The Great Leader rules from beyond the grave

inside north korea

North Korea has not had a head of state or, more importantly, a leader of the ruling Korean Worker's Party for more than three years. From a Korean point of view, though, both these posts are filled, aside from the small technicality that their incumbent is deceased.

Kim Il Sung, the "Great Leader", died in July 1994, having led his country for almost half a century. He left a chasm which the North Korean leadership is wary of filling. "The President will live for ever, therefore the President's seat will always be empty," explained an official guide in front of a giant bronze statue of the late leader depicted with his hand outstretched to the people.

The late leader lives on in many ways. Every adult citizen wears a badge carrying his portrait. It is almost impossible to walk more than five minutes in any city without meeting a Kim Il Sung statue, hoarding, or a building named in his honour. This is a personality cult which dwarfs the cults of Stalin and Chairman Mao.

The cult is overwhelming and bizarre. At its apex stands the International Friendship Exhibition, located in the middle of the country at Mount Myohyang, one of Korea's most beautiful areas. Built in a traditional style (unlike most buildings which resemble the worst excesses of early Soviet brutalism), it is a gargantuan shrine to the Great Leader and to his son the Dear Leader. The twist to the shrine's story is that it is stuffed with "61,000 valuable presents", given to the two leaders by people from all over the world. A "spontaneous" poem by Kim Il Sung puts it this way: "The country ruined by cringing and subjected to so much suffering, is now thronged by goodwill missions from all lands." The reality is that North Korea is probably the most diplomatically isolated nation on earth. The only missions "thronging" its doors are of aid donors trying to alleviate the economic disaster resulting from President Kim's rule. Reality is not allowed inside this sacred place, where shoes must be discarded and bowing before images of the Great Leader is not voluntary. Most of the population has been shepherded around the exhibition. It exists, it is claimed, as proof of the internationally popularity of the two Kims and it locates North Korea at the epicentre of world affairs.

Like every other successful Asian Communist leader, Kim Il Sung paid more attention to nationalism than to the internationalist ideas of Karl Marx. President Kim's hotch-potch theory, dignified in North Korea as the "Juche Idea", revolves essentially around the notion of self-reliance. Basically it says that Koreans can do anything they set their minds to. Then, remembering that Socialist internationalism ought to come into this, the Juche Idea generously suggests that the same principles apply to other peoples too. Bookshelves in North Korea are crammed with variations of turgidly written nonsense on this. To an outsider these seem gibberish, but they are studied with reverence by Koreans.

"Frankly speaking, 95 per cent of the people regard Kim Il Sung as their father," said the guide. It was not made clear what fate would befall the 5 per cent who had other views. However, it is becoming increasingly clear that Kim Jong Il, Kim Il Sung's eldest son from his second marriage, is about to step into his father's huge shoes.

Alexandre Mansourov, a former Soviet diplomat in North Korea, said in a recent interview with Newsweek that the son will be formally inaugurated as president in October according to invitations that Russia has received. However, Kim Jong Il is but a shadow of his father. Brian Bridges, an expert on North Korea from Hong Kong's Lingnan University, describes him as a "dimwit". "He just doesn't have the intellect to run it all".

Kim Jong Il's late father erected a one-party state with Soviet assistance after the Second World War. Early days were dominated by the ruthless elimination of all opposition, and there is still no real dissent now. But Dr Bridges believes that the leadership cannot stay unchallenged for much longer. "The crunch must come in the first half of 1998", he predicts. By then the food crisis will be out of control and, he believes, a part of the elite will break away and say "we really have to do something drastic". Foreign officials in the North Korean capital, Pyongyang, are less sure that anything will happen so soon, though they accept the crunch will come and that the last unblinking Stalinist regime will have to change in the end.

"What you see right now is the unravelling of a system which must have been fairly good 20 years ago," one said. Nevertheless, he argues, "they can continue for a very long time. Believe me, these people still have trust in the leadership, their tolerance level is so high".

Kim Il Sung's megalomania and ego have survived his passing. As winter comes in a couple of months time and the limited food supplies dwindle even further, the shivering people living out the Juche Idea might start to wonder just how well self-reliance is working.

This is the second article in a three-part series.

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