A 560-foot-high tower topped by a torch of red glass stands alongside the Taedong River, dominating the skyline of this capital city. Dedicated to President Kim Il Sung on his 70th birthday in 1982 and made up of 22,550 pieces of granite to honor the total number of his days, the monument is called ``the tower of the juche idea.'' Juche, short for juche sasang, is Kim Il Sung's ideology of self-reliance.
Designed to replace all other schools of thought in this country, the juche concept says that a society can develop without outside aid -- by using its own resources and creativity. The result for North Korea, whether by design or necessity, has been the development of a determinedly self-sufficient, isolated communist state.
But North Korea's is a highly personalized brand of communism. Says Kim Jong Il, planned successor to and son of Kim Il Sung: ``The great leader has not confined himself to applying Marxism-Leninism to the Korean revolution, but has pioneered a new phase of revolutionary theory from a steadfast juche-based standpoint.'' Kim Jong Il has written many of the dozens of books that have been produced on his father's ideology.
The philosophy has created a new life style for North Koreans -- one that comes at a high cost in terms of human effort. Hard work has been made the major (if not the only) goal in life.
Juche is a major study topic in all schools, factories, farms, and government offices throughout North Korea. Civil servants, workers, and farmers are compelled to attend courses and seminars on juche after their eight-hour work days and even on their one-day weekends. For factory and farm workers, the courses are part of an ``intellectualization campaign'' of ideological and professional education.
Bureaucrats, university professors, and students have to serve one month a year in rural areas as laborers. School children are engaged in extracurricular activities ranging from music to sports and including membership in the ``Green Guards'' or ``Hygienic Guards,'' whose job it is to sweep the streets and parks, water the shrubbery, and repair the roads.
Cities look modern and clean. Pyongyang, which was completely devastated during the Korean war, now looks like a showcase for the juche ideology. It has several skyscrapers, large boulevards, and cultural and sports centers. But in sharp contrast with the cities in South Korea and elsewhere in Asia, this city of nearly 1 million residents seems deserted, except during the few hours of the day and evening when people commute between home and work.
When lights go off on the major avenues and streets after sunset, the city is engulfed in darkness. There are no nightclubs, and only a few resturants and tearooms, which close early. ``Our people have no time to waste, and we do not have unemployed people who wander about in the streets the way they do in South Korea,'' guides tell visitors.
There are no private cars -- just an occassional taxi and some Mercedes-Benz and Volvo limousines for official use by government departments. Public transport includes buses and subways (the metro stations have revoltionary names and are adorned with paintings of the two Kims). Oddly, traffic cops stand at each crossroad to regulate practically nonexistant traffic.
Consumer goods like refrigerators, washing machines, televisions, and wristwatches, which are taken for granted in daily life in South Korea and other Asian countries, are still great luxuries here. Transistor radios and video recorders are not available, and the locally manufactured old-style radios have only one station, which keeps listeners from receiving broadcasts from the South.
The official word is that priority has been given to the infrastructure and heavy industry, so that North Korea could become economically independent. But in recent statements, Kim Il Sung has suggested that the time has come to give more importance to ``light industry and public services.''
There is reportedly no inflation here. The economy is run by the party under a highly-centralized, tightly-controlled system. Salaries remain very low by Western and even Asian standards (the equivalment of $40 to $50 monthly), but rents are extremely low (3 to 4 percent of a family's income). Education and health services are free.
The emphasis on hard work and ideological study apparently leaves little time for leisure. Young men and women are instructed not to get married before the ages of 28 and 25, respectively. University graduates are assigned to places and jobs where they are deemed needed. Workers and civil servants are asked to volunteer for extra work involving development projects. And even the People's Armed Forces are mobilized to work on such projects, such as a giant lockgate being built on the Taedong River, near the port city of Chinnampo, where three Army divisions are reportedly now working day and night to comply with Kim's deadline of Oct. 10 -- the 40th anniversary of the Korean Workers' Party's founding.
A new kind of ``cultural revolution'' is in force in North Korea. Foreign and traditional songs of ``bourgeois character'' have been abandoned, replaced by revolutionary operas and martial music. Such music is played everywhere (including in factories), and school children sing songs praising Kim Il Sung and the party as they walk in formation on their way home.
A visitor is told in private conversation with ordinary people that they are pleased with their life. Young people interviewed at random throughout the country said (or repeated exactly what they have been taught) that they do not like Western-style life -- with its blue jeans, T-shirts, and pop music.
``We have developed our own way of life and we are happy with it,'' said Kim Young Ae, a 19-year-old girl studying English at a foreign-language college here.
Officials proudly enumerate the successes achieved because of the ideology. ``If it were not for juche, we too would have been hit by the oil crisis or the present foreign-debt problems affecting the world,'' said Ryu Hae Yong, a political scientist. ``We have developed our resources and economy by working hard and relying on our own forces. Our people are determined to carry on this policy at any cost.''
The two Kims have been trying to export the juche concept to third-world countries in Africa, Latin America, and Asia. Dozens of plaques at the entrance to the juche tower carry the names of the ``juche study groups,'' or institutes, that are said to have been organized in several foreign countries. Students from those countries are also invited here to study juche.