People bow before the twin statues at Mansu hill

Pyongyang (North Korea) (AFP) - Thousands of North Korean devotees laid flowers before statues of the country’s founder Kim Il Sung Sunday on the anniversary of his birth.

A constant stream of soldiers in brown uniforms, work unit personnel in suits, schoolchildren and families made their way to Mansu hill in the centre of Pyongyang, where giant statues of Kim and his son and successor look out over the capital.

“The great comrades Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il will always be with us,” read a banner made of greenery.

In turn each group – including the occasional set of tourists – approached the bronze edifices, most people with single blooms, some carrying golden baskets of flowers, making their offerings before assembling in formation.

“Let us bow before the statues,” intoned an announcer half-hidden by horticulture, prompting deep bows from civilians and salutes from military detachments.

In front of the images stood a giant floral arrangement on a golden stand from Kim Jong Un, Kim Il Sung’s grandson and the third of the dynasty to head the isolated and impoverished but nuclear-armed country.

North Koreans are taught from an early age to revere their leaders, and portraits of the two late rulers gaze down in every home, school and workplace in the country.

The calendar is packed with anniversaries relating to them and their careers, and the accompanying rituals both demonstrate and reinforce loyalty to the regime.

April 15, known as the Day of the Sun, is unquestionably the most important anniversary and is sometimes marked with a military parade, as it was last year.

Visiting the statues reinforced her determination to “realise the reunification of our country which the great leaders wanted” and “uphold the leadership of the respected Marshal Kim Jong Un”, said Second Lieutenant Ryu Yong Jong, 25, who has been in the army for nine years.

Ordinary North Koreans only ever express wholehearted support for their government when speaking to foreign media.

Later in the day, dancing parties – choreographed spectacles where citizens step and twirl to patriotic songs – were held, and crowds gathered on Kim Il Sung Square to watch fireworks light up the Juche Tower, the monument to Kim’s “self-reliance” philosophy that is the world’s tallest stone tower.

- Heavy medal -

Korean People's Army soldiers pay their respects

Authorities held a mass meeting of senior officials on Saturday to mark the anniversary, but Kim Jong Un has spent some of the period on the current spate of diplomacy involving the two Koreas.

A summit with the South’s President Moon Jae-in is due later this month, ahead of talks with Donald Trump. On Saturday Kim met visiting Chinese envoy Song Tao, pledging to improve a traditional but battered relationship.

At a banquet for the delegation, one wall was decorated with a mural of Kim shaking hands with Chinese President Xi Jinping on his surprise trip to Beijing last month.

The journey was Kim’s first overseas since inheriting power. It ensured that the first foreign head of state he met was the leader of the longstanding ally whose forces gave his grandfather crucial support in the Korean War.

Senior officials including ceremonial head of state Kim Yong Nam on Sunday visited Mangyongdae outside Pyongyang, where Kim Il Sung was born 106 years ago, the official KCNA news agency reported.

They “looked round the historical relics showing the noble traits of the President and his family members”, it added.

Kim Il Sung remains the North’s Eternal President despite dying in 1994. His son passed away in 2011 but is still Eternal General Secretary of the ruling Workers’ Party of Korea.

The Day of the Sun has been described as “Like Christmas, but for Juche instead of Jesus”.

Guides at Mangyongdae sometimes use religious terminology themselves, describing a well at the site as containing “holy water” and calling the day his “birthdaymas”.

Retired senior colonel Kim Yong Won, 76, donned his old uniform to visit the statues at Mansu hill, his chest heavily bedecked with medals -– the most important, he said, being a gold star depicting a soldier, a sailor and an airman for 30 years of service.

People arrive at Mansu hill to pay their respects

“Every time I visit here, the feeling is special,” he told AFP. “I cannot express my feelings in one word. The feeling like this is not only for me but also for all Koreans as well as the world’s progressive people.”

On the platform in front of the statues, a young girl in a red coat and carrying a straw broom carefully picked up a stray twig and took it away.