North Korea: a dead president's society

North Korea's founding father, Kim Il-Sung, died 10 years ago today. But the eccentric dictator's cult is more powerful than ever. Steve Bloomfield reports from Pyongyang
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The Independent Online

Today, flowers and the sound of quiet sobbing will fill the square in front of the imposing Kumsusan Memorial Palace in North Korea's capital, Pyongyang. And as thousands of mourners gather there, the nation's leader Kim Jong-Il, accompanied by senior state officials, will navigate a series of travelators and escalators within the palace, towards the building's inner sanctum. Revolving brushes will clean the soles of the party's feet and powerful blasts of air will blow off all traces of dust, as they prepare to come before Jong-Il's father, the nation's late leader, Kim Il-Sung. After bowing in front of a 30-foot white marble statue of the country's founder, the visitors will enter a darkened room where the man still known to North Koreans as the Great Leader lies.

Today, flowers and the sound of quiet sobbing will fill the square in front of the imposing Kumsusan Memorial Palace in North Korea's capital, Pyongyang. And as thousands of mourners gather there, the nation's leader Kim Jong-Il, accompanied by senior state officials, will navigate a series of travelators and escalators within the palace, towards the building's inner sanctum. Revolving brushes will clean the soles of the party's feet and powerful blasts of air will blow off all traces of dust, as they prepare to come before Jong-Il's father, the nation's late leader, Kim Il-Sung. After bowing in front of a 30-foot white marble statue of the country's founder, the visitors will enter a darkened room where the man still known to North Koreans as the Great Leader lies.

Ten years ago today, Kim Il-Sung suffered a massive heart attack and died. But his central place in the life of the nation is in no way diminished. On his succession, Kim Jong-Il did not take the title of president. Instead he awarded his father the title "Eternal President". And to this day, North Korea - or, to give it its official title, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea - is the only country in the world where the head of state is dead.

Earlier this year, as one of only a handful of journalists permitted to visit the country since Britain and North Korea renewed diplomatic ties in 2002, I witnessed the cult of Kim Il-Sung first-hand. His stern features look down on visitors flying into Pyongyang airport - and then follow them everywhere they go. He's on the lapel badge of almost every North Korean. His framed picture adorns every home. There is hardly a corner of Pyongyang where one cannot glimpse an enormous statue or mural of the man, towering over his subjects. And every North Korean is expected to visit the mausoleum, created from his former presidential office, at least once a year.

If the mourning that marked the fifth anniversary of his death is anything to go by, the country will come to a virtual standstill today as the people - whether they like it or not - remember their dead leader. In 1999 flags were flown at half-mast and a three-minute silence was held at midday. Meetings were held where farmers, soldiers and workers could "hand down to the generations the immortal revolutionary exploits of the Great Leader President Kim Il-Sung and pledge loyalty and filial piety to the Great Leader Kim Jong-Il".

Kim Jong-Il, also known as the Dear Leader, will need that loyalty and filial piety. His father is seen as a great military leader who defeated the Japanese and the US, as the founder of the country and, worst of all, as a god. The Dear Leader has lived in his father's shadow all his life, and remains there since his father's death. But this is not something he necessarily worries about - the cult of Kim Il-Sung has, in many ways, actually been created by Kim Jong-Il.

In the early 1970s it was Kim Jong-Il who set up the 4.15 Creation Group - named after Kim Il-Sung's 15 April birthday - to write books and songs in the Great Leader's name. During the 1970s and 1980s, the Dear Leader proved his loyalty to his father by commissioning a series of enormous monuments that celebrated the Great Leader's life. The Juche Tower was built to remind North Koreans of Kim Il-Sung's Juche philosophy of self-reliance, while the Kim Il-Sung stadium was erected to inspire North Korean sports teams when performing in the international arena.

Indeed, Kim Jong-Il's leadership is based on his ability to follow the teachings of his father. Teachings which are clearly laid out in books by the man himself, such as "Let Us Bring About Radical Improvement in Education by the Full Implementation of the Theses on Socialist Education" and - a personal favourite - "Answers to the Questions Raised by Foreign Journalists".

While the North Korean government officials assigned to all foreign visitors valiantly claim that the people "love" both leaders equally, this is clearly not the case. One of the few areas of choice North Koreans appear to have is in the face they pick to adorn their obligatory red lapel badge. The vast majority plump for the leader who's been dead for 10 years.

At the imaginatively titled Pyongyang 4 school - it is the city's fourth school - children are taught about Kim Il-Sung, his wife and Kim Jong-Il. They learn about Kim Il-Sung's childhood, his victorious defeat of the "Japanese imperialists" and his subsequent defeat of the "evil US imperialists". The headteacher assures me that they also learn science, maths, music and art, but there is very little science and maths in evidence on our visit. There is certainly art - eight-year-olds drawing and colouring in the red, white and blue of the North Korean flag. And there is music too - 12 children put on a short show for us, the songs in which, their teacher enthusiastically explains, celebrate the lives of Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jong-Il.

