Day of the Shining Star / 광명성절

Democratic People's Republic of Korea - Scott #1906a (1980) miniature sheet of 4
Democratic People’s Republic of Korea – Scott “#1906a” (1980) miniature sheet of 4

The Day of the Shining Star (광명성절 — Kwangmyŏngsŏng-jŏl) is a public holiday in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) falling on February 16, the birth anniversary of the country’s second leader, Kim Jong-il. Along with the Day of the Sun, the birthday of his father Kim Il-sung, it is the most important public holiday in North Korea. Kim Jong-il was actually born in 1941 in the Soviet Union, although North Korean propaganda insists on the date of February 16, 1942, and places the birth at the Mount Paektu area in Korea. His birthday became an official holiday in 1982 when he began his work in the Politburo of the Workers’ Party of Korea. During his lifetime, he kept out of the public eye during his birthdays. In 2012, the year following his death, the holiday was renamed the Day of the Shining Star.

The most lavish observances take place in the capital Pyongyang and include mass gymnastics, music performances, fireworks displays, military demonstrations, and mass dancing parties. The North Korean people receive more food rations and electricity than usual on the Day of the Shining Star.

Soviet records show that Kim was born Yuri Irsenovich Kim (Юрий Ирсенович Ким) in February 1941 in the village of Vyatskoye, near Khabarovsk in the Russian Federal Republic of the Union of Soviet Socialists Republics (USSR). His father, Kim Il-sung, in exile because of his guerilla activities, then commanded the 1st Battalion of the Soviet 88th Brigade made up of Chinese and Korean exiles. Kim Jong-il’s mother, Kim Jong-suk, was Kim Il-sung’s first wife. Inside his family, he was nicknamed “Yura”, while his younger brother Kim Man-il (born Alexander Irsenovich Kim) was nicknamed “Shura”.

Kim Jong-il in North Korean propaganda, depicting his birth in a secret camp at Mount Paektu on February 16, 1942. This photograph of the painting was taken by Mike Fahey on August 16, 2011. Used under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license. This reproduction is permitted under the Copyright Law (Translated English version) of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, Article 32 (Original version in Korean 조선민주주의인민공화국 저작권법) states that “A copyrighted work may be used without the permission of the copyright owner […] When a copyrighted work in public places is copied.”

However, Kim Jong-il’s official biography states he was born in a secret military camp on Paektu Mountain (백두산밀영고향집 — Baekdusan Miryeong Gohyang jip) in Japanese-occupied Korea on February 16, 1942. Mount Paektu is the mythical place of origin of the Korean people and the location where Kim Il-sung supposedly ran a guerilla camp. In reality, the guerillas were based in Manchuria at the time and Kim himself had been to the Soviet Far East before and after Kim Jong-il’s birth. According to one comrade of Kim’s mother, Lee Min, word of Kim’s birth first reached an army camp in Vyatskoye via radio and that both Kim and his mother did not return there until the following year.

In 1945, Kim was four years old when World War II ended and Korea regained independence from Japan. His father returned to Pyongyang that September, and in late November Kim returned to Korea via a Soviet ship, landing at Sonbong. The family moved into a former Japanese officer’s mansion in Pyongyang, with a garden and pool. Kim Jong-il’s brother drowned there in 1948. Reports indicate that his mother died in childbirth in 1949.

Kim Jong-il died in 2011 and his remains are preserved in a memorial palace on the outskirts of Pyongyang. He remains the eternal General Secretary of the ruling Workers' Party of Korea. AFP/Getty Images photo taken on February 19, 2019.
Kim Jong-il died in 2011 and his remains are preserved in a memorial palace on the outskirts of Pyongyang. He remains the eternal General Secretary of the ruling Workers’ Party of Korea. People prepare to pay their respects before the statues of late North Korean leaders Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il as part of celebrations marking the birthday of Kim Jong-il, known as the Day of the Shining Star, on Mansu hill in Pyongyang on February 16, 2019. AFP/Getty images photo.

