SEOUL, South Korea — North Korea lacks food, electricity and other basic necessities, but the impoverished country has no shortage of propaganda-inspired heroes, from a mother of eight to a pneumatic hammer that was honored for its role in a rail project.
The honor is not just reserved for the usual suspects, such as top officials or brave soldiers slain in battle. The North’s totalitarian regime has given the title of hero to a woman who gave birth to eight children, a woman who donated 500 pigs to military units over 20 years and soldiers who supposedly jumped into a fire to save a portrait of the nation’s late founder, Kim Il Sung.
Kim is, of course, North Korea’s hero of heroes. Many people, including soldiers and high-ranking officials, marked the 56th anniversary of the ruling Workers’ Party on Wednesday by laying flowers before the Pyongyang palace that houses Kim’s embalmed body.
Last week, the country named a 15-ton pneumatic hammer as a national hero for “producing many parts necessary for railway transportation and the industrialization of the country,” according to state-run media.
With its economy in shambles, North Korea needs morale-boosters. It launched a “learn-from-heroes” campaign in 1979, naming buildings after heroes and exhorting the hungry public to remain loyal to the communist regime.
“With little to offer, it uses the hero’s award as a propaganda tool,” said Hong Song-kuk, an analyst at South Korea’s Unification Ministry, which handles policy toward the North.
Kim’s son and successor, Kim Jong Il, often gives job promotions, new apartments, televisions or other rewards to proclaimed heroes.
The industrial hammer is not the nation’s first inanimate hero. Last year, North Korea awarded a hero’s title to a gingko tree. During the 1950-1953 Korean War, a U.S. plane crashed into the tree while trying to destroy a North Korean military vehicle underneath it, according to the North’s media.
The United States fought on the South’s side during the Korean War and 37,000 American soldiers are stationed in South Korea to guard against the North.
Since it was founded in 1948, North Korea has doled out so many hero’s titles that South Korean officials gave up keeping records.
To encourage population growth, North Korea once described women who had many children as “Heroes of Labor.”
It is unclear whether the North, which needs outside aid to feed its 22 million people, is still encouraging women to have more children.
Female marathoner Jong Song Ok became a “Hero of the Republic” – the highest honor North Korea can give a citizen – after she won a gold medal at the World Championships in Spain in 1999.
Jong, who was awarded a posh apartment and a Mercedes Benz along with her hero’s title, was quoted as saying that she ran “picturing Kim Jong Il in her mind.”