Seoul -- Many North Koreans died a "heroic death" after last week's train explosion by running into burning buildings to rescue portraits of leader Kim Jong-il and his father, according to the North's official media.
Portraits of Kim and his late father, national founder Kim Il-sung, are mandatory fixtures in every home, office and factory in the hardline communist state of 23 million. All adults are required to wear lapel pins bearing images of one or both Kims.
Last Thursday's blast in the town of Ryongchon, near the Chinese border, killed at least 161 people and injured 1,300, according to international relief agencies. Many of the victims were children.
The dead also included workers and teachers who died clutching the portraits of the country's ruling family, said North Korea's official KCNA news agency.
"Many people of the county evacuated portraits before searching after their family members or saving their household goods," KCNA said in a report with a Ryongchon dateline.
"Upon hearing the sound of the heavy explosion on their way home for lunch, Choe Yong-il and Jon Tong-sik, workers of the county procurement shop, ran back to the shop," KCNA said.
"They were buried under the collapsing building to die a heroic death when they were trying to come out with portraits of President Kim Il-sung and leader Kim Jong-il," it said.
The KCNA report could not be independently verified.
Kim Jong-il, 62, inherited power upon his father's death in 1994 in the communist world's only case of hereditary succession.
The elder Kim was named "eternal president" and both Kims are the focus of cult worship of an intensity that historians say surpasses that of Stalin in the Soviet Union or Mao in China.
"Teacher Han Jong-suk, 56, also breathed her last with portraits in her bosom," KCNA said. Another teacher saved seven students, but died rescuing the portraits, it said.
The prison diaries of North Korean defectors refer to people imprisoned for accidentally defacing portraits of the Kims.