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Culture : Lionizing the 'Great Leader' : North Korea's Kim Il Sung enjoys a personality cult without peer.


PYONGYANG, North Korea — He is pictured on giant murals throughout town, memorialized with monuments and statues, his image pinned to the lapels of virtually every Pyongyang citizen. His picture is in every public building; special bookstores stock volumes of his reminiscences and political "guidance" in Korean, English, Russian, Chinese, Japanese and French.

He is lionized in a Broadway-style musical featuring 5,000 dancers in satin and sequins, in mass gymnastic games with 100,000 students performing sophisticated card tricks that spell out adoring messages: "Legendary Hero," "Father of the People."

Of all the sights and sounds that strike a first-time visitor to North Korea, none hammers the senses quite so hard as the powerful and pervasive national worship of "Great Leader" Kim Il Sung and his son and successor, Kim Jong Il.

To North Koreans, the mass adoration unifies the country and gives citizens a sense of belonging in what state slogans call Kim's "Everlasting Bosom."

But to others outside Pyongyang, it represents dangerous cult worship that keeps the people programmed like robots into blindly following whatever the Great Leader dictates. And that, critics say, keeps North Korea perilously unpredictable.

"An extravagant personality cult nurtured by symbol manipulation . . . has led to the consolidation of absolute rule by one man and a scheme for the hereditary transfer of power," according to a 1991 analysis by the Institute of North Korean Studies in Seoul.

"To build a personality cult, not only Kim Il Sung himself, but even his parents, ancestors and family members are being idolized like a divine feudal dynasty. All sorts of fabricated myths, legends and 'historical facts' have been mobilized to that end."

Among the most notable exaggerations, analysts say, is the deification of Kim as a legendary hero of resistance against the Japanese colonial rule.

Actually, argues the Seoul institute and other foreign analysts, Kim had only a "paltry record of guerrilla combat" against the Japanese and was simply plucked out of the then-Soviet army to run the newly won territory. But Pyongyang's propaganda masters say Kim never lost in more than 10,000 battles against the Japanese and even mastered a mystic art of shrinking geographical distances.

When a foreign reporter challenged the North Korean version of events, suggesting that U.S., British and other forces helped drive out the Japanese during World War II, Deputy Prime Minister Kim Tal Hyon replied: "The history is very clear. No answer is necessary." Then he plunged into a harangue against the United States as "the culprit for the division of our country."

Thanks to North Korea's image-makers, Kim Jong Il, who was actually born in Siberia, is now proclaimed to have been born in a secret anti-Japanese resistance camp at the so-called sacred mountain, Mt. Paekdu. Official books on Kim trumpet it as "The Birth of the Morning Star," and efforts are under way to "discover and compile" revolutionary slogans invented by the younger Kim. It is claimed, for instance, that more than 11,000 slogans conceived by Kim were discovered in May, 1987.

As a result of such extravagant promotion, North Koreans seem ready to accept the hereditary succession without question.

Tak Kwang Song, a 17-year-old student at Pyongyang's top high school, quickly fired off three reasons why the younger Kim, "Dear Leader," deserves to succeed his father.

"Dear Leader was born during the anti-Japanese revolution at Mt. Paekdu," he recited. "From childhood, he was faithful and filial to Great Leader. And Dear Leader has the personality to carry forward the revolutionary cause of juche, " or self-reliance.

It is impossible to escape the Kims' presence. Great Leader is there upon landing at Pyongyang International Airport, his giant portrait dominating the terminal building. Along the 25-kilometer drive to Pyongyang, through dirt-brown farmland and apricot orchards, billboards portray Kim surrounded by loving workers.

Inside the city, the visitor sees over here a bronze Kim statue; over there, Kim Il Sung Stadium. The huge stone Arch of Triumph, built in commemoration of Kim's 70th birthday, dominates one of Pyongyang's main avenues.

Lapel pins bearing the Great Leader's image are worn by virtually every North Korean.

On one recent afternoon, the Kim presence hung heavily at the No. 1 Department Store in central Pyongyang, where flocks of students crammed the counters for uniforms and school supplies, clutching discount coupons.

Cho Kyung Sook, a freshman at Wohak University, explained that the senior Kim, for his 80th birthday, had given all students half-price coupons for an entirely new set of clothes.

Last February, the younger Kim celebrated his 50th birthday by presenting the people with discount coupons for 50 food items, including bananas and oranges.

But it is at national spectacles where Kim worship can be most intensely felt.

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