Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Kim Jong Il's North Korea

A personality cult like no other
By Elizabeth Law
ENTERING the Choryu-gwan Cold Noodle Restaurant in downtown Pyongyang, it was immediately apparent that something was going on.

Locals packed the place, waiting for a table, with more queuing outside, despite the 2 deg C cold.

'Today is the 30th anniversary of this restaurant and President Kim Il Sung is giving the people a treat,' said our official guide, Mr Kim Mum Chol.

Noticing our surprised looks, he explained quickly: 'It's what he would have done if he were still alive, to celebrate the culture of our city.'

Everywhere the visitor is shown in the capital, there are reminders of the late founder who died in 1994, and his son, Kim Jong Il, who died on Saturday.

From the tops of buildings and apartment blocks, bright red slogans declare the great work of the party and the leaders.

Despite a lack of electricity to light streets or heat buildings, powerful spotlights are trained on monuments, official pictures and statues of Kim Il Sung.

He inspired his own personality cult while he was president of North Korea. Paintings and murals featuring him were commissioned in bulk and every citizen wears a badge with his image on it.

And when they speak to visitors, North Koreans pepper what they say with references to the two Kims.

We lost count, the day we tried to keep track of the number of times 'Kim Il Sung' and 'Kim Jong Il' were mentioned by those we met - well over 150 times in a single day.

What we kept hearing over and over again was the phrase 'immediate on-the-spot field guidance'.

This refers to instant advice given by the Kims wherever they went, and officials never failed to stress what good advice it was too.

For example, at the Grand People Study House - essentially a library - height-adjustable tables were fitted after Kim Il Sung dropped in and observed that people should be comfortable while reading.

Every room the Kims entered in public buildings is marked by red plaques above the doors to show when they were there.

Museum displays have little red signs to indicate that father or son paused to lay eyes on the artefacts.

Even computers and books have stickers that say they are gifts from Kim Jong Il.

The apparent reverence overflows at the Kumsusan Memorial Palace where Kim Il Sung's embalmed body lies in a glass casket for public viewing.

Here, an endless stream of men and women dressed in their best file past to pay their respects. Many are seen with tears in their eyes, and some sob uncontrollably.

I was in secondary school when I first learnt about the North Korean cult of personality, and was sceptical that such a thing could work.

Seeing it close-up brought home to me starkly that an entire population could indeed be indoctrinated to the point of self-delusion.