PYONGYANG, North Korea -- On a hill overlooking Pyongyang, 110 bronze busts of deceased soldiers and loyal friends of President Kim Il Sung stand in glory at the Revolutionary Martyrs' Cemetery.

Most of them died in the 1930s and 1940s. Some died without ever having a picture taken, but the face of each is etched in detail. Creating likenesses of the fallen heroes presented a challenge, but it is said that the problem was solved by President Kim himself.

"The sculptors asked the respected and beloved leader, and he explained in detail," said Kim Jun Ho, a guide who accompanied visitors to the cemetery. "He remembered their faces. They were his soldiers. So many years had passed--I think 50--but he remembered their faces."

To hear North Koreans tell it, President Kim can do almost anything. Many stories are absurd, but there is no doubt that Kim holds so much power that his fate and that of his nation are inextricably linked.

The innumerable stories about Kim are among the bases of his power. They are part of the ideological glue that holds North Korea together.

Korea's liberation from Japanese rule, in 1945, is attributed almost entirely to Kim's leadership, with a small assist from the Soviet army. It is as if the U.S. war effort and the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki had nothing to do with Japan's defeat.

The North Korean occupation of Seoul just three days after the Korean War began in 1950 is attributed to a brilliant "counterattack" under Kim's leadership. North Korea insists to this day that the south, instigated by the United States, started the war.

The end of the war, in stalemate in 1953, is portrayed as a glorious victory against U.S. imperialism. The idea that the north started the war in an attempt to reunify Korea under Kim's control--accepted in the West as historical fact--is described as a vicious fabrication.

Virtually every accomplishment of North Korea is attributed to Kim's brilliance. Occasional credit is given to his son and designated successor, the "Dear Leader" Kim Jong Il. Generally there is no need to blame anyone for failure; there are no failures, no shortcomings.

"I think you have read George Orwell's '1984,' " a European diplomat said in an interview in Beijing. "There is a good saying: 'The one who is ruling the present also rules the past, and at the same time controls the future.' I think it relates to Kim Il Sung too.

"Everything is based on Kim Il Sung--such silly things, you cannot believe them. The whole history of the DPRK (the Democratic People's Republic of Korea) is based on Kim Il Sung. If there is any divergence, it should be destroyed."

Future Hold Tenuous

While the 77-year-old Kim can decree what should be said about the past, his hold on the future is more tenuous. Especially questionable is his ability to hand over supreme power to his son.

"About the succession, I think it's very difficult to say," another European diplomat said, also in a Beijing interview. "Kim Il Sung seems to be in good health, so whatever happens probably will not happen soon. This lump on his head (a baseball-sized protrusion at the back and on the right side) is not a big problem. It's not cancerous, because it's been there a long time. . . . There's really nothing available to be able to say anything."

No one knows whether Kim Jong Il, 47, will someday be able to consolidate power, and opinions vary as to what kind of a leader he might prove to be.

Some who have met Kim Jong Il say he appears to be competent and that he might bring beneficial changes to his country. Others say he seems strangely detached from reality, even with visitors.

"It's a pretty opaque situation," a Western diplomat said in Beijing. "There's an impression that there is a group in the leadership that is more interested in opening to the outside. Whether that group is related to the 'Dear Leader' is a subject of debate."

Linked to Terrorism

Some outsiders express hope for the possibility of change under a regime headed by Kim Jong Il, but there is also concern, prompted by charges linking the younger Kim to terrorism.