Inside North Korea

A strong devotion to the three Kims

The man behind most of the monuments that define Pyongyang is about to weep.

Mr Ro Ik Hwan, 83, master sculptor at Mansudae Studio, has gone back in time, all the way to 1970, when he was building the Grand Monument of Mansu Hill - a giant, 22m statue in tribute to North Korea's Eternal President Kim Il Sung. His eyes well up with tears as he recounts the story.

"The president was returning from a farm when he saw the construction site. He said: 'Please don't build this statue as I still haven't done enough to improve the standard of living of the people.' But the officials said to him: 'President, we have never disobeyed you. But this time we must. This is the desire of the people.'"

There is no North Korean alive today who has known any leader other than Eternal President Kim Il Sung, his son, leader Kim Jong Il (who could not be president since his father was declared eternal president), and grandson and incumbent Kim Jong Un, who simply wears the title of Supreme Leader.

Kim Il Sung - also known as Marshal and General for fighting the Japanese who occupied the country for 35 years - is regarded as the patriarch who founded the nation.

A sign carved on a hillside outside Pyongyang, visible for miles, says: "Follow Marshal to the end of sky and land."

The little home where Kim Il Sung was born to a family of gravekeepers - a tranquil setting amid forests and magpies - is a pilgrimage for children. They are told that at the age of four, he wrote Long Live Independence of Korea. And when his son Jong Il was four, he wrote Long Live General Kim Il Sung.

Every time North Koreans come across a statue or picture of father and son - often together - they bow. There is one of them at Mansudae Studio riding horses, and Mr Ro describes how he got around the height difference between the two. Kim Il Sung was a tall man. His son was not. "I made leader Jong Il's horse kick higher so that the two figures are almost level," he says.

North Koreans will also tell you how their three leaders visited a site and gave "on-the-spot guidance" to vastly improve their work. They will also tell you the exact number of times a leader visited a spot. The places where they sat are marked with a red plate.

"Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un gave instructions 17 times," says the spokesman at Pyongyang School Bag Factory. "He said there should be more padding where the strap of the backpack touches the shoulder and less at the bottom of the strap so that little hands could hold it."

At an amusement park, the guide Kim Hye Gum will tell you that leader Kim Jong Un personally tested every ride - from the carousel to the roller-coaster - to ensure they were safe.

You will be told that Kim Il Sung died in 1994 and the last documents he signed were an attempt to reunify the Koreas. And that Kim Jong Il died on a train and his last gesture was to ensure that the people of Pyongyang were given fish with their rations.

"Foreigners will never understand how we feel about our leaders," says Miss Kim Jong A from the Ministry for Cultural Relations With Foreign Countries. "We feel blood-bonded with them."

When Kim Jong Il died, his statue was placed alongside his father's at Mansu Hill and, in death, they were the same height.

We never did get to see the monument, though. We were told that a plot to blow up the statues had been uncovered and the monument was out of bounds for foreigners.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 30, 2017, with the headline 'A strong devotion to the three Kims'. Print Edition | Subscribe