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.
Apart from two years in Korea during middle school, he spent most of his teenage years in China, a refuge and base for independence fighters like his parents. It was there, Kim recalls, that he began his self-study of communism, including Lenin's biography, at age 13. At 14, he joined a military academy in Jilin, where he began to get involved in the anti-Japanese movement.
In his memoirs, he recalls what he describes as a momentous gathering in a bare room in Oct. 17, 1926, when he and his friends created the Down-with-Imperialism Union, and elected him president. Kim says he considers that organization the root of the current ruling Workers' Party of Korea.
Even then, Kim knew the power of cloaking a political message in a good story. He recounts setting up a secret library and luring in classmates with love stories before slipping them books about communism.
By 1927, he writes, activists had decided to make Mount Paektu their base. In 1929, at age 17, Kim was thrown into jail. He says in his memoirs that he used the time to plot an armed Korean revolution.
When he was released the following May, he began recruiting members to join a new, communist political party, according to his official biography. North Korea now considers his founding of the Anti-Japanese People's Guerrilla Army on April 25, 1932, as the start of the modern-day Korean People's Army.
Kim also started going by the nom de guerre "Kim Il Sung," meaning "Kim, the sun." Kim wasn't the first warrior to pick that name — there were 16 well-known "Kim Il Sungs" in the previous decade with a reputation as fierce fighters, historian Song said.
The name marks the beginning of his bid to build for himself an aura of primacy. In later years, he became known as the "Sun," borrowing the potent symbol of power common to many religions and traditions. His April 15 birthday is called "Day of the Sun."
Kim's biography says he set up his guerrilla base in Manchuria in the early 1930s, and sought to push across the border by establishing headquarters at Mount Paektu by 1936. However, some experts say it is not clear whether he ever lived at Mount Paektu, and Song notes that Kim more likely served with communist Chinese forces rather than leading an independent guerrilla army.
Densely forested Paektu, straddling the Korean-Chinese border, was both a strategic defensive choice and a savvy symbolic one. Mount Paektu is Korea's highest peak and its most volatile, with an active volcano that still threatens to erupt. It's where Korea's first founder, the mythical Tangun, is said to have descended 5,000 years ago.
In the early 1940s, Kim was back in Manchuria and made forays back to the secret camp at Mount Paektu, according to his official biography. A month after Japan's defeat in August 1945, he sailed back to Korea with the Soviet army, clad in a Soviet military uniform, according to most accounts. He was 33.
As the Soviets and Americans divided trusteeship of newly liberated Korea along the 38th parallel, Soviet-backed Kim stepped into the void left by the end of Japanese colonial rule. When Seoul held its own separate elections in 1948, a new nation sprang up in the north that September: the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, with Kim as head of state.
During his career, Kim created and served in every top title in North Korea: premier, chairman of the Central Military Commission, supreme commander of the army, general secretary of the Central Committee of the Workers' Party and finally, president. Schooling, medical care and housing were all free. But in return he demanded filial, near-religious loyalty and an adherence to the militaristic rules that govern life in North Korea.
Defectors say those who oppose the party and state face imprisonment. Amnesty International estimates as many as 200,000 people are being held in North Korean labor camps today, based on satellite imagery and defector accounts. North Korea denies the existence of such gulags.
Kim also turned isolation into part of North Korea's creed through a "Juche" philosophy, which calls on his people to summon self-reliance even during hard times, such as the famine of the mid-1990s that killed hundreds of thousands of people."The Juche spirituality is the force that unites North Koreans in the most dire situations," said Shin Eun-hee, a Korean-Canadian theology professor at Seoul's Kyunghee University who has lectured at Kim Il Sung University in the past.
Kim threw the same mantle of reverence over his family, calling his son Kim Jong Il a "great man of the Mount Paektu type" who shared his ideas and his personality. That status now has been extended to grandson Kim Jong Un, who took over as leader following Kim Jong Il's December death.
The extent of reverence for the Kims can take foreigners by surprise — every sentence is prefaced with thanks to leaders, and they are given credit for every achievement, small and large. Such aphorisms can seem practiced or obligatory; indeed, it is practically state law to pay thanks to the Kims.
"The process in which people start to see God and Jesus as absolute entities is very similar to the way Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il are revered," observed Lee Su-won, a North Korea researcher at Dongguk University in Seoul.
Biblical shades come through clearly in the legend of Kim Jong Il's birth at Paektu in 1942.
Some accounts suggest Kim Jong Il was born in Siberia in 1941. But according to North Korea, his mother, Kim Jong Suk, gave birth to the future leader in a simple log cabin at the height of winter in 1942, swaddling the infant with military blankets until fellow guerrilla fighters came to her with a quilt stitched together with salvaged scraps of cloth. Guerrilla fighters spread the news of the baby's arrival in messages painted in ink on the bark of trees across the Paektu region, the official history says.
Kim's memoirs make other religious and cultural references.
For instance, he recounts visiting an ethnic Korean community living on the Chinese side of Mount Paektu where most followed a religion called Chonbulgyo. He cites their belief that 99 fairies descend daily from the heavens to bathe in Lake Chon on Mount Paektu, and that the people built a 99-room temple to house them.
Kim also describes being intrigued by the Chondo religion, a native Korean movement characterized by the idea that all men are equal and bear the spirit of the heaven in themselves, said Jeong Jeong-sook, a chief educator for the sect in Seoul. As with Juche, Chondoists consider people to be the masters of their own fates, Jeong said.
Freedom of religion is enshrined in North Korea's constitution, and there are still several sanctioned churches and Buddhist temples across the country. However, Kim frowned upon the practice of religion, and the official number of followers dropped drastically after he took power.
By contrast, Mount Paektu has been recreated as an altar of sorts to Kim, his wife and his son, who routinely are referred to as the "three commanders of Mount Paektu."
By the 1980s, very little was left of the simple log cabins built in the 1930s apart from some decaying timber and a few charcoal briquettes. But Kim Il Sung retraced his steps in 1986, and researchers unearthed a few cooking utensils that once belonged to his wife in the spot where the cabin once stood, guide Kim Kum Ran told The Associated Press. He ordered the encampments rebuilt the way they looked in 1937, down to the roebuck deer hooves used as door handles, she said.Comment on this story
It is rare for foreign journalists to see Mount Paektu; even for North Koreans, it's not easy to get the permission and the means to travel to the far north unless they are part of organized "study tours." Still, the guide claimed that tens of thousands of mourners trudged to the mountain cabin after Kim Jong Il's December death, leaving as gifts shovels to help keep the paths clear of snow.
Kim, the young guide dressed in a military outfit, said she remembers the death of his father in 1994, when she was a first-grader. She said she had not been able to eat for three days.
"It really was like my own grandfather had died," she said. "Even before kindergarten, as soon as we start speaking, we learn to call the Great Leader 'Our Father.'"
Associated Press writer Sam Kim contributed to this report from Seoul, South Korea.