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N. Korea escalates 'cult of Kim' to counter West's influence

In a time of famine and poverty, nearly 40 percent of the country's budget is spent on Kim-family deification.

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Yet juche is a subcategory of a far more encompassing umbrella of deification known as woo sang hwa, or idol worship. In North Korea, woo sang hwa contains all the aspects of cult worship. Kim broke away from orthodox communism, for example, in a program called "our style socialism." While Marxism-Leninism demands fealty to "nation," "party," and "serving the people" – Kim's "our style [Korean] socialism" does no such thing. It makes "family loyalty," with Kim at the head, the supreme good – a major deflection from communism.

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During the late 1990s famine, a "Red Banner" campaign for unconditional loyalty and harder toil began. Then came "Kangsong Taeguk" in the late 1990s – a project to push economic and military ideology. This project culminated in the 1998 Taepodong-1 rocket launches, which thrilled North Koreans, frightened Japan, and started a whole new military mindset in Tokyo.

The North uses "ideology rather than physical control," Lee says, whenever possible. The current variation of the program is called "military first." It is intended to bolster North Korea's nuclear efforts. Military First started as a campaign to support juche, and as a slogan designed to remind Koreans that the nation is at war. It came packaged with a rallying cry called "dare to die," say refugees and Kim experts. (There's a dare-to-die pop song, and a dare-to-die movie. Recent internal memos brought by defectors indicate "dare to die" is urged on local officials due to a feeling in Pyongyang that young people aren't showing enough zeal to make such a dare.)

A new military focus

Yet Military First may now be a tool for evolving a significant structural change – a new ruling elite in day-to-day affairs. For years, the North Korean state was ruled by the workers' party. Under Kim Il Sung the party was the driving force in Korea – the main route to achievement and pay. Everyone wanted to join. (Party members in China and Vietnam are 5 percent of the population; a 1998 Korean Central report put Korea's membership at 5 million, or 22 percent, though it may be lower.)

"The outcome of the Military First policy replaces the workers as a main force," says Haiksoon Paik, a North Korean specialist at the Sejong Institute outside Seoul. "North Korea's party has not been functioning as well as it is supposed to ... several positions in the Politburo have not been reappointed. Kim is not depending on the party, but a smaller more streamlined military apparatus. This is due to his politics as a result of the nuclear crisis brought by the Americans."

"Military First is not aimed at building up the military, which is already quite built up and strong," says Lee, whose dissertation is titled, "A Political Economic Analysis of the North Korean Regime." "It is about replacing the old party – First Rice – structure of senior Kim. If the party is unwieldy, the military will control the people on behalf of the leader."

Tellingly, on New Year's Day, Kim Jong Il visited the shrine where his father was interred. He has gone there only four times since he came to power in 1995. Each visit has taken place in a year following major accomplishments. According to South Korean media, for the first time, Kim visited the shrine without party or government officials. This time, only key military officials were in attendance. On Tuesday, North Korean papers heralded the visit, and the Oct. 9 nuclear tests as "an auspicious event in the national history."

Kim-worship in the North is a vivid – and inescapable – spectacle to behold, say visitors. Thousands of giant "towers of eternality" to Kim scatter the landscape. Special "Kimjongilia" crimson begonias are tended in family gardens. Kim's media calls him variously the "Guardian Deity of the Planet," and "Lodestar of the 21st Century." In 2002, Korean mass dances known as Arirang, featured 100,000 flag wavers (and was described in state media as the "greatest event of humankind.") Many loyal Koreans bow twice daily to Kim pictures that sit alone on the most prominent wall of their homes.

Perhaps the most misunderstood aspect of the Korean cult project is its recent veering toward race and ethnic solidarity, say Kim watchers. His main appeal to his people today, a push that rarely gets attention outside the North, is to the racial superiority of a people whose isolation and stubborn xenophobia supposedly makes their bloodlines purer. Mr. Myers notes that festivals of 100,000 flag wavers is not a Stalinist exercise, but a celebration of "ethnic homogeneity." Since the 1990s Kim has more fervently claimed lineage to the first ancient rulers of Korea, a move intended to place him in a position of historical, if not divine, destiny as leader of the peninsula.

Next: How smart is Kim Jong Il?