N. Korea intensifies personality cult as leader's birthday nears

Yonhap News Agency, Korea/February 11, 2011

With North Korean leader Kim Jong-il's 69th birthday five days away, the communist state has been busily moving to prepare a variety of congratulatory events while stepping up its personality cult around the reclusive and ailing leader.

According to North Korea's state media, such as the Korea Central News Agency (KCNA) and the Korea Central Broadcasting Station, workers and students from all across the country were busy visiting the alleged birthplace of the leader on Mount Paektu, attending rallies and preparing cultural performances in celebration of the birthday.

Kim's birthday, which falls on Feb. 16, is one of the most festive holidays in the North along with the birth anniversary of his late father and the country's founder, Kim Il-sung, on April 15. North Koreans take two days off during the two holidays.

While Pyongyang promotes the mountain, located on North Korea's border with China and considered sacred by the two Koreas, as Kim Jong-il's birthplace, Soviet records show that Kim was, in fact, born in a village in the Soviet Union, where his father led a Soviet brigade made up of Chinese and Korean exiles. The family returned to Korea in 1945 following the end of Japan's occupation of the country.

Including the annual national athletic meet for the Mount Paektu prize that opened Tuesday, various efforts are under way in all walks of life in the North to beef up the personality cult of Kim Jong-il. A congratulatory stamp and a collection of short stories about the leader's life have been published, according to the state media.

Preparations for the birthday events began in the middle of last month. With the approach of the day, however, North Korean newspapers looked desperate to drum up festive mood among the people, attaching the subtitle "on the occasion of the February holiday" even on unrelated economic news stories.

Pyongyang's news media usually tries to make Kim's birthday look as if it is an important day even outside the country by carrying a series of reports on the arrival of congratulatory presents and messages from countries with close ties with the communist state, such as Russia and Laos. They also spare no space in newspapers or broadcast time in covering cultural performances and banquets hosted by pro-Pyongyang organizations abroad in celebration of the birthday.

However, this year's birthday events appear to be on a normal scale, simply judging from the number of related reports released from Pyongyang, despite a prediction from some watchers that the North would celebrate Kim's 69th birthday in a big scale. Pyongyang needs to promote internal unity through high-key birthday events, as the country faces growing political uncertainty following Kim's designation of his youngest son, Jong-un, as successor, the watchers said.

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