‘The feeling is special’: North Korea commemorates birth of founding father Kim Il-sung
North Koreans are taught from an early age to revere their leaders, and portraits of the late rulers gaze down in every home, school and workplace in the country
Thousands of North Korean devotees laid flowers before statues of the country’s founder Kim Il-sung on Sunday on the anniversary of his birth.
A constant stream of soldiers in brown uniforms, work unit personnel in suits, schoolchildren and families made their way to Mansu hill in the centre of Pyongyang, where giant statues of Kim and his son and successor look out over the capital.
“The great comrades Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il will always be with us,” read a banner made of greenery.
In turn each group approached the bronze edifices, most people with single blooms, some carrying golden baskets of flowers – making their offerings before assembling in formation.
“Let us bow before the statues,” intoned an announcer half-hidden by horticulture, prompting deep bows from civilians and salutes from military detachments.
North Koreans are taught from an early age to revere their leaders, and portraits of the two late rulers gaze down in every home, school and workplace in the country.
Current leader Kim Jong-un is the third of the dynasty to head the isolated and impoverished but nuclear-armed country, whose calendar is packed with anniversaries relating to his two forefathers and their careers.
The accompanying rituals both demonstrate and reinforce loyalty to the regime. April 15, known as the Day of the Sun, is by far the most important and sometimes marked with a military parade, as it was last year.
Visiting the statues reinforced her determination to “realise the reunification of our country which the great leaders wanted” and “uphold the leadership of the respected Marshal Kim Jong-un”, said Second Lieutenant Ryu Yong-jong, 25, who has been in the army for nine years.
Ordinary North Koreans only ever express wholehearted support for their government when speaking to foreign media.
Authorities held a mass meeting of senior officials on Saturday to mark the anniversary, one of a series of events tied to the date, but Kim Jong-un has spent some of the festive period on the current spate of diplomacy involving the two Koreas.
A summit with the South’s President Moon Jae-in is due later this month, ahead of talks with Donald Trump. On Saturday Kim met visiting Chinese envoy Song Tao, pledging to improve a traditional but battered relationship.
At a banquet for the delegation, one wall was decorated with a mural of Kim shaking hands with Chinese President Xi Jinping on his surprise trip to Beijing last month.
The journey was Kim’s first overseas since inheriting power. It ensured that, rather than the South Korean or US presidents, the first foreign head of state he met was the leader of the long-standing ally whose forces gave his grandfather crucial support in the Korean war.
The Day of the Sun has been described as “Like Christmas, but for Juche instead of Jesus”, in reference to Kim Il-sung’s “self-reliance” ideology.
Guides at Mangyongdae outside Pyongyang, where Kim Il-sung was born 106 years ago, sometimes use religious terminology themselves, describing a well at the site as containing “holy water” and calling the day his “birthdaymas”.
Kim remains the country’s Eternal President despite dying in 1994. His son passed away in 2011 but is still Eternal General Secretary of the ruling Workers’ Party of Korea.
Retired senior colonel Kim Yong-won, 76, donned his old uniform for the occasion, his chest heavily bedecked with medals – the most important, he said, being a gold star depicting a soldier, a sailor and an airman for 30 years of service.
“Every time I visit here, the feeling is special,” he said. “I cannot express my feelings in one word. The feeling like this is not only for me but also for all Koreans as well as the world’s progressive people.”
On the platform in front of the statues, a young girl in a red coat and carrying a straw broom carefully picked up a stray twig and took it away.