North Koreans fete "Dear Leader's" birthday

Reuters/February 16, 2005
By Martin Nesirky

Seoul -- North Koreans are celebrating leader Kim Jong-il's 63rd birthday today with more food than their usual rations, fireworks over his reputed mountain birthplace and sing-songs praising his military brilliance.

Yet while North Korean media reported on Wednesday fringe events from Laos to Romania and Guinea to Egypt, most of the world was less keen to fete the birthday boy than find ways to get Kim back to the table to negotiate an end to his nuclear ambitions.

Take Japan, whose relations with Pyongyang are additionally strained by the North's past abduction of Japanese citizens. Top government spokesman Hiroyuki Hosoda was asked at a news conference in Tokyo if he had any words for Kim on his birthday.

"Absolutely nothing," Hosoda deadpanned in reply.

North Koreans had plenty to say about Kim's big day, which official media described as "the most auspicious holiday of the nation" and North Korea analysts see as a way for Pyongyang to underscore his hold on power.

"The Korean people unanimously revere leader Kim Jong-il as a brilliant commander," said the official KCNA news agency. "The Korean people, led by him, will surely convert the country into a great prosperous powerful nation, undaunted by any trial and difficulties."

The Communist Party daily, Rodong Sinmun, said Kim was "endowed with outstanding commandership art and matchless courage and pluck" and represented the destiny and future of Korea.

It was not all rhetoric. KCNA said fireworks fizzed over Mount Paekdu, where the North says he was born at a secret camp. Foreign biographers say he was born in the Soviet Far East.

Floral tributes mounted up and synchronised swimmers splashed in unison while the Korean People's Army song and dance ensemble put on a show that included numbers such as the choral "General on a Galloping White Horse" and female solo "I do not know a warmer bosom than it".

The mood grew even more festive at another military gala.

"The square turned into rising waves of dances when the participants presented more enthusiastic dances, waving the flags of the supreme commander," KCNA said of an outdoor gala in the centre of the capital, Pyongyang.

North Korean people used to tight rations received meat and other food, the South's Yonhap news agency reported.

Kim Sceptical, Invisible

Michael Breen, author of "Kim Jong-il: North Korea's Dear Leader", said Kim keeps his trademark low profile on his birthday, but sometimes goes to a factory or military unit on a visit that is reported only some time after the event.

Yonhap said North Korean television had broadcast for the first time footage of Kim's nondescript Pyongyang office block.

"He probably has some scepticism about the whole thing and in many ways the personality cult is not masterminded by himself, but is conducted for him," said Breen.

The birthday bashes served to remind the public he was solidly in power, Breen said.

Yet even legendary revolutionaries are mortal, and speculation is mounting about who might succeed Kim, who took over when father and state founder Kim Il-sung died in 1994.

Some North Korea analysts see Kim as having a tenuous grip on power or perhaps ready to step down. Their case was fuelled by a recent report in official North Korean media that one of Kim's three sons will eventually succeed him. But others say Kim remains in command although a generational shift is under way.

"The sons vie to be dauphin," wrote North Korea expert Aidan Foster-Carter. "Stability can no longer be taken for granted."

The impoverished North's knife-edge existence is evident from its request for more fertiliser aid from Seoul and its desire for deeper economic cooperation with the wealthy South.

But South Korean Foreign Minister Ban Ki-moon told reporters on Wednesday that big-scale schemes could not go ahead until the nuclear crisis was resolved. North Korea announced for the first time last week that it had nuclear weapons and was pulling out of six-party talks aimed at ending its nuclear programmes.

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