Under a larger-than-life portrait of the late North Korean leader Kim Il Sung, scholars from about a dozen countries gathered here in a hotel ballroom in Tokyo this weekend to pay deference to juche - Mr. Kim's philosophy of self-reliance.
At first the "International Seminar of 21st Century and Position of Human Being" (the English translator of the title apparently does not rely on articles) seemed anachronistic - like a meeting of the Joseph Stalin admiration society.
But North Korea is a nation with an unmistakable allure. For a handful of scholars and politicians around the world, North Korea's steadfast sense of independence is remarkable - certainly a curiosity and perhaps even a beacon - in a world dominated by Western political and economic thought.
That emphasis on independence has always masked varying levels of assistance from other countries. During the Korean War and later in the cold war, China and the Soviet Union helped North Korea. Now, as the country faces a worsening food shortage, the government allows international organizations to mount campaigns to aid its hungry populace.
The regime is also refusing to hold diplomatic talks with the United States and South Korea until a deal to buy 500,000 tons of grain from an American company happens first. The North has also agreed to accept low-level nuclear waste from Taiwan for payments that reportedly could reach $227 million.
It hardly seems as if the North Koreans are in a position to teach the world about self-reliance, and yet juche enthusiasts from Bangladesh, China, Russia, Tunisia, and other countries showed up to give speeches and raise toasts.
The speeches were full of praise for juche as a philosophy that stresses independence above all and places man in charge of his destiny. There was plenty of praise for the late Kim and his son, Kim Jong Il, who has run the country since his father's death in July 1994.
Sometimes the words from the dais sounded a little over the top. "Kim Jong Il showed humanity the way to a genuine life by developing and enriching the juche idea, thus scoring incomparable achievements for human history," said the prepared text of a speech by Jose Francisco Aguilar Bulgarelli, a Costa Rican socialist and president of the Latin American Institute of the Juche Idea.
In receiving the "International Kim Il Sung Prize" for his promotion of juche, Mr. Aguilar recalled how "tears rained on his cheeks" when he heard news of the elder Kim's passing.
Not all of the more than 400 participants sounded quite as grandiose. "I don't say it's paradise on earth," says Edmond Jouve, a political scientist from Ren Descartes University in Paris and head of a European institute for the study of juche. "But you have a society that has really tried to practice what it believes."
Professor Jouve agrees that the food shortages have undermined North Korea's claims of achieving self-reliance, but still finds the place worth studying. "It's a country on the razor's edge," he says. The North remains technically at war with South Korea and has few friends in a world where the Soviet Union and communism have collapsed.
"They may not have food, they may not have anything, but they believe monolithically in the juche idea," says Govind Narain Srivastava, an Indian journalist who is a member of an Asian juche institute. "That's why the North Koreans are so strong."
At one time North Korea may have had the money to seduce scholars into studying juche. But those days seem to be gone. Representatives of two juche institutes admitted privately that their organizations had neither offices nor staff. "It's a paper institute," said one, adding that he alone received airfare to attend the conference.
The seminar coincided with the celebration of Kim Jong Il's birthday. An association of Korean residents in Japan traditionally fetes Kim Jong Il, but participants said this year's party was bigger and more open than before. That is a sign, Mr. Srivastava says, that Kim Jong Il will take over North Korea's presidency and be named general secretary of the Korean Workers' Party after the third anniversary of Kim Il Sung's death this July.
The posts have been left vacant so far, and North Korea watchers say the conferring of these titles on Kim Jong Il will confirm that the transfer of power is complete.