North Korea today commemorates the birthday of late dictator Kim Jong Il, capping off weeks of celebration that included carving his name into the side of a mountain, as it tries to burnish the legacy of the Kim dynasty.
The anniversary comes two months after Kim’s death and the succession of his son Kim Jong Un as head of the impoverished state. North Korea’s state-run media has released commentaries describing weeping masses and an epic poem that thanks the late leader for “entrusting the people in the wide bosom of Kim Jong Un,” who “steadfastly carries on the bloodline.”
The celebrations are part of an effort to secure the younger Kim’s hereditary grip on a shrinking economy that must contend with South Korea’s improving ties with China, the North’s ally. The new leader led the mourning at his father’s funeral and has made several publicized inspections of military units as the regime bolsters his image ahead of the April centennial of his grandfather, state founder Kim Il Sung.
“This anniversary is more about heralding the start of Kim Jong Un’s rule than commemorating Kim Jong Il,” said An Chan Il, head of the World Institute for North Korea Studies in Seoul and a former North Korean army officer who defected and worked for South Korea’s National Intelligence Service. “By Kim Il Sung’s birth anniversary on April 15, it will be clear in North Korea that the curtain has fallen for the older two generations.”
Statues of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il were unveiled on Feb. 14 in the capital of Pyongyang, the official Korean Central News Agency reported. A national cooking competition was held the same day in Pyongyang to mark “the approach of the Day of the Shining Star,” KCNA reported, using the term to describe Kim Jong Il’s birthday.
Three days earlier, the words “Peerless Patriot General Kim Jong Il, Feb. 16, 2012” were carved on the side of a mountain, with each character of his name 10 meters (33 feet) high, 5.5 meters wide and 1.4 meters deep, KCNA said. An announcement yesterday said he had been posthumously awarded the title of Generalissimo, like his father before him.
Citizens in Pyongyang were up early this morning to clean the streets and enjoy the holiday, said Gunter Unterbeck, a German national who has lived in the capital since 1996. While artificial flowers in red, pink and yellow and banners with slogans honoring the Kims adorn buildings, there have been no announcements of a rally or military parade, he said.
“The people are mourning Kim Jong Il’s death but it’s more of an internal mourning, without much noise expressed externally,” Unterbeck said. “The guideline, according to the newspaper, is to honor Kim Jong Il and Kim Jong Un.”
The Presidium of the Supreme People’s Assembly issued a decree authorizing the granting of amnesty to convicts on Feb. 1 to mark the birthdays of the two deceased leaders, KCNA reported on Jan. 10, without specifying how many will be freed. There was no news of convicts being freed on Feb. 1.
Kim Jong Il’s age is a matter of dispute. In the official version of his birth, a double rainbow heralded his arrival in 1942 on sacred Mount Paektu at a secret guerrilla camp where Kim Il Sung was leading the struggle against Japanese colonial rule during World War II.
Soviet records instead indicate he was born in 1941 in the eastern Soviet Union where his father was training at an army base. The alteration in dates allowed for milestone birthdays to be celebrated at the same time as Kim Il Sung, who was born in 1912.
Dependent on China
The newest leader, thought to be under 30 and largely unknown until being named heir in 2010, is dependent on Chinese aid to feed his 24 million people. He has given no sign he plans to alter his father’s policies, even as the country struggles under international sanctions imposed over its nuclear weapons program.
The North’s economy contracted 0.5 percent to 30 trillion won ($26.8 billion) in 2010, compared with South Korea’s 1,173 trillion won, according to the South’s central bank. North Korea had a shortfall of as much as 700,000 metric tons of food last year, which could affect a quarter of its population, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization.
South Korea is moving to boost ties with China, Asia’s biggest economy. The central bank is considering buying several hundred million dollars worth of Chinese equities and a greater amount of the nation’s bonds to diversify its $306 billion in foreign-exchange reserves. South Korea and China on Feb. 8 began negotiations on a free trade agreement.
South Korean Balloons
South Korean activist groups today sent 10 balloons into the North carrying leaflets, dollar bills and pamphlets on South Korea’s economic development, said Park Sang Hak, of the Fighters for Free North Korea. The balloons were launched from Imjingak, about 40 kilometers (25 miles) north of Seoul.
The U.S. will hold talks with North Korea next week in Beijing in the first such meeting since Kim Jong Il’s death. The discussions are aimed at determining whether to resume formal negotiations over the denuclearization of the North. The Obama administration was in talks to provide food aid before Kim Jong Il’s death on Dec. 17.
North Korea, which has twice detonated a nuclear device, has more than 250 long-range artillery installations along the world’s most fortified border in reach of Seoul. North Korea and South Korea remain technically at war after their 1950-1953 conflict ended in a cease-fire.
To contact the reporter on this story: Sangwon Yoon in Seoul at firstname.lastname@example.org