North Koreans Celebrate Birthday of 'Dear Leader'

New York Times/February 17, 2003
By James Brooke

Onjung-RII, North Korea -- Happiness filled the humble cottage of Ri Myung Shim today, as her 5-year-old son awoke to find a gift bag of cookies and candy. This was not an offering from the tooth fairy, but a birthday present, of sorts. The gift celebrated the most important day on the North Korean calendar - the birthday of Kim Jong-II, the country's leader.

"This morning, he took the gift and stood in front of the portrait of the Dear Leader and expressed his gratitude to the Dear Leader," Mr. Ri, a 27-year-old park guard, said today. He beamed at the memory of his little son bowing before the household shrine to the 61-year-old Mr. Kim, whose formal title is chairman of the national defense commission but who is also known as the "sun of the 21st century."

Melding imperial traditions of ancient Korea with the personality cult of modern Communism, the Kims have ruled North Korea since Mr. Kim's father, Kim Il Sung, took control in the northern half of the Korean Peninsula in 1945. In a nation where almost the entire population of 22 million has known nothing but absolute rule by the Kims, people interviewed here today accorded the family the kind of respect associated with an imperial dynasty.

"It is great that children get these gifts," said Li Ok Hwa, a 27-year-old park guide outfitted in stylish white parka and shiny black boots. "That way, they learn who the Dear Leader is and that he is their king."

During a government-controlled tour through the countryside of this oceanside corner of North Korea it was hard to gauge the depth and spontaneity of the people's professed love for the Kims.

Many people are certainly not reserved about professing it in public. In a nation where legions of soldiers at parades chant "May Kim Jong-II live 10,000 years," granite cliffs at the park here are carved with slogans praising the family.

"Revolutionary Warrior Kim Jong Seok: Her Name Will Shine Forever!" proclaimed one, praising Kim Jong-II's mother. The campaign to elevate Mr. Kim's mother into the nation's pantheon of heroes heralded his own elevation to power on his father's death, in 1994.

On Saturday, Japan's Kyodo news agency reported the start of a propaganda campaign to hail Kim Jong-II's wife, Ko Yong Hee, as "mother" and "loyal subject." This campaign may herald the grooming of their 21-year-old son, Kim Jong Chul, as dynastic heir.

For most, it was simply a welcome day off from work and school. Men, in drab olive green or black clothes, enjoyed a smoke outside their shabby cottages. Schools were empty of children, who would otherwise fill the desks in their blue Mao-style tunics with red pioneer scarves. Playing today on muddy village lanes, the children enlivened dilapidated landscapes with the bright reds, blues and yellow of their jackets and sweaters.

In a country where riding in the back of a truck is a luxury, men and women walked with the brisk air of a people who regularly travel by foot. A few people bicycled stretches of roads turned muddy by melting snow. An ox stood patiently as a man added to a cart load of brush, evidently cut for firewood.

Since foreign visitors were barred from entering local villages today, the government staged a peppy musical performance by the Pyongyang Youth Brass Band, an all-female group attired in outfits that looked like a style collision between Maoist Red Guards and the Dallas Cowboys' cheerleaders.

The band's marching routines were recorded by platoons of South Korean journalists here to cover Friday's opening of a land route across the demilitarized zone, the border between North and South Korea, a development that North Korea hopes will bring in more tourist dollars. Today's opportunities for the South Korean press were part a wider charm campaign by North Korea to convince South Koreans that they no longer need the protection of the United States.

"This should be the happiest day of the year because it is the Dear General's birthday," said Kim Young Hee, a makeup artist who had just finished applying cherry red lipstick and white face powder to the majorettes. "We are living in affluence, so we don't expect anything special. He is the person who provides us with life and food and happiness."

The government showers real gifts on members of the elite on Mr. Kim's birthday.

"My gift set had canned food, ginseng, liquor and cookies," Chun Moon Il, a composer, said as his brass band worked its way through a lively new number, "Flower Fireworks for Blessing His Birthday."

Down on the state farms here, the workers received a rare gift from Mr. Kim this weekend - 24 hours of electricity. After over half a century of rule by the Kim family, North Korea's per capita gross domestic product is about 7 percent of South Korea's. While few people here seem aware of the disparity, they do seem to be aware of the Bush administration's warning to North Korea to abandon its nuclear weapons program. People here are bracing for an attack by the United States, though they say they are not afraid.

"The U.S. would not dare to invade North Korea because we have mighty Kim Jong-II," said Ms. Li, the park guide. One of Ms. Li's tasks is to levy $10 fines on tourists caught pointing at rock carvings of slogans praising the Kim family. Somewhat akin to pointing in a cathedral, such gawking is seen here as irreverent.

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