North Korean newlyweds, soldiers and children lined up to laud their country’s rulers on Thursday, the birthday of the late Kim Jong-Il, father of both the current leader and the exiled renegade assassinated in Malaysia this week.
A steady stream of celebrants made their way to a hill in the centre of Pyongyang where a giant bronze statue of Kim Il-Sung, founder of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea and the family dynasty, looks out over the capital, arm outstretched.
Beside him stands an effigy of his heir Kim Jong-Il, whose youngest son Kim Jong-Un now leads the country, and whose first-born, playboy and occasional regime critic Kim Jong-Nam, was murdered in Malaysia this week, with Seoul blaming two female North Korean agents.
Over the course of the day, thousands of people lined up, laid a flower, bouquet or basket — all featuring Kimjongilia, the red flower named after the late leader — and bowed.
“The great president Kim Il-Sung and great leader Kim Jong-Il will always be with us,” read ribbons attached to the baskets.
Retired financial official Kim Myong-Hui said she made hers herself.
“It is the birthday of our great leader,” the 51-year-old told AFP, her voice trembling. “We come to the hill to pay our respects every year because comrade Kim Jong-Il lives eternally in the hearts of the people.
“Even though he has passed away, he is always in my heart.”
North Korea’s official media have made no mention of Kim Jong-Nam’s killing in Malaysia and it is unlikely many of the attendees will have been aware of it.
Some were in organised groups, many were family outings because the Day of the Shining Star, as February 16 is known, is the start of a two-day public holiday in the North and a popular time to wed.
“We came here to show the great president and great comrade first that we have become a married couple,” said Kang Un-Chol, 31.
His new wife Ri Hyang-Sun, 27, added: “Coming here on the birthday of our great comrade Kim Jong-Il for my wedding, I can passionately feel in my heart how happy our new generation is in our nation that was created by our great president.”
Both wore badges depicting the two Kims on their wedding clothes.
– ‘Strong fist’ –
Accounts differ as to where and when Kim Jong-Il was born.
Officially, he came into the world on the slopes of Mount Paektu, the spiritual birthplace of the Korean nation, in 1942, which would make Thursday the 75th anniversary of the event.
But according to independent historians he was actually born a year earlier and in the Soviet Union, where his father was in exile.
Both Moscow and Beijing backed their fellow Communist against US-led UN forces during the 1950-53 Korean War, which left the peninsula divided and with a heavy military presence on either side of the DMZ.
Kim Jong-Il went on to oversee the North’s first atomic tests and under Jong-Un the country’s nuclear and missile programmes — which have seen it subjected to multiple rounds of UN Security Council sanctions — have accelerated.
The latest rocket launch, earlier this week, was described by the North as a medium long range device using solid fuel, which would enable faster deployment and cut down potential warning times.
“This is something that we must do,” said construction company official Hwang Ji-Min, 66. “The DPRK has lived under the suppression of the US. It is still suppressed.
“There is an old saying that having a strong fist will fend off any challengers. That is why we will continue. It is justified to crush them to pieces.”
Pyongyang insists that its weapons are for defensive purposes, but regularly issues blood-curdling threats and in his New Year’s address Kim Jong-Un said it was in the final stages of developing an intercontinental ballistic missile, which could put the US mainland within range.
The latest launch “showed the world our country’s military might”, soldier Ju Seong-Hyeok said at the Mansudae hill, adding: “I am certain that our military will win if there is a war.”
He came to the monument, he said, “because I missed our father, the great comrade Kim Jong-Il.
“The great leaders are always in our hearts.”