While outside observers watched the bells of the 110-year-old Paektu Temple across the street from the North Korean Embassy, a gathering of North Koreans packed into the group prayer hall. There were families, women, men, boys and girls, and many wearing traditional Cheonghae or Chosun korean dress and jewelry. And there were many sons and daughters of Kim Jong Il, the late leader whose death was the defining event of this anniversary year.
In a nod to Kim Jong Il, the leaders gathered stood in a single line at the altar on a frigid Saturday evening. “Happy birthdays to our late chairman, Kim Jong Il,” they said, before a North Korean version of America’s national anthem followed. It was a striking image, considering that no one in Pyongyang’s diplomatic corps was there. It may have been the ideal way for Kim Jong Un to deal with the pains of recent domestic pressures or to mend his relations with his own people.
Either way, the ceremony was effectively a memorial event and a meaningful display of identity for North Koreans with the “Dear Leader” at the helm. That’s why Kim Jong Un, who is still technically the “Dear Leader,” wanted this ceremony to be held in the center of the capital, rather than a monument or Kim Il Sung Square in central Pyongyang. Kim wanted to remind his people that the idea of unified nation was made possible by their father, Kim Jong Il, long gone from the public eye, and on his death bed. He was given comfort by being present.