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North Korea's 'Great Leader' holds court from the grave

September 14, 1999
Web posted at: 8:04 p.m. HKT (1204 GMT)

From Hong Kong Bureau Chief Mike Chinoy

PYONGYANG, North Korea (CNN) -- At the end of a gleaming, kilometer-long marble walkway and up a final staircase leading to a darkened crypt, the North Korean faithful pay tribute to the man who forged their national identity.

Inside this polished monumental structure -- the Kumsusan Memorial Palace -- lies the body of Kim Il Sung, the founder of modern North Korea, who ruled the Communist nation from 1948 until his death in 1994.

To North Koreans, Kim was and remains the "Great Leader." He transformed the country into a highly militarized machine and sought to reunite North and South Korea by force, triggering the 1950-53 Korean War. Kim also introduced his own philosophy of self-reliance, called juche, which became the staple of North Korean culture.

Five years after his death, Kim remains the object of one of the most intense personality cults of the 20th century. From their infant years, North Koreans are taught that Kim Il Sung is the all-powerful father figure. Their duty is to obey the system he created.

Like a deity, he is worshipped at mass rallies and games, at engravings of his calligraphy, at the numerous statues bearing his image all across the landscape. Devotion to the "Great Leader" is the subject of plays and performances.

His heir, Kim Jong Il, has cloaked himself in his father's mantle, keeping the cult as strong as ever.

"We believe that Kim Jong Il is Kim Il Sung," said one woman. "And Kim Il Sung is Kim Jong Il."

Even in death, Kim Il Sung retains the title of North Korea's president for all time. No one else will ever hold that title -- not even Kim Jong Il, who is known as chairman of the National Defense Commission.

The Kim cult provides several revealing insights into North Korean society.

In a country where travel is tightly restricted, pilgrims admire an illuminated display showing everywhere Kim went on his favorite train. In a capital city with virtually no cars -- where even bicycle ownership is rare -- the masses file reverently past Kim's bullet-proof Mercedes.

In many ways, the Kim cult is the North Korean system. And today, in the face of international isolation and economic crisis, hundreds of thousands still visit his birthplace. Their worship of the "Great Leader" serves as the ideological glue that holds this most unusual of societies together.

ASIANOW


RELATED STORIES:
North Korea tentatively agrees to halt missile tests
September 13, 1999
Kazakhstan admits its MiG jets went to North Korea
September 12, 1999
U.S. urges North Korea to respect sea border
September 2, 1999

RELATED SITES:
KOREAN CENTRAL NEWS AGENCY
Ministry of National Defense, Republic of Korea
East Asian media
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