Are North Koreans tiring of being told to sacrifice for tomorrow?

“Let’s Not Live Today for Today, Let’s Live Today for Tomorrow” was Kim Jong-il’s slogan for dealing with famine. Image | Rodong Sinmun

Despite the 180 degree turn this year on the long standing goal of reunification and the removal of a monument he built to it, North Korea has not turned its back on Kim Jong-il. Like a dutiful son, the current leader Kim Jong-un still honors “Kim Jong-il Patriotism,” a core educational tool introduced immediately after his father’s death.

This continued focus of Kim Jong-il reminds North Koreans of how he responded to the famine at the start of his 1994-2011 rule with the slogan “Let’s live for tomorrow, not for today!” 

In March 2012, a few weeks after his death, his son, Kim Jong-un, dutifully planted pine and magnolia trees in his memory at locations where markers showed he had appeared to “give guidance.” Shortly afterwards, the Rodong Sinmun, in an editorial urging officials to dedicate themselves, gave birth to the idea of “Kim Jong-il Patriotism.”

Since then, “Kim Jong-il Patriotism” has been a core feature of ideological indoctrination, emphasizing unwavering loyalty to the leader, profound dedication to the future, and fervent attachment to socialist institutions.

In the face of a widespread deaths from starvation and related illnesses, a collapsed economy and devastated living standards, Kim Jong-il activated the Propaganda and Agitation Department of the party’s Central Committee to come up with slogans that were part denial of responsibility, part assertion that political control was not loosening, and part fantasy.  “Even if the road is rough, let’s smile and live!” one of them said.

The one best remembered was “Let’s live for tomorrow, not for today.” 

Literally, in translation, “Let’s not live today for today, let’s live today for tomorrow,” this was the standout slogan in a strategy to convince citizens to turn their hatred towards the United States and South Korea as the real cause of their suffering. 

“Kim Jong-il always told us to dedicate ourselves to future generations, even if we ourselves would never see the fruit,” said Han, 45, remembering his teenage years and his twenties. Now attending a vocational training college in Seoul, Han said many people took the message as, “Don’t ever expect to live well.” They found it perplexing.

A former miner who recently defected after work in Russia said miners were not so perplexed. They were cynical. “We turned it into ‘There’s no tomorrow like today,’” said Kim, 35. “Conditions were bad. There weren’t enough safety checks and there were a lot of accidents. We never knew when we might die, so when we got paid, we spent our money on better food and alcohol like it was our ritual. As we drank, we would chant it. ‘There’s no tomorrow like today.'”

According to a source contacted last week in Ongjin County, Hwanghae Province, that refrain has now been picked up by ordinary people. 

Despite Kim Jong-un talking about “sacrificing ourselves for the nation following his father’s teachings, people commonly respond saying they believe only in themselves. They say there’s no tomorrow like today,” the source said.

Zane Han

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