Birthday turns into memorial for NKorean leader

JEAN H. LEE Associated Press Published:

PYONGYANG, North Korea (AP) -- Two months after the death of Kim Jong Il, North Koreans commemorated what would have been his 70th birthday Thursday with the flowers that bear his name, praising the longtime leader as a powerful but benevolent father figure while pledging fealty to the son who has taken his place.

In frigid Pyongyang, North Koreans bowed and laid flowers, including red "kimjongilia" begonias, at a portrait of Kim Jong Il hanging on the Grand People's Study House at Kim Il Sung Square, the main plaza in the capital city. Among them was Paek Won Chol, who described himself as a "soldier and disciple" of Kim.

"I will devote my all for the building of a powerful and prosperous nation" under Kim's son, Kim Jong Un, Paek said.

The veneration of Kim Jong Il has accelerated in recent weeks, but festivities were expected to be muted in light of his Dec. 17 death of a heart attack, which plunged the nation into mourning and propelled his young son into the seat of power just three years after he was anointed his father's successor. The leadership has emphasized Kim's legacy while praising Kim Jong Un as the only choice to lead this socialist nation of 24 million.

Kim Jong Il ruled with an iron fist for 17 years, a period that included a famine in the 1990s that killed hundreds of thousands of people and protracted tensions over the nation's drive to build nuclear weapons. Food shortages persist in North Korea and relations with South Korea are at their lowest point in years.

Composers have crafted new odes to Kim Jong Il, while sculptors have chiseled slogans honoring him into the sides of mountains. His birthday was renamed "Day of the Shining Star," and this week he was accorded a new title: Generalissimo.

Last month, top leaders of the Workers' Party announced that his body would lie in state at the Kumsusan Memorial Palace in Pyongyang's outskirts, where his father, North Korea founder Kim Il Sung, already lies in state.

Workers fanned out across the city this week to spruce up Pyongyang, though there were no indications that a major party was being planned. Workers crouched over frozen flower beds, chipping at the ice to plant flowers made of fabric.

By Wednesday, the red flag of the Workers' Party and the red, white and blue flag of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea -- North Korea's formal name -- fluttered from posts. Posters and banners honoring the Day of the Shining Star brightened up buildings and sidewalks.

Women donned shimmering traditional Korean dresses in a rainbow of colors for special concerts and exhibitions staged in Kim Jong Il's honor. People hurried down streets carrying plastic bouquets of four favorite flowers: red kimjongilia begonias, fuchsia kimilsungia orchids, and the pink and lavender azaleas favored by Kim Jong Il's mother.

On Tuesday, the nation's top political and military leaders assembled to watch the unveiling of the first bronze statue of Kim Jong Il. The sculpture, built at Kim Jong Un's request, depicts Kim Jong Il in his younger years astride a rearing horse with his father, also on horseback, at his side.

Portraits of Kim Jong Il show him smiling beatifically, and a stamp issued following his death captures him sharing a laugh with Kim Jong Un.

Those images are replicated across Pyongyang in huge portraits hanging at the People's Palace of Culture, a flower exhibition featuring his kimjongilia begonias and at a book fair at the Grand People's Study House.

It's an image that contrasts with Kim Jong Il in his later years, as he reportedly recovered from a stroke and battled chronic illness. He often appeared in public wearing a heavy parka and dark sunglasses.

The North's leadership has also sought to portray Kim as a defender of the nation, which has remained in a technical state of war with the United States since the 1950s, when the Korean War left the Korean Peninsula divided into north and south. During his rule, Kim focused on building nuclear weapons, calling them necessary protection against the U.S. military presence in South Korea even as they drew sanctions and cost the nation much-needed aid.

On Tuesday, North Korea's ceremonial head of state, Kim Yong Nam, praised Kim for "turning our country into an invincible one that can never be defeated and has a nuclear deterrent."

Kim Jong Il is also being portrayed as a man of the people. While his father often wore a Western-style suit and tie, Kim Jong Il eschewed such formality. In his younger years, he wore a high-necked Mao suit; later in life, he stuck to a khaki work suit and, in winter, the parka.

One display at a stamp exhibition in Pyongyang paid homage to the leader's plebeian choice of clothing, calling it proof that he was devoted to working for the people. He was a man, according to state media, who died while working on the special train he took to provide "on-the-spot guidance" across the country.

While North Korea's leadership has venerated Kim, it has also emphasized Kim Jong Un's links to his revered grandfather, whom Kim Jong Un resembles in looks and style.

Shedding the quiet demeanor he displayed when his father was alive, Kim Jong Un wasted no time in asserting himself as the new leader, making energetic visits to military units seen as important to his father's "military first" policy.

North Koreans are celebrating the son as they remember the father at events that on Wednesday included an international skating show and a synchronized swimming show. Both opened with mournful odes to Kim Jong Il and ended with a new song for his son: "We Will Defend Gen. Kim Jong Un at the Risk of Our Lives."

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Follow AP Korea bureau chief Jean H. Lee at twitter.com/newsjean.