplace.

It is also said to be the birthplace of Mr Kim's late father Kim Jong Il, and where Mr Kim's grandfather Kim Il Sung - North Korea's founding leader - fought against Japanese forces riding a, you guessed it, white steed.

The Kims have "sought to cement family ties to Baekdu and piggyback on its mythology for generations", said Ms Jean Lee, Korea expert at the Washington-based Wilson Centre.

"Mount Baektu is a mystical place for Koreans, beautiful and majestic, snowbound and difficult to reach for much of the year," she told The Sunday Times.

"With the visit ... Kim Jong Un is seeking to shore up the propaganda around his leadership and his 'right' to rule."

Ms Lee added that Mr Kim's photos reminded her of the images of ancient warriors seen in North Korean books, especially King Tongmyong of ancient Goguryeo (37BC-668AD).

She tweeted a composite photo of the two leaders, noting that Mr Kim is "seeking to draw a direct line to Korea's ancient monarchs".

Ms Lee, who used to be based in Pyongyang, said the king's photo is found in a book she brought out of North Korea, which quotes Mr Kim's father Kim Jong Il urging North Koreans to remember the Kim family lineage going back to King Tongmyong.

"Kim Jong Un has embraced the spirit of Tongmyong," she said, adding that the leader even ordered the country's top animation studio to produce new episodes of Boy General, a popular cartoon depicting the Goguryeo era.

"I find it interesting that Kim is highlighting a monarchy that both fought off foes from China and worked with them to reunify the peninsula."

 
 
 
 

The timing is also key.

Mr Kim is known to visit Mount Baekdu before every major policy change, such as seeking rapprochement with South Korea and dialogue with the United States early last year.

Talks have stalled over unbridgeable differences between the two sides, and North Korea walked out of the last round of working-level talks held in Sweden two weeks ago. Pyongyang has repeatedly urged Washington to be more flexible.

Ms Lee said the North Korean leader clearly "feels the need to strengthen his legitimacy and right to rule" now.

"He may feel vulnerable in the wake of the breakdown of talks with the US, or he may be shoring up to take the country in a different direction and is trying to project an image of strength before he makes that next move," she noted.

Dr Andray Abrahamian, senior adjunct fellow of the Pacific Forum think-tank, cited state media reports that Mr Kim's trip was aimed at making a decision on the country's strategic line while achieving prosperity on its own braving all headwinds, adding that it is possible that the leader is "preparing his people and the international community for the prospect of no deal and more conflict with the US".

But "there is sufficient vagueness in the language that he still has a lot of optionality", Dr Abrahamian told The Sunday Times.

North Korea's Kim dynasty are not the only ones partial to horses, though.

Many social media users pointed out similarities between Mr Kim's photo and a shirtless image of Russian President Vladimir Putin riding a horse in Siberia in 2009.

Former US President Ronald Reagan and former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill were also horse lovers, noted Dr Abrahamian.

"Horses have been used by leaders forever to demonstrate power, ruggedness and vitality," he said.