Pyongyang's cult of the living dead

The Standard/April 1, 2005

North Koreans cycle past a poster of the late 'president for life' Kim Il Sung in Kaesong, near the demilitarized zone at Panmanjon.

It is not a peaceful resting place, but, when you are president for eternity in a nation waging a seemingly endless revolution, death was never going to be easy.

Eleven years after his fatal heart attack, the embalmed body of former North Korean leader Kim Il Sung lies under a spotlight in an enormous glass-enclosed tomb at his presidential palace on the outskirts of the capital, Pyongyang.

Wearing an immaculately pressed black suit, thick white makeup, red lipstick and with the national flag wrapped around him up to his shoulders, Kim receives hundreds of mourners each day.

The visitors walk silently around the coffin while soft revolutionary music floats out of invisible speakers, with many stopping to dutifully break down in tears before walking away sniffling and wiping their noses.

"He died more than 10 years ago, but each day the emotion gets stronger,'' a government official said as he walks out of the palace, which was converted into a memorial for Kim at a cost of hundreds of millions of dollars.

Kim created one of the world's great communist personality cults for himself during his totally dominant rule of North Korea, which began with the nation's founding in 1948 and continued to his death on July 8, 1994.

During his reign, statues of Kim were installed around the country, his photos were placed in every public building and enormous monuments were built in Pyongyang such as the 170-meter Juche Tower, which extolls his ideological blend of self-reliance and Marxism-Leninism.

He eventually became known by all North Koreans as the "Great Leader,'' and his death triggered unprecedented scenes of mass grief with hundreds of thousands of people gathering in Pyongyang for his funeral.

Three years of national mourning followed, after which Kim was enshrined in the constitution as "president for eternity,'' with daily control of the nation in the safe hands of his son, Kim Jong Il.

The younger Kim has ensured the personality cult of his father remains as strong as ever.

Badges of a smiling Kim the elder continue to be worn by North Koreans on their left lapel, symbolically close to their hearts, while bold, colorful banners and posters are ubiquitous around the nation.

"Kim Il Sung, the respected father of the nation, will be immortal in the hearts of the people,'' reads a typical slogan under an image of a rosy-cheeked, smiling Kim that is painted on a wall in the southern town of Kaesong.

In the main entrance room to the mausoleum, a brilliant, white statue of Kim at least three meters high welcomes visitors, with the back wall bathed in soft, sunrise-like lights that rise from peachy-orange to a welcoming blue.

The room that visitors walk into after paying their respects to the "Great Leader'' displays hundreds of medals given to Kim from various governments.

Among the awards are the 1956 "Order of Freedom First Class'' from the People's Socialist Republic of Albania and the 1978 "Grand Cross of National Order of a Thousand Hills'' from the Republic of Rwanda.

The former east German government honored him with the "Karl Marx Order'' in 1982 and the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia gave him the "Great Star'' in 1977.

A major reason for the nation worshipping Kim, government officials tell foreigners, is his extraordinary role in overthrowing the "Japanese imperialists'' who occupied North Korea from 1910 to 1945.

"President Kim Il Sung left home at 14 and was determined not to return to Korea until it was independent,'' the guide at his Mangyongdae birthplace in Pyongyang states.

Official North Korean history records Kim as returning to Pyongyang in 1945 after years of guerrilla warfare to liberate the nation, although there is no mention of the Western world's version that he was installed by the Soviets.

Kim was also the strongman who stood up to the United States, stopped the capitalists from taking over North Korea with "victory'' in the 1950-1953 Korean War, and set the nation on a path to eventual reunification with the pro-US South Korea.

"The United States was much superior, technically and numerically, but we defeated the US forces with the tactical and strategic superiority of our Great Leader, Kim Il Sung,'' a guide at the Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum says.

Reunification with South Korea under a Pyongyang regime is the ultimate goal of Kim's revolutionary success. But, with huge divisions remaining between the two Koreas, the United States still with troops in the South, and the North more isolated internationally than ever, Kim clearly still has a lot of work to do.

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