God is dead. Long live Kim Il Sung

The Independent (UK)/September 17, 2004
By Anne Penketh

In a country where Christianity once flourished, the Great Leader stands at the pinnacle of a religious mythology with its own Holy Trinity.

"You must not fold the Great Leader's face." The stewardess was not joking when she sternly addressed the passenger on the Air Koryo flight out of Pyongyang, as he creased a special issue of a magazine devoted to the achievements of the late leader of North Korea, Kim Il Sung, to place it in his bag.

A British diplomat on the same Soviet-era Ilyushin-62 received the same treatment when he asked the stewardess to leave his drink on the magazine, while he read a newspaper. She waited until he had cleared the tray so that the Great Leader on the cover would not be sullied.

In North Korea, Kim Il Sung is no laughing matter. The former leader, who died in 1994, is not just the object of a personality cult, he has been elevated to the status of god in a state religion that relentlessly represses the underground Christian church. There are three churches in Pyongyang, and - according to North Korean authorities - 500 throughout the country, but they now serve the interests of state propaganda.

In a country where Christianity flourished after the arrival of the first Protestant missionaries in 1885, Kim Il Sung's policy of Juche, or self-reliance, introduced an elaborate religious mythology around a Juche Holy Trinity that placed the Great Leader at the pinnacle. His mother, Kim Jung Sook, and his son, the current leader Kim Jong Il (aka Dear Leader), form the other members of the holy family worshipped by North Koreans - the majority of whom have never heard of Jesus. Following the introduction of the Juche policy, all religions were banned in a country where until 1950, according to some estimates, there were 2,850 churches, 700 pastors and 300,000 Christians.

The North Korean Foreign Minister's office contains a mural showing the modest log cabin where the current ruler in the communist dynasty, Kim Jong Il, is said to have been born. Another mural on the landing outside has the same scene in winter, depicting the cabin surrounded by a high mountain and fir trees in the simple colours of painting by numbers. According to the legend, a star appeared over the mountain at the moment of Kim Jong Il's birth. All that is missing is the three kings and their camels.

In fact, Kim Jong Il was born in a prison camp near the far eastern Russian city of Khabarovsk.

But no matter. For the North Korean people, indoctrinated and blind to the outside world in their hermetically-sealed universe, have been brought up to believe that their impoverished state is a Communist paradise. Any imperfections are blamed on the "hostile" Americans, with whom the country is still technically at war.

The guide at the giant flame-topped Juche tower, which was erected as a monument to Kim Il Sung's Juche policy, points towards a pyramid on the other side of the Taedong river. It is a 150-storey hotel that was never completed. Work ceased when the economy collapsed in crisis in the 1990s, but the guide, dressed in the turquoise robes of the national costume, explains that "financial problems because of the US and some natural disasters" prevented its completion.

It is even hinted that natural disasters, such as the famine, floods and drought that have devastated the country from 1995, leaving up to three million dead - or 200,000 according to the official North Korean version - can be blamed on the US. The latest edition of the Pyongyang Times, marking the 56th anniversary of the founding of North Korea by Kim Il Sung, notes that the "entire nation was in a tumult of joy at the news that the Democratic People's Republic of North Korea was founded".

It points out that "the country suffered the worst-ever economic difficulties due to growing US moves to isolate and stifle it since the 1990s". The same edition denounces the US "scurvy trick" of appearing to advocate dialogue while pressing ahead with military preparations for a "war scenario". North Korea's nuclear preparations are therefore necessary: "To shelter oneself from the rain, one must spread the umbrella."

Signs of the devotion of the people to their dead leader are everywhere. Last Sunday, in the driving rain, a man holding an umbrella made his way to the giant bronze statue where he laid a wreath and bowed in a mark of respect. The following day, in glorious sunshine, throngs of young couples made their way to the statue on the way to their weddings, dressed in the bright colours of the national costume.

One happy parent was filming a couple with a clunky video camera as they posed on a lawn in the park where the statue holds pride of place. Moments earlier, they had taken part in the ritual wreath-laying.