In North Korean propaganda, Kim Jong-il is often associated with the image of the star. He is most often referred to as the “bright star”, although the “shining star” (광명성) is also used. According to legend, a bright star appeared on the sky the night he was born, and guerilla fighters carved messages on trees proclaiming: “Three Heroes Shining in Korea with the Spirit of Mount Paekdu: Kim Il Sung, Kim Chŏng-suk, and Kwangmyŏngsŏng (‘The Bright Star’)” and “Oh! Korea! The Paekdu Star Was Born!”

Kim’s birthday had been provisionally celebrated from 1976 on, but it became a national holiday only in 1982, two days after he became a member of the Politburo of the Workers’ Party of Korea. When he ascended to the leadership of the country, his birthday was marked as “The Spring of Humanity” on the North Korean calendar. During his lifetime, though, Kim shunned away from public occasions during his birthdays. The anniversary got its present name in 2012, the year following his death, when the Politburo announced that: “February 16, the greatest auspicious holiday of the nation when the great leader Comrade Kim Jong Il was born, will be instituted as the Day of the Shining Star”. An equestrian statue with Kim Jong-il and Kim Il-sung was revealed to commemorate the day.

On February 12, 2013, North Korea conducted its third nuclear test a few days before the Day of the Shining Star in celebration of it.

Soldiers carry flowers to lay below the statues of former North Korean leaders Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il on Mansu Hill in Pyongyang, Saturday, February 16, 2019. Associated Press photo.
Soldiers carry flowers to lay below the statues of former North Korean leaders Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il on Mansu Hill in Pyongyang, Saturday, February 16, 2019. Associated Press photo.

The holiday begins on February 16 and lasts for two days. Celebrations are observed throughout the country. The capital, Pyongyang, has observances such as mass gymnastics, music performances, fireworks displays, military demonstrations, and mass dancing parties. Boulevards are lined up with flags and banners. Millions of people visit the Kumsusan Palace of the Sun where both Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il lay in state. Exhibitions of the orchid Kimjongilia take place. The orchid is named after Kim and has been cultivated to bloom around the Day of the Shining Star.

Outside of Pyongyang, commemorations are not as lavish. The North Korean government often allocates more food and energy to the people on Day of the Shining Star than normally. Children are given candy, and it is one of the few occasions on which new members are admitted in the Korean Children’s Union. Vitaly Mansky’s 2015 documentary film Under the Sun chronicles the run up to such a ceremony on the Day of the Shining Star.

Government and business offices, banks, and retail close for the holiday and weddings are commonly held on the date as well.

North Koreans visit the statues of former Supreme Leaders Kim il-sung (left) and Kim Jong-il (right) on Mansu Hill, Pyongyang. Associated Press photo taken on February 16, 2019.
North Koreans visit the statues of former Supreme Leaders Kim il-sung (left) and Kim Jong-il (right) on Mansu Hill, Pyongyang. Associated Press photo taken on February 16, 2019.

Today, Saturday, February 19, 2019, thousands of North Koreans lined up in bitter cold minus 8°C temperatures to pay their respects to Kim Jong-il on the 77th anniversary of his birth. Political slogans in public spaces made no mention of the country’s ballistic missile and nuclear weapons programs. At an annual exhibition featuring more than 30,000 roots of Kimjongilia — a red blossom of the begonia family named after the former leader — there were no replicas of satellite-carrying rockets or missiles, unlike on previous Days of the Shining Star.

In pride of place before the bronze effigies stood a large floral tribute emblazoned with the name of Kim Jong-un, who is due to hold his second summit with U.S. President Donald Trump on February 27-28 in the Vietnamese capital Hanoi. President Trump, on the day before the birthday celebrations in North Korea, claimed that the Obama administration “was so close to starting a big war with North Korea” when asked for details of the summit.

“When I came into office, I met right there in the Oval Office with President Obama. And I sat in those beautiful chairs, and we talked, it was supposed to be 15 minutes, as you know, it ended up being many times longer than that. And I said what’s the biggest problem? He said by far, North Korea,” Trump explained from the Rose Garden.

