PYONGYANG, North Korea — Visitors paying their respects at the memorial palace housing the body of North Korea's late founder patiently waited through security checks and scans along a winding corridor. Their shoes were dusted and disinfected before they stepped through a fierce wind tunnel to sweep away any remaining specks.
After walking through a series of rooms as "The Song of Gen. Kim Il Sung" played in the background and pausing before a massive marble statue of the president, visitors were ushered into 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.
They bowed 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 and a single spotlight on his face.
This journey of pomp and ceremony through the late president's four-story mausoleum on his birthday reinforced the sense of reverence surrounding Kim.
So revered is the former leader 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 15 — 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 memorial palace, naval officers in blue and young cadets in white socks and heels joined foreign diplomats and ordinary citizens lining up Friday to mourn. The mausoleum 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 vast plaza.
One North Korean who made the pilgrimage recalled the first time she visited the palace as a university student some three years after Kim's 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.
Outside the Kumsusan memorial palace, 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.
Musicians and dancers from Russia, China, the U.S. and other nations performing at an international arts festival in Pyongyang took the morning off for some fun by competing against North Koreans in three-legged races in a striking show of camaraderie.Comment on this story
Posters plastered on the walls advertised a magic show promising that planes would disappear before their very eyes. Floral arrangements studded with the bright-red "kimjongil" begonias named after the leader, as well as marigolds and daisies, filled flower beds to bring color to a city still waiting for spring. Banners celebrating "Day of the Sun" and the North Korean flag fluttered from buildings and lampposts.
Across the city, people lined up at street stalls offering roasted peanuts — a rare treat.