Dear Leader invites the world to join mourning

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''Of course it's not the same here for foreigners. The Korean people feel about the death of Kim Il Sung as if he was their father,'' a guide said before the massive bronze statue of North Korea's late president on Mansu Hill.

So what do people feel about Kim's son and designated successor, Kim Jong Il? ''He is our Supreme Commander."

Do they now feel he is their father? "No.''

More than nine months after Kim Il Sung's death, the country remains grief-stricken in a way unfathomable to an outsider. More than 20,000 people a day still climb the steps up Mansu Hill to bow before thestatue and add flowers to the hundreds of bouquets.

In the days leading up to yesterday's opening of the Pyongyang International Sports and Cultural Festival for Peace, the 15,000 foreign tourists allowed into the country have also been required to troop up the steps and ''pay homage''. Dick Murafloti, a Los Angeles doctor, found himself bowing before the statue, and laying his floral tribute, for a North Korean television crew. ''I wasn't prepared for that,'' he said ruefully.

Even more than usual, Pyongyang feels like the set for a film about an austere cult. Kim Il Sung's avuncular face still stares down from giant portraits. His young disciples must still wear a Kim Il Sung badge on their left lapels. Asked what would happen if she forgot, one 23-year-old English teacher simply said: ''I can't forget.''

A visitor to the city this week might easily think something important is happening each afternoon, given the number of displays saying ''4.15''. For the initiated, this refers to 15 April, the dead Great Leader's birthday, which still calls for prolonged celebration.

This year the holiday's climax is the international peace festival, which neither tortuous nuclear talks with the United States nor North Korea's sagging economy has been allowed to disrupt. An unprecedented number of tourists admitted for the event have thus experienced the political theatre of the last authentic Stalinist state.

Yesterday, ahead of the opening ceremony, 50,000 children and students gave a stunning display of gymnastics. The finale was performed to the rousing song: ''Led by the Supreme Commander Kim Jong Il, we will win. We miss the bright smile of Kim Il Sung.''

The younger Kim, 53, did not attend. Nor was the Dear Leader there last night for the official opening in the May Day Stadium where 150,000 people saw, among other bouts, Ms Bull Nakano (98kg, with gelled blue punk hair) giving Ms Mariko Yoshida (67kg) a good thumping.

The festival is the most high-profile event in North Korea since the 1989 World Youth and Students Festival. "Visitors will see there is no confusion or disorder in spite of the passing away of the Great Leader,'' one guide said. Such stability, said Kim Man Song, secretary- general of the External Economic Co-operation and Promotion Committee, should make the country attractive to much-needed foreign investors.

They might, however, question why the new leader has been virtually out of public sight since his father's death.

In Korean society, a son normally mourns his father for up to three years. It would be unseemly to be anointed president before the embalming of one's father's body was completed.