"You must not fold the Great Leader's face." The stewardess was not joking when she sternly addressed the passenger on the Air Koryo flight out of Pyongyang, as he creased a special issue of a magazine devoted to the achievements of the late leader of North Korea, Kim Il Sung, to place it in his bag.
A British diplomat on the same Soviet-era Ilyushin-62 received the same treatment when he asked the stewardess to leave his drink on the magazine, while he read a newspaper. She waited until he had cleared the tray so that the Great Leader on the cover would not be sullied.
In North Korea, Kim Il Sung is no laughing matter. The former leader, who died in 1994, is not just the object of a personality cult, he has been elevated to the status of god in a state religion that relentlessly represses the underground Christian church. There are three churches in Pyongyang, and - according to North Korean authorities - 500 throughout the country, but they now serve the interests of state propaganda.
In a country where Christianity flourished after the arrival of the first Protestant missionaries in 1885, Kim Il Sung's policy of Juche, or self-reliance, introduced an elaborate religious mythology around a Juche Holy Trinity that placed the Great Leader at the pinnacle. His mother, Kim Jung Sook, and his son, the current leader Kim Jong Il (aka Dear Leader), form the other members of the holy family worshipped by North Koreans - the majority of whom have never heard of Jesus. Following the introduction of the Juche policy, all religions were banned in a country where until 1950, according to some estimates, there were 2,850 churches, 700 pastors and 300,000 Christians.
SI Moderator - Greg Gordon