PYONGYANG, North Korea — So revered is North Korean founder Kim Il Sung that he remains the nation's "eternal president" 17 years after his death, his beaming face on billboards, portraits and the small pins every North Korean wears affixed to their shirts and jackets.
Kim would have turned 99 on Friday, and his birthday remains the country's most important holiday. It's a day to remember the man who built the nation in the postcolonial, postwar era, and a reminder of the lasting legacy of his blend of socialism and Confucianism even as the communist bloc has largely crumbled around North Korea.
For North Korea's leadership, April 15th — the "Day of the Sun" — is also an occasion to rally national pride as the country undergoes a sensitive leadership transition and as tensions with the outside world persist.
After leading North Korea for decades until his death in 1994, Kim was succeeded by son Kim Jong Il in a hereditary succession heralded as the first in the communist world. Now 69, Kim Jong Il is grooming his third son, Kim Jong Un, to eventually assume the mantle of leadership.
It's widely believed Kim Jong Il will formally bestow the son, who is in his late 20s and is known familiarly in Pyongyang as "the Young General," with top-level posts over the next year confirming his status as the next leader.
At Kim Il Sung's presidential palace, naval officers in blue and young cadets in white socks and heels joined foreign diplomats and ordinary citizens lining up Friday to mourn at the memorial where his body still lies in state — a journey of pomp and ceremony that reinforces the sense of reverence surrounding Kim.
His four-story palace sits on a vast expanse of elegantly manicured greenery surrounded by a moat and barbed wire and set off from the front gate by a 1 million-square-foot (100,000-square-meter) plaza.
To get to the palace, visitors walk down a long, winding corridor — helped along by an automated walkway — and relinquish all coats, bags and electronics. Security checks include passing through a gate as well as being scanned with a sensor. Shoes are brushed off and disinfected, and any remaining specks of dust swept clean by stepping through a fierce wind tunnel.
After walking through a series of rooms as "The Song of Gen. Kim Il Sung" plays in the background, visitors ascend by elevator to the darkened vestibule where he lies on a bed of black marble, his body draped in red and his eyes closed as though he were simply taking a nap.
Visitors bow in unison at three points around his body — at his feet, on his left, and on his right — beneath the glow of a red light that illuminates his embalmed body.
One North Korean recalled the first time she visited the palace as a university student some three years after his death when it had been transformed into a memorial. She said seeing his body after having grown up watching him on TV every day sent her into a state of shock.
Until then, she had thought of him as a god, she said. Immortal.
The centenary of Kim Il Sung's birth has the leadership spurring the country to strive toward becoming a "great and prosperous nation" in 2012.
It's an ambitious challenge for a country sanctioned by the U.N. and frozen out by a host of nations for developing its nuclear and missile programs, and struggling to feed its people in the wake of decades of economic hardship and one of the harshest winters in history.
That reality is not reflected in the accouterments on display in Kim's palace: his sleek black Mercedes-Benz sedan with blackened windows, as well as the train car personalized with an enormous desk that he used to visit towns and villages across the northern part of the nation.
Outside the plaza, visitors gathered in the broad plaza lined with North Korean flags to take souvenir photos.
One young boy stood solemnly beneath a huge portrait of the late president as his father wiped his nose before crouching down to snap his photo. Schoolchildren in blue uniforms tugged at their red scarves, retying them for a group picture.
A professional photographer instructed a gaggle of women in traditional Korean to look like they were laughing — an order that brought on a fit of giggles.
Elsewhere in Pyongyang, families made their way to Kim's towering bronze statue on Mansu Hill to lay flowers and bow in unison at his feet. Friday marked the start of a holiday weekend, and the streets were filled with families walking hand-in-hand, enjoying the day off.
Foreign musicians and dancers performing at an international arts festival in Pyongyang took the morning off for some fun by competing against North Koreans in three-legged races. Posters plastered on the walls advertised a magic show promising that planes would disappear before their very eyes.Comment on this story
College student Ri Yu Jong said after paying her respects to Kim with her family, she planned to meet up with friends.
"We'll probably get together to see the night view at the Arch of Triumph and then I want to eat Pyongyang noodles," the 21-year-old said in fluent English during a break from the swimming pool at Kim Il Sung University, pink goggles pushed onto her forehead.
At the thatched cottage in Pyongyang's outskirts where Kim Il Sung spent his early years, guide Kim Jin Ok said the young Kim hasn't yet toured the humble home that has become a mecca for North Koreans. But she hoped he would make the trip next year.
"He hasn't been here yet, but we hope that when we commemorate the 100th anniversary of the president's birth next year, Gen. Kim Jong Il and his son will come for a visit," she said as hundreds of North Koreans, from ruddy-faced cadets to blue-clad traffic police in knee-high black boots, filed past.