"All Korean people hold Kim Il Sung in high esteem," the father explained. "We are accustomed to greet the president." The couple met at the same factory, where according to the groom "we were making a contribution to the construction of the country".

As other wedding parties splashed in the fountains, three 10-year-old boys were making their way home from school, wearing the red neckerchiefs of the school uniform. Asked about their feelings for Kim Il Sung, they replied: "He was a distinguished and clever man." Kim Jong Il, who has not taken on the role of president, has kept a low profile in the North Korean mythology. Contrary to the widespread reports in the West that he is a hard-drinking, womanising, wacky dictator, he is said to be a family man who enjoys staying at home. He surfs the internet and watches CNN and MTV.

Although a mural of Kim Jong Il graces the entrance of the foreign ministry in central Pyongyang, and his portraits sit alongside those of his father inside every office, the official propaganda, with its billboards and official notices, is devoted to Kim Il Sung.

One giant mural painted on the wall of the people's culture palace has four people in the foreground symbolising North Korean society: a worker, an intellectual, a rifle-toting soldier and a woman who represents the farming community. They all look towards a shining future, illuminated by the sun which symbolises the leader. They are inspired by the book they hold in their hand: the works of Kim Il Sung. In the background there are power plants, a ship and other industrial achievements.

A government minder interprets the mural, saying: "Now soldiers have been added to defend our socialism, chosen by the Korean people themselves." >From the viewing platform of the Juche tower, situated across the river from central Kim Il Sung square, there is a commanding view of the city, rebuilt after the Korean War. The guide does not fail to mention that the Americans dropped 425,000 bombs on the city of 400,000 people.

She also explains the meaning of the Juche idea invented by Kim Il Sung: "I am master of my destiny, without relying on anyone else." That of course, means no contact with the outside world, or as little as possible. In the Looking Glass world of North Korea it means that no foreign contribution to the economy can ever be recognised.

The Koreans have never been told, for example, that it was a US-led consortium that was building two safe reactors under the 1994 framework agreement in which North Korea agreed to mothball its suspect nuclear programme. The deal collapsed two years ago after Pyongyang announced it was enriching uranium in violation of the accord, threw out UN weapons inspectors and pulled out of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

While millions of dollars are poured into the "military first" or Songun policy, the people are kept in feudal conditions, putting up with power cuts and shortages. Few can afford a car and only the most trusted members of the regime are allowed outside the country.

You can only imagine what the audience must have made of Bend It Like Beckham, showing this week as part of an international film festival in Pyongyang. At a lavish lunch for a British delegation at a collective farm in Paeksong, a half-hour drive outside the capital, not a single person had heard of Britain's most famous brand.

But as the number of foreigners rises in the country and the community of relief workers grows, the façade may crack. Some in Pyongyang become aware of the outside world if they can get inside the foreigners' hotel rooms, where there are state-of-the-art bathrooms imported from Japan and cable television showing BBC World, Japanese TV, Star television and sports channels. Government minders or the security police cannot stop every contact with foreigners - although they try.

North Korean students attending an international book fair at the Grand People's Study House virtually besieged the British book stall, with students crowding round to look at the textbooks. A pack of brochures on 100 questions about Britain was confiscated by sinister security men, wearing the ubiquitous badge with the face of Kim Il Sung. As a British journalist began explaining to a North Korean girl leafing through a brochure on Scotland that "Edinburgh is the Pyongyang of Scotland", the conversation was abruptly terminated by the minders.

At a lunch held for North Koreans who had studied English in Eastbourne to meet the visiting Foreign Office minister Bill Rammell, 18 did not show up. British diplomats were told they were unavailable, no explanation.

There have reportedly been stirrings of dissidence in the party elite and the military, who were provided with mobile phones for domestic calls about 18 months ago. Foreigners were also issued with phones on a parallel network that could call outside the country but could not receive calls from inside North Korea. A few months later, the system was shut down without explanation.

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