How myths and lies created a nation in thrall to its leader

David McNeill, who visited Pyongyang last year, found the mark of the ruling dynasty on every aspect of life in North Korea

The signs of Kim Jong-il's calamitous rule appear as you arrive at Pyongyang International Airport.

Jittery security personnel appear shrunken in their oversized hats and military uniforms, a legacy of years of food shortages. The North's highest-ranking defector Hwang Jang-Yop estimated the death toll from North Korea's mid-1990s famine at between 1 million and 2.5 million people.

Earlier this year the World Food Programme said that a third of the North's children are "chronically malnourished" and a quarter of its 24 million citizens need food aid.

Pyongyang, the Potemkin capital where the short and malnourished are reportedly weeded out for the benefit of foreign visitors, is better off than anywhere else, but even there, children obviously don't have enough to eat.

The best-fed men in the history of the country are the two who have dominated its physical and psychological landscape: Kim Jong-il and his father, the nation's founder Kim il-Sung. Rumours abound that the family's grandson and now heir, the porky Kim Jong-un, has been put on a reverse diet to fatten up and look more like his grandfather. Plastic surgery has also been hinted at.

The mystery for first-time visitors is why the North's inhabitants accept this bizarre, unjust state of affairs. The clues again begin in the airport, where everyone wears a Kim il-Sung badge over their hearts. In the queue for baggage security, some carefully transfer the badge when they switch coats. Being caught without it or treating it with disrespect is asking for a grilling from the police, or worse.

The intense cult woven by Kim Jong-il around himself and his father is perhaps the main reason why he survived for so long. The brightest lights in Pyongyang's sickly, night-time pallor shine on the murals and giant statues of the two Kims dotted all around the city.

The brightest of all is the 560ft (170-metre) Juche Tower, a monument to Kim il-Sung's philosophy of self-reliance. Visitors must pay homage to the 100ft bronze statue of Kim il-Sung in the city centre and his embalmed corpse in Kumsusan Palace, a tumescent monument to his mythological greatness. "He is the father of our nation and the sun that shines," intones the guides.

Schools dedicate a room each to the father and son, in effect religious shrines where a heavily mythologised version of their lives is taught to millions of Korean children. The children study in classrooms underneath the twin Kim portraits, and stare at them again as they ride home on public transport and eat their evening meal. State-run TV extols the greatness of the family that has ruled this country for 60 years. Even fairy stories for children are built around the Kim cult.

North Koreans live in a vast sealed experiment in information control. According to Reporters Without Borders, just 4 per cent of the population has access to a heavily censored internet, which is completely under state control, along with all newspapers, radio and television.

Visitors must surrender phones and mobile transmitters at the borders. Pyongyang guides profess never to have heard of Western stars such as Michael Jackson or U2. There are no gay people in North Korea, they say. Everyone is happy with the leadership of the Dear Leader, they say.

Over drinks, Koreans will say they want to live "in peace". The 1953 division of the country into two: the Stalinist North and US-backed South inevitably comes up. "If the Americans leave the South, our country will be reunited," they say.

But that leaves two huge problems: the huge economic disparity between North and South, and the democratic deficit. South Koreans can vote their leaders out of power. "So can we," say the North Koreans, and perhaps somewhere they believe it.

Even before Kim's death, there were signs that change was coming. Technology is leaking across the borders. Until recently, employing North Koreans as reporters was considered far-fetched, even revolutionary. But technological developments in the last few years have made that a possibility. Mobile phones, mini-cameras and recording devices are increasingly being smuggled out, and the dissenting voices of North Koreans themselves broadcast back in.

Perhaps, somewhere in this process lie seeds to empowerment for the North's long-suffering people, who have been mostly passive onlookers in the slow emasculation of their country.

Few analysts feel confident predicting that they will shrug off the cult of Kim with his death.

Yet, after what happened in the Arab world this year, anything is possible – as no doubt the North's leadership is all too aware.

Kim Jong-il: the myths

* Kim Jong-il was walking when he was three weeks old and talking by eight weeks, according to official records. During his three years at Kim Il-sung University, he churned out more than 1,500 books as well as six operas which are "better than any in the history of music," says his authorised biography.

* According to a Communist newspaper, Kim Jong-il's tracksuits are a global fashion phenomenon. His status as fashion icon has also been bestowed on his son and heir, Kim Jong-un, whose haircut is said to be all the rage in Pyongyang.

* An avid film fan, Mr Kim reportedly ordered the kidnap of South Korea's most celebrated film director, Shin Sang-ok, in 1978. The director said he was paid to make seven films, including a Godzilla-style action movie called Pulgasari, before he escaped in 1986. "James Bond was a favourite and he liked Rambo also, and Friday the 13th and Hong Kong action movies. But he doesn't know what fiction is. He looks at these movies as if they were records of reality," Mr Shin later said.

* Every grain of rice served to him was reportedly inspected for perfection, according to his former sushi chef, Kenji Fujimoto.

* The North Korean leader inherited his father's fear of flying. Kim Jong-il preferred to travel by train and took his luxury carriages all the way to Moscow in 2001, when he reportedly had roast donkey and fresh lobsters flown to him every day.

Enjoli Liston

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