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Shifting signs in North Korea

Kim Jong Il dials back personality cult as protest activities pick up.

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Years can drift by between press conferences in Pyongyang. But recently the tiny resident press corps, namely the ITAR-Tass correspondent Stanislav Varivoda and two Chinese journalists, were summoned to hear Mr. Varivoda's story refuted.

He reported last month that portraits of North Korean leader Kim Jong Il had disappeared from key public buildings. Further, the media had stopped using the honorific "Dear Leader" in official bulletins.

"There's not normally much to do here but this has caused a storm," Varivoda said in a phone interview from Pyongyang. "At the press conference they said nothing I reported is true."

Small signs often portend big changes in closed societies, especially in the secretive court of North Korea's Kim dynasty. Observers are wondering if this is just another mad whim from the palace - like the edicts forbidding women to wear red trousers or to eat hamburgers. Or if, after 3 million deaths from starvation on his watch, Kim Jong Il's star many finally be falling - something suggested by numerous North Korean refugees in recent interviews.

Resident diplomats see nothing unusual in the country but confirm the portraits are gone in a few places. The 62-year-old Kim continues to be addressed with more than a thousand honorifics such as "The Lodestar of the 21st Century" and "Guardian of Our Planet."

Varivodo thinks that Kim Jong Il realizes that foreigners find the personality cult absurd and so has had the portraits taken down at places where foreign delegations are received.

"They want to avoid the negative reactions and stupid questions about the personality cult," he says. "They know foreigners find it odd, but really there has been no other change to the personality cult here."

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