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NORTH KOREA : Can the Cult of the Father Be Visited Upon the Son? : Kim Il Sung's godlike status earned him undisputed control and unquestioning obedience. With his death, Kim's reclusive heir must try to maintain the power without the persona.

July 29, 1994|SAM JAMESON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SEOUL — In North Korea, the sacred Mt. Paekdu mourned for Kim Il Sung, the dictator who ruled the country from 1948 until he died July 8. A double rainbow signaled his death. Paying tribute, swallows hovered above statues of him scattered throughout the country.

Such was the culmination, as reported by North Korean media, of the cult of personality of Kim Il Sung, which the 82-year-old leader began building half a century ago with Soviet guidance after Josef Stalin picked him to lead the northern half of Korea.

Now, the cult, the unquestioning obedience it produced and the country itself, with 1.1 million troops and nuclear weapons capability, have been handed over to Kim Jong Il, 52, the reclusive eldest son of "the Great Leader."

Can it work for the son as it had for the father? The answer may be no--but in North Korea, there are no definitive answers to questions of the future.

In TV footage relayed to the world from the capital, Pyongyang, since Kim's fatal heart attack, the world caught a glimpse of the Orwellian society that Kim Jong Il has inherited. Day after day, tens of thousands of citizens sobbed, wailed and flailed their arms in unison before a towering statue of the late Kim in central Pyongyang.

Kim's longevity, the relative prosperity he initially created from the poverty left by 35 years of Japanese colonialism, and the fierce independence he established for Koreans whose intense nationalism borders on xenophobia all were factors in bolstering the cult.

But fiction, not fact, was its base. According to the cult, it was Kim, not the United States, that defeated Japan and liberated Korea; it was the United States, not he, who started the Korean War. Even his name--adopted from that of a romanticized guerrilla fighter of the past--was fiction.

Terrorist attacks staged over the years against South Korea were never his doing, according to the fabrication. Rather, they were incidents staged by South Koreans as plots in Seoul's own domestic political manipulations.

Kim Il Sung-ism and the ideology of juche (self-reliance)--taught in the schools, drilled into the minds of workers at factories and offices, and instilled in the armed forces--found no contradictions. TV sets in North Korea receive only state broadcasts. Only single-channel radios are sold. No satellite dishes or foreign publications are found there.

And in nearly half a century of national division, no mail, no phone calls and virtually no contacts between ordinary citizens of North and South Korea have been permitted.

"You have Christ. The Muslims have Allah. We have Kim Il Sung," Pyongyang officials reportedly told an American when asked about the leader's overwhelming persona.

Farmers praised him for bountiful harvests. Mothers thanked him for the successful birth of children. In the only exchange of visits between relatives separated on both halves of the peninsula, a South Korean Catholic bishop was told by his North Korean sister: "What do you mean by 'heaven'? This is heaven, where we are living with our Great Leader, Kim Il Sung!"

Fantasies of the phenomenon of nature enforcing the righteousness of Kim found fertile ground in the mythology, shamanistic animism and superstition that remains deeply rooted in Korean culture, both North and South.

Mt. Paekdu, for example, is where the nation's mythological founder, Dankun, descended to Earth to conceive the first Koreans in a union with a bear-turned-human. And in the myth North Korea started building two decades ago for Kim Jong Il, Mt. Paekdu replaced Siberia as his birthplace.

From ancient monarchy through Japanese colonial rule through Kim Il Sung's reign, North Koreans have never been exposed to anything resembling freedom of speech or thought. Post-World War II American occupation troops introduced democracy to the South for the first time.

Kim Jong Il's inheritance of his father's cult following appears certain to guarantee him, at least initially, a solid base of public support. The way was paved for his smooth ascension to power in the past three weeks--contradicting predictions of some foreign analysts that the Great Leader's passing would precipitate a rebellion.

But how long the cult will sustain Kim Jong Il is anybody's guess.

Four days after his father's death, new propaganda started being churned out for Kim Jong Il. The older man's dying words, North Korean media reported, were: "Ask the people to unite and be loyal to Kim Jong Il as they were to me."

Citing what it called an example of Kim Jong Il's "humane love" for his people, Radio Pyongyang last week quoted the new leader as saying, "If the people want, I would plant flowers and make them bloom in rocks and pull stars from the sky." Children were composing essays and poems praising him.

Woefully lacking the charisma of his father--and Kim Il Sung's power to command authority--short, chubby Kim Jong Il certainly won't find sustaining the cult as easy as his father did, said a Western diplomat, who asked not to be named.

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