“I don’t want to speak for him, but I believe he would’ve gone to war with North Korea. I think he was ready to go to war. In fact he told me he was so close to starting a big war with North Korea,” Trump said. However, Ben Rhodes, a top Obama national security aide, responded on Twitter by stating, “We were not on the brink of war with North Korea in 2016. Highlighting the longstanding and widely known threat of North Korea’s nuclear program is very different from saying you’re about to start a big war.”

Groups ranging from couples and families to hundreds-strong detachments of workers or soldiers assembled in front of the statues. Here, Korean People's Army (KPA) soldiers leave after paying their respects to the former leader on the 77th anniversary of his birth, February 16, 2019. AFP/Getty Images photo.
Groups ranging from couples and families to hundreds-strong detachments of workers or soldiers assembled in front of the statues. Here, Korean People’s Army (KPA) soldiers leave after paying their respects to the former leader on the 77th anniversary of his birth, February 16, 2019. AFP/Getty Images photo.

The two-month period between the Day of the Shining Star and the Day of the Sun is known as the Loyalty Festival Period and festivities occur throughout the country. On the calendar, the Day of the Shining Star takes place after the Generalissimo Day (February 14, commemorating Kim Jong-il’s accession to the rank of Taewonsu, the highest possible military rank in North Korea) and before the International Women’s Day (March 8). The Day of the Shining Star is one of three days celebrating Kim Jong-il on the calendar, the other two being the Generalissimo Day and the Day of Songun (August 25, commemorating the beginning of Kim’s Songun, or army-first, leadership).

Kim Jong-il (officially transcribed Kim Jong Il; 김정일) was the second Supreme Leader of North Korea. He ruled from the death of his father Kim Il-sung, the first Supreme Leader of North Korea, in 1994 until his own death on December 17, 2011. He was an unelected dictator and was often accused of human rights violations.

By the early 1980s, Kim had become the heir apparent for the leadership of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea and assumed important posts in the party and army organs. Kim succeeded his father and DPRK founder, Kim Il-sung, following the elder Kim’s death in 1994. Kim was the General Secretary of the Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK), WPK Presidium, Chairman of the National Defense Commission (NDC) of North Korea and the Supreme Commander of the Korean People’s Army (KPA), the fourth-largest standing army in the world.

Statue of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il riding horses at Mansudae Art Studio in Pyongyang and officially revealed on the Day of the Shining Star in 2012.
Statue of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il riding horses at Mansudae Art Studio in Pyongyang and officially revealed on the Day of the Shining Star in 2012.

During Kim’s rule, the country suffered famine and had a poor human rights record. Kim involved his country in state terrorism and strengthened the role of the military by his Songun (“military-first”) politics. Kim’s rule also saw tentative economic reforms, including the opening of the Kaesong Industrial Park in 2003. In April 2009, North Korea’s constitution was amended to refer to him and his successors as the “supreme leader of the DPRK”.

The most common colloquial title given to Kim was “Dear Leader” to distinguish him from his father Kim Il-sung, the “Great Leader”. Following Kim’s failure to appear at important public events in 2008, foreign observers assumed that Kim had either fallen seriously ill or died. On December 19, 2011, the North Korean government announced that he had died two days earlier, whereupon his third son, Kim Jong-un, was promoted to a senior position in the ruling WPK and succeeded him. After his death, Kim was designated the “Eternal General Secretary” of the WPK and the “Eternal Chairman of the National Defense Commission”, in keeping with the tradition of establishing eternal posts for the dead members of the Kim dynasty.

A painting of Kim Jong-il and his father Kim Il-sung, photographed in Pyongyang, North Korea, on August 13, 2010.
A painting of Kim Jong-il and his father Kim Il-sung srrounded by children, photographed in Pyongyang, North Korea, on August 13, 2010.

Scott #1906 is one of several stamp releases by the North Korean postal service on January 28, 1980, commemorating the 30th anniversary of UNESCO’s International Day of the Child’, occurring on June 1 of that year. There has been an International Day for Protection of Children observed on June 1 since 1950. This was established by the Women’s International Democratic Federation on its congress in Moscow on November 4, 1949. Currently, nearly 50 countries around the world (including North Korea) observe Children’s Day celebrations on June 1.

