David Guttenfelder, Associated Press
MOUNT PAEKTU, North Korea — As the snow drifts through the towering evergreen trees, silence enshrouds this remote pilgrimage site, a place some here consider the Bethlehem of North Korea.
It was in a rustic log cabin at the foot of Mt. Paektu where Kim Il Sung, the founder of modern North Korea, led the fight for his country's independence from Japanese imperialism more than 70 years ago, according to state-sanctioned accounts. Nearby is the lodge where his son and eventual heir Kim Jong Il was born, the accounts claim.
The story of Kim's exploits at Mount Paektu is seen as the genesis of the official history of North Korea, a legend that borrows heavily from the methods and symbols of religion in a largely atheistic country.
As North Korea celebrates the centenary of Kim Il Sung's birth, his past, like the misty peaks of Mount Paektu, remains veiled in myth. Some foreign historians dispute parts of Kim's eight-volume memoirs as well as the official biography published by North Korea in 2001, and many details are impossible to verify.
However, the prodigiously detailed memoirs do suggest that he drew from a wide range of early influences, including Christianity, Confucianism, communism and a native movement called Chondoism, to craft the mythology used to justify and enshrine his family's rule.
"Kim turned his whole family into a divine entity," said historian Song Bong-sun at Korea University in South Korea. "He knew theocracies last longer than any type of regime."
Though Kim's ancestral roots were in the southern city of Jeonju, he was born outside Pyongyang in 1912 to a poor but devout Christian family of tenant farmers. He was named Kim Song Ju, or "pillar of the country."
Years before his birth, American missionaries had arrived in Pyongyang, the nation's capital, with books, medicine and bibles. They were so successful in converting locals that by 1907 the city became known as the "Jerusalem of the East," according to missionary accounts.
Kim writes in his memoirs that he often accompanied his mother to church, although he later downplays her devotion by saying she mainly considered church a place of rest and respite. Kim also insists that his father, born to a church elder and schooled by missionaries, urged him to "believe in your own country and in your own people rather than in Jesus Christ."
Despite his later efforts as president to restrict religion, Kim readily acknowledges the presence of Christians and Christianity in his early life. Its influence is clear: The 10 Principles of Kim's ideological philosophy hint at the 10 Commandments of Christianity, and all three Kim rulers are referred to as "heaven sent."
At the time of Kim Il Sung's birth, Korea was two years into colonial rule by Japan, a period Kim describes in his memoirs as a "living hell" for Koreans. Koreans were ordered to take Japanese names and speak only Japanese, in a bid to obliterate their language and culture.
The fight for Korea's independence is a dominant theme in Kim's memoirs, called "With the Century," apparently written in 1992 at age 80. Kim places himself in a long line of patriots, claiming that his great-grandfather played a key role in a famous attack on a U.S. ship, the General Sherman, as it sailed up the Taedong River in 1866.
When Kim was 6, the Japanese threw his father into prison, and he recalls the shock of seeing his father covered with scars and wounds. Kim writes that when his father died at age 31, he left his son at his deathbed with two pistols and a mission to win back their country.
Kim's tales are also meant to burnish his own credentials as an independence fighter. Even as a child, he says, he used a knife to scratch out the words "Mother-tongue" on a Japanese-language textbook, and spiked the tires of Japanese policemen with nails.
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