At every turn there is a picture of one of the leaders, or a propaganda poster celebrating the revolution or reviling the West. In every class they are reminded of the greatness of the two Kims. When they go home, pictures of the pair will stare down at them, while the state radio - one of which is in every kitchen and can only be turned up or down, not off - will blare out propaganda. If they turn on the television it is revolutionary films or cartoons, or newsreels detailing what great things Kim Jong-Il did today. There may be music - usually the Kim Jong-Il song or the Kim Il-Sung song. If they go to the park to play, they may spot flowers - probably either a Kimilsungia orchid or a Kimjonglia begonia.

There is no escape. Worst of all, there is nothing to suggest there is a need to escape. The grinding poverty, the starvation, the lack of electricity (Pyongyang reaches minus-20 centigrade in the depths of winter) - all are blamed on the "evil" Americans and the duplicity and gullibility of the rest of the western world. Nothing and no one is questioned. For those who do dare to ask why Kim Jong-Il and his inner circle live a life of luxury while everyone else suffers, room will be found at one of the many gulags that exist within the countryside. It is believed that more than 200,000 people - roughly 1 per cent of the population - are in such concentration camps. And it is not just the offender who is placed there. In a brutal attempt to crack down on all criticism, possible dissidents are warned that their parents, grandparents and children will all suffer the same fate if they step out of line.

Even when the answers are placed right in front of them, North Koreans are not programmed to accept them. One of the regime's more impressive lies is the claim that it was the Americans who started the Korean War in 1950. Despite every other country recording the fact that it was Kim Il-Sung's army who invaded the South, the North insist they were the victims.

At Pyongyang's Army Liberation Museum, two rooms are dedicated to explaining why the rest of the world has got it wrong. An official guide, dressed in full military uniform, points out intercepted letters from American generals to the South Korean president talking about the possibility of war. One passage is underlined. It reads: "On the question of attacking northward, I can see the reason for it, I think, and sympathise with the feeling that offence is the best and sometimes the only defence."

This, claims the guide, proves that it was the Americans who started the war. The following line of the letter is not underlined. It reads: "However, it is very evident to us here that any such attack now, or even to talk of such an attack, is to lose American official and public support and will weaken our position among other nations." The guide doesn't read this out and brushes aside all attempts to gain an explanation.

Kim Il-Sung's "deadness" poses many problems for those who wish to see an end to his son's barbaric regime. Just how can a man who's been dead for 10 years be overthrown?

The regime is currently under more pressure than it has ever experienced. Where Kim Il-Sung was able to play the competing loyalties of China and the Soviet Union off each other, his son is left with the opposite problem. The fall of the Soviet Union meant the loss of North Korea's biggest donor, while China is now insisting on being paid in hard currency.

The six-party talks on the issue of the North's nuclear weapons have added to Kim's problems. Russia, China, the EU, the US and South Korea are all sitting around the table with North Korea. Whereas once Pyongyang could expect the support of Russia and China, they are finding that both countries appear to prefer it if the North gave up their weapons.

China offers the most likely economic model for North Korea to follow. All East Asian countries that have developed during the past 30 years have done it under limited, or no, democracy - South Korea included. Kim's regime will have noted the spectacular failure of Gorbachev's perestroika and ruled it out as a possible path. The aim for Kim Jong-Il is not to preserve his oddball form of communism. It is to remain in power - and the liberal economic and limited social reforms that have been introduced in China appear to offer the best way for him to do this.

There is one other factor that will undoubtedly have a major impact on the country's future: reunification. Kim Il-Sung constantly highlighted reunification of the Korean peninsula under his leadership as the ultimate goal. But since the return of democracy in South Korea in 1987, there has been a growing realisation in the north that this is unlikely to happen. Reunification remains a goal of the South, too - but not while the North's economy remains in such a parlous state. They have witnessed the damaging effects of former East Germany on West Germany's economy after reunification there. The South's wish for Kim Jong-Il's regime to fall is tempered by the knowledge that 23 million North Koreans will suddenly see that life is better over the border. Senior British diplomatic sources favour a UN-run government, backed by serious levels of international investment, taking over the North until its economy is at a level where it isn't going to damage the South's when the countries reunify.

Very gradually, North Korea appears to be opening up. The country's first advert appeared earlier this year and over the past 12 months brand new Mercedes and mobile phones have become a regular occurrence on the streets of Pyongyang. Modernisers within the regime are keen to encourage tourism and the handful of Western journalists allowed in each year are being given a touch more freedom than previously. Not too much though - during my stay, two government "guides" accompanied me at every step.

As the country changes, though, the cult of Kim Il-Sung will be almost impossible to shift. He is so much a part of the country and the people that to reject him is, for most North Koreans, to reject themselves.

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