A Universal Children’s Holiday is held on November 20 under United Nations sponsorship. First proclaimed by the United Kingdom in 1954, it was established to encourage all countries to institute a day, firstly to promote mutual exchange and understanding among children and secondly to initiate action to benefit and promote the welfare of the world’s children. On November 20, 1959, the United Nations adopted the Declaration of the Rights of the Child. The UN adopted the Convention on the Rights of the Child on November 20, 1989.

North Korean Children’s Day is celebrated on June 1 as the International Children’s Day (국제 아동절). Before 1945, it was celebrated on May 1. There is also a day called the Festival for the Establishment of Young Pioneer Corps(조선소년단창립절) on June 6, which also celebrates the country’s children. The DPRK takes a lot of pride in their children summed up by a quote by Kim Il-sung on the souvenir sheet (Scott #1912) accompanying the 1980 stamp release: “In our society the child is king of the country. We spare nothing for them.” Needless to say, there have been quite a few children-oriented stamps issued by North Korea over the years.

Democratic People's Republic of Korea - Scott #1906 (1980) stamp digitally cropped from miniature sheet
Democratic People’s Republic of Korea – Scott #1906 (1980) stamp digitally cropped from miniature sheet

The inscription on today’s featured stamp reads, “His loving care for the children, the future of the fatherland.” The 10-chon stamp depicts Kim Il-sung marching through a snowy landscape alongside North Korean soldiers and accompanied by two children — a young girl riding on the white stallion carried by another soldier and a young boy, whom I assume is Kim Jong-il. I find it an interesting painting (as I do so many revolutionary and propaganda images from places such as China, the Soviet Union and North Korea) and am disappointed that I could not find any further information about it. At any rate, the stamp was printed using offset lithography in miniature sheets of four stamps each, perforated 12, and issued on January 28, 1980. The Scott catalogue lists the stamp as North Korea #1906 but makes no mention of the miniature sheet. Using the convention used by the catalogue in other listings, I have “assigned” it #1906a for the mini-sheet.

Democratic People's Republic of Korea - Scott #1912a (1980) miniature sheet of 6 Democratic People’s Republic of Korea – Scott “#1912a” (1980) miniature sheet of 6

Similarly, Scott lists six stamps from the same set with individual catalogue numbers (Scott #1907-1912) but does not list the miniature sheet (this one with printed margins) that they were issued in. Thus, I have given it the number 1912a. These stamps are all denominated 10-chon and portray children of three races (Scott #1907), a boy playing the accordion accompanied by a girl in traditional Korean dress (Scott #1908), children on an amusement park airplane ride (Scott #1909), children on a rocket ride with planets and stars visible (Scott #1910), children racing on tricycles (Scott #1911), and a boy and girl playing with a model train (Scott #1912). These were printed by offset lithography, perforated 12.

Democratic People's Republic of Korea - Scott #1913 (1980)
Democratic People’s Republic of Korea – Scott #1913 (1980) souvenir sheet
Democratic People's Republic of Korea - Scott
Democratic People’s Republic of Korea – Scott “#1913b” (1980) imperforate souvenir sheet

Finally, a souvenir sheet containing a single 50-chon stamp was issued as part of the same set. The margins include Kim Il-sung’s quote, a North Korean flag and the North Korean and United Nations emblems for the International Day of the Child. The stamp itself is a painting of Kim visiting a kindergarten with the inscription, “The father Marshal visiting a kindergarten in a remote mountainous village.” Perhaps this is the same remote place where his son was born. The stamp was printed using offset lithography, line perforated 13¼. Scott lists the souvenir sheet as #1913 but not the individual stamp (which, following their usual editorial policy, would be #1913a). The catalogue also makes no mention of the imperforate variety, which I may as well call “Scott #1913b”.

“Kim Jong-il” in Chosŏn’gŭl (top) and hancha (bottom) scripts.
King Jong-il signature
King Jong-il signature
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