Pyongyang -- North Korean leader Kim Jong-II, who celebrated his 61st birthday yesterday, is a god, philosopher king and rock star rolled into one in his home country.
To the nation's 22 million people, the chubby, curly-haired head of the Korean Workers' Party is an infallible genius giving on-the-spot guidance on everything from military strategy to industrial production.
"We're able to face the US superpower and the hostile US policies because of our brilliant commander, Chairman Kim Jong-II," said Ryu Sung Rim, a senior foreign affairs official. "He is a thinker on a par with Marx and Lenin."
People in Pyongyang got up before daybreak last week to prepare sidewalks and public parks for the grand birthday festivities, while state television beamed lengthy reports of even Kim's tiniest activities.
"Long Live the Sun of the 21st century, General Kim Jong-II," reads a wide red banner greeting passengers as they descend escalators to the "Prosperity" metro station.
"Our country is one big family, and our father is Kim Jong-II," said a translator assigned to foreign visitors.
This metaphor hits a particularly soft spot with North Koreans, whose government has never tried to break up traditional family ties the way the leaders of China did in the early decades of communist rule.
At a Pyongyang exhibition, dozens of government departments and army units are competing to produce the most splendid arrangements of the Kimjongilia, a brand of Begonia allegedly invented by a Japanese admirer.
"I love flowers," Pyongyang housewife Ri Sang Mi told the Pyongyang Times. "Among them I like Kimjongilia best because it is not only beautiful, but also bears the name of the great leader Kim Jong-II who works hard to bring joy to us."
Foreign observers have few doubts that after 55 years of constant, monotonous propaganda, the large majority of North Koreans really do have genuine feelings for their dictator.
"Ordinary people have been on a one-way track to this kind of brainwashing and have been robotised into believing in this nonsense, said Dong-bok Lee, a senior associate with the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
For all its pumped-up magnificence, the Kim Jong Il personality cult is strangely devoid of a person at its center.
Contrary to the ubiquitous statues of his father Kim-il Sung, who died in 1994, images of Kim junior are mostly absent from the streets.
As the regime has built up expectations over the past week for the lavish birthday bash, Kim Jong-II has instead been represented in the streets by posters of the Begonia that carries his name.
It could suggest that Kim's main attraction is the reflected glory of his later father.
"Kim Jong-II said, 'Don't expect any change from me, we will uphold the policies of Kim-il Sung'," said a Pyongyang resident as if he were reciting words of deep wisdom.
Nowhere does the adoration of Kim senior become clearer than at his mausoleum on the outskirts of Pyongyang, where thousands pay their respects every day.
Visitors are given headphones in which a trembling voice describes how the entire nation was struck by grief at Kim's demise, but goes on to say consolingly that he "will be with us in all eternity".
As the long rows pass slowly by the embalmed remains of Kim, every other woman breaks into tears, an illustration of how the emotions of an entire population can be manipulated.
With access to no news from abroad, nearly all North Koreans are unaware that Kim Jong-II is widely seen overseas not as a saviour, but as a main source of his country's desperate economic predicament.
Rather, preparatory committees have been hard at work from Tajikistan to Poland to mark Kim's birthday, while seminars on his feats have been held as far away as Mexico and Austria, the state news agency KCNA claimed.
No official wants to speculate what life in the impoverished nation will be like after Kim Jong-II dies, and all questions of his succession are immediately put to rest.
But according to reports, officials are now planning to create a new cult around Kim's second son, Kim Jung Chol.
The question is how long North Korea can remain isolated from the outside world, and its people kept unaware of how unusual their extreme hero-worship is, foreign experts said.
The well-educated may be the first to abandon the Kim cult, according to Lee of the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
"When it comes to the elite, it's entirely different from what it used to be some years ago," he said. "Some of the elite have been exposed to the outside world, and have some capacity to question and to feel curious."