Pyongyang's streets offer few hints of the momentous events opening today in the city's Mansudae Assembly Hall, where Workers' Party cadres from across the country are convening for a rare meeting to discuss who will succeed the Dear Leader Kim Jong-il.
There are no election posters or party-political broadcasts. Last night however, the official media made its first mention of the most likely successor, Kim Jong-un, youngest son of the Leader, who himself inherited power from his father Kim il-Sung. The Swiss-educated heir-apparent has been given the rank of general, the state news agency announced. But the notice intriguingly added that Kim Jong-il's sister Kyong Hui had also been appointed a general, a move which analysts said was a possible indication she could become caretaker successor upon the dictator's death.
Television and newspapers continue to extol the bounteous virtues of Kim Jong-il in ornate language befitting a deity. On the city's outskirts, lush rice paddies just before harvest time give little hint of the 1990s famine that may have wiped out up to a tenth of this country's population. A clue to the madness – and reason – behind North Korea's scowling, belligerent mask is in the cavernous Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum, which documents North Korea's crucible years – the 1950-53 Korean war in the typically florid propaganda that embellishes all official narratives.
Wide-eyed rural schoolchildren in military uniform listen as guides explain atrocities by the "US aggressors" during the conflict. A futile war fought to a standstill ending in perhaps three million dead and, the museum recalls, the first US armistice in history signed without a victory. Out of the wreckage of that conflict – unresolved to this day – founder Kim il-Sung built his isolated state.
Instead of nursery rhymes, schoolchildren were taught songs about the "American imperialist bastards". Paranoia about Washington's motives and its "lackeys" in Tokyo and Seoul set in, heightened by incursions by US spy ships and planes.
By the time Kim died in 1994, the North had been rebuilt into a modern, industrial state. But the rot was already setting in. The centralised economy was grinding to a halt, and aid slowed as Pyongyang's Stalinist allies switched to capitalism. Then, in the mid-1990s, famine struck.
Only the messianic cult built around Kim stopped the regime from collapsing. His son deepened the cult, ordering hundreds of murals, giant statues and monuments built and his body entombed in a glass coffin in the Kumsusan Memorial Palace. His portrait hangs in every office and home.
On a visit to the palace last week, workers wearing their Sunday best – ill-fitting suits for the men, traditional jeogori for the women – bowed and filed past his sarcophagus in the Great Hall of Lamentation. A piped dirge played throughout the palace and a taped commentator indicated the proper response: "awestruck silence".
Children spend a sixth of their day in rooms dedicated to study of each of the Kims. Anecdotes from Kim Jong-il's life recall the biblical tales of Jesus Christ as he walked among the people: a typical story ends with Kim offering a sprig of priceless advice and a suitably awed response: "Only someone who loved people boundlessly could have made such a remark," says one.
Even swathed in this elaborate cloak of official cant, however, another orderly transition of power will not be easy. "This is not the same era as when Kim's father died, says Youngkwan Yoon, professor of international relations at Seoul National University. "We are entering a period of great instability."
How unstable remains to be seen. Up to 300,000 have defected across the Chinese border. Another 20,000 have found new lives in South Korea. The South's citizens say they want reunification but fret about the consequences – if they consider them at all. The nightmare scenario is the sudden collapse of the Kim regime, sending millions of refugees spilling into Seoul.Reuse content