NORTH Korea's elusive new leader Kim Jong-il skipped the opening of a massive weekend sport festival - covered by Western journalists - to honour him and his late father. Instead, he used the time to visit a science research centre, the North's official news agency KCNA said yesterday. Mr Kim, 53, has made only one public speech ever - a one-sentence statement several years ago when he was named military commander. He has rarely been seen in public, although he has made about a dozen appearances this year, mostly to army barracks and other military-related events. Friday was the opening of the North's weekend festival of exhibition wrestling and other events, which appears to be part of the transition process in which Mr Kim is gradually assuming power following the death of his father, longtime strongman Kim Il-sung, last July. In a sign that Pyongyang might be relaxing its totalitarian grip, the state opened its doors to 15,000 officials, tourists and journalists for the two-day festival. This is the largest number of foreigners that have been permitted to enter North Korea. In an unusual move by the North Koreans, many of the tourists and journalists have been allowed to walk freely around parts of the city without being followed by secret police officers. This contrasts with previous visits, where foreigners were barred from leaving their hotels or had to be escorted. Visitors commented on the irony that wrestling was the only activity being held at the Pyongyang International Sports and Cultural Festival for Peace. Only a small number of bouts were held between United States and Japanese wrestlers. Guest of honour at the games, former heavyweight boxing champion Muhammad Ali, said he believes sports can break down ideological barriers. 'I sincerely hope that this event, in which people of several nations will be competing with each other in the sports arena and exchanging their cultures both contemporary and traditional, will serve to establish a foundation on which to build up dialogues between the Democratic People's Republic of Korea and the other nations of the world,' he said. Meanwhile, Kim Il-sung is set to join the ranks of the world's top dead communist figures by being embalmed and interred in a mausoleum. Construction of the shrine, which is likely to attract millions of his former subjects, has begun although it is not known when the project will be finished. Few details about the mausoleum are available but it is known to be in a prime location in the capital. According to a city resident, an official statement will be made later this year, possibly coinciding with the anniversary of Kim's death on July 8, or with the 50th celebrations of the foundation of the Workers Party of Korea on October 10. The latter event is also being tipped as the date when Kim Jong-il's succession as leader is finally announced. Still adored by a fanatical cult following of the country's 20 million people, the senior Kim will lie in state. Since his birth date on April 15, thousands of North Koreans have marched past his birthplace at Mangyangdae, in Pyongyang, while others paid their respects at the huge bronze statue of the late Great Leader. Under Kim, North Korea - which he founded on September 9, 1948 - was one of the world's most isolated countries, rarely allowing foreigners past its borders.