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North Korea: Love for supreme leader keeps country's woes from sight

By Stan Grant, CNN
updated 2:36 PM EDT, Sat April 14, 2012
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Tens of thousands of soldiers hail Kim Il Sung, adored as the father of the country
  • The cult of personality has helped keep three generations of the family in power
  • New "supreme leader" Kim Jong Un receives a rapturous welcome
  • North Korea's military might helps hide the misery of much of the population

Pyongyang, North Korea (CNN) -- A soldier, with a semi-automatic assault rifle slung across his chest, stands in front of a locked gate. Like evening stars in the night sky, once we see one, we see dozens more. But each individual is barely distinguishable among the sea of green uniforms of the North Korean army.

Tens of thousands of soldiers are crammed in here at the Kim Il Sung stadium in Pyongyang. It is yet another massive display of adoration for this man, the father of the country born 100 years ago.

The soldiers, the guns, the locked gates, can't help but be a metaphor for the people inside. For here is a nation forged by war and guarded by the gun. They are locked away, not exposed to foreign media or information. To think for yourself, to break from the pack, is not encouraged here; conformity and above all loyalty is demanded.

In this way, three generations of the Kim dynasty have ruled for nearly 70 years.

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A giant photo of Kim Il Sung, the man deemed the Eternal President, hangs above the stadium. It was here in 1945, after the liberation from Japan, that he pledged to build a nation on wealth, strength and knowledge.

Now his grandson, the new "supreme leader," sits atop a people he struggled to feed.

Kim Jong Un enters the stage to deafening roar, from our distance a small figure, so young and inexperienced, and yet an object of such seemingly unbridled love.

"He is our supreme commander," one soldier tells me. "He is just like the Great Leader Kim Il Sung and the Dear Leader Kim Jong Il. We'd like to be 10,000 guns and bombs to safeguard him."

Such blind devotion comes in a country that has been crippled by sanctions; in him these people see their future and their past. Kim Jong Un is front and center of a week of celebrations for the centenary of the birth of his grandfather. People even now see Kim Il Sung in the young Kim Jong Un, pointing out how much they look alike.

No expense is being spared here. The busy capital, Pyongyang, is crowded with cars and people shopping. Our government minders have opened access to what they consider a showpiece.

But outside the city, we were given a glimpse into an entirely different world. We couldn't leave our train, but through the window the hardship couldn't be hidden. People were tilling the harsh ground for food, in a land that can't grow enough to support them.

The famine of the 1990s killed millions of people, aid agencies say. They report people with stunted growth and children with chronic malnutrition. Defectors tell of scrounging corn or even stripping bark from trees to survive.

While North Korea spends its money on its military, weapons and tributes to its leaders, the regime still goes to the international community for aid.

Now, the food promised by the United States will not arrive. The food aid deal has been scuttled by North Korea's decision to push ahead with the rocket launch that ended in failure Friday. The United States and others denounced the launch as a seriously provocative act that violates U.N. resolutions.

But here, in the stadium, the image is of power, not suffering. The soldiers are whipped into a frenzy, and leave no doubt who the enemy is; they are still fighting an old war.

"We feel anger at the U.S. imperialists," they tell me. "The U.S. is our sworn enemy."

They ridicule neighboring South Korea as an American puppet, dominated by imperialists, and they vow to fight to the death for their country.

"As long as there are American troops on South Korean soil, the threat of war will never be removed," they say.

As the soldiers chant Kim Jong Un's name over and over, it is clear that in this shadow land, might can so easily hide misery, when the leader looms so large.

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