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N.K. prepares to greet late founder’s birthday

A line of people carrying armfuls of symbolic red flowers was formed in front of a giant statue of North Korean President Kim Il-sung, official media in the isolated country said Thursday, a day before the 99th birthday of the communist state’s late founder.

Following the series of performances and events prepared to greet the “Day of the Sun,” referring to the April 15 birth date of the late Kim, Pyongyang is anticipated to hold a display of fireworks later Thursday under the attendance of the incumbent leader and possibly the heir apparent, the Seoul government said.

The birthdays of North Korean founder Kim Il-sung and incumbent leader Kim Jong-il are considered two of the most important national holidays in the communist state.

North Korean observers had predicted Pyongyang would take elaborate care in celebrating the late Kim’s birthday this year to defuse complaints over an ongoing three-generation succession to his youngest grandson.

Thursday’s celebration is the first since the incumbent Kim tapped his 20-something son, Kim Jong-un, as successor, elevating him to high military and party posts. The 69-year-old dictator apparently suffered a stroke in 2008 and hasn’t fully recovered his health, judging by recent images.

Although North Koreans approve of another hereditary power transition on the surface, many question the capability of the young heir apparent, especially as food shortages deepen.

The birthday celebration events are expected to be “similar in size and content” to those held last year, Seoul’s Unification Ministry, which deals with North Korean affairs, said.

“We are also detecting signs of a fireworks display as the previous year,” the ministry said in a statement, which added such events were held in 2009 and last year.

While claiming it is in dire need of outside food assistance to feed its starving population of 24 million, the reclusive North Korean regime is said to have spent at least $6 million on inviting foreign performers and officials to attend the celebration events this month.

Local sources close to Pyongyang said at least 200 people from Russia, Poland and other former communist allies of the North arrived in the country via chartered planes with all expenses paid by the Kim regime.

Traditional dancers and musicians from China, Russia and France have been taking part in the celebration performances since earlier this month, they say.

North Korea is one of the poorest countries in the world and its economic difficulties have deepened since it conducted two nuclear tests in 2006 and 2009, leading to tougher international sanctions and economic isolation.

The secretive state, which rarely reveals its circumstances to the outside world, has been reaching out to the international community to help overcome its food problems.

Seoul and Washington, however, remain skeptical toward providing aid, suspecting Pyongyang of secretly storing away food for its military and special distributions that may become necessary to defuse internal tensions.

The North also announced earlier this week promotions for two relatively young generals, a move viewed by analysts as an indication of a generational shift to secure the position of the young incoming leader.

The promotions were among dozens ordered by the Pyongyang dictator, who commands the 1.2-million-strong military, to mark the birth of his father, the late Kim.

Promoted to colonel-general were O Il-Jong, aged about 56 and the son of the late defense minister O Jin-U, and Hwang Pyong-So, 62. O holds a key party post supervising reserve troops, while Hwang has for six years accompanied Kim on his inspection tours, reports said.

By Shin Hae-in (hayney@heraldcorp.com)
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