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North Korea throws a bash for Kim Jong Il

The 68th birthday of 'the peerlessly brilliant' Kim is marked by singing, dancing and other displays. Outside North Korea, the emphasis is on gauging the apparently ailing leader's ability to rule.

February 17, 2010|By John M. Glionna

Reporting from Seoul — The devoted threw a party fit for a prince: There were dancers, singers and synchronized swimmers, not to mention unnamed foreign dignitaries -- all celebrating the 68th birthday Tuesday of Kim Jong Il, North Korea's "Dear Leader."

In Pyongyang, the capital, state-run media lauded a national hero "praised by mankind as the most outstanding political elder and the peerlessly brilliant commander of the present era."

Outside the isolationist state, though, the take on Kim's milestone was a bit less breathless as analysts questioned his physical and mental health after a suspected stroke in 2008.

In a South Korean journal article published this month, a senior analyst wrote that many North Korean officials do not expect Kim to live longer than five more years.

The senior analyst, Cheong Seong-chang of the private Sejong Institute think tank outside Seoul, wrote that Kim regularly undergoes kidney dialysis because of complications from diabetes. Citing what the report called reliable sources, Cheong also wrote that Kim suffers from depression and is psychologically unstable.

"Kim Jong Il is known to have shed some tears when bodyguards were with him, unlike in the past," according to the journal report.

Kim's failing health has led him to hasten his search for a successor, Cheong noted. Rumors persist that Kim last year named the youngest of his three sons, Kim Jong Un, to succeed him.

One South Korean intelligence expert who requested anonymity told the Associated Press that Kim Jong Il has forsaken Western medicine for expensive, hard-to-find remedies such as bear gall bladder, rhinoceros horn and musk -- much of it imported from China.

Still, Kim isn't dead yet. Government-run media often release undated photos documenting his supposedly tireless personal inspections of factories and military compounds.

"Kim Jong Il seems to be doing well in governing. He is working on foreign relations and going out for field guidance," said Yang Moo-jin, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul. "And it's likely he'll visit China soon."

North Korea recently completed an investment deal with China that equals half its annual economic output, according to South Korea's Yonhap news agency.

Meanwhile, Pyongyang threw a party on a day that's considered the most poignant national holiday.

Synchronized swimmers "depicted beautiful frost flowers carrying boundless reverence" for Kim as they swam to such nationalistic North Korean tunes as "Let's Meet Each Other on the Front" and "Let the Soldiers Be Heroes," state news media reported.

The nation's Social Youth League gave a performance that included a rendition of the song "Thunder Over Jong Il Peak."

"There are festivities in cities and provinces, including lots of athletic games, performances, gun salutes and contests, to enhance the North Korean people's solidarity," Yang said. "Everything is to emphasize King Jong Il."

But there were also cracks in the propaganda onslaught.

North Korea has been beset by a deepening cash shortage and even internal unrest after United Nations sanctions and a misguided move to devalue its currency that almost brought its already anemic economy to a standstill.

A report by Pyongyang's Korean Central News Agency said most of the nation's children did not receive their usual gift from Kim to commemorate his birthday. The agency cited "abnormal climatic conditions" and "blocked sea routes" to explain the deprivation.

Still, never doubt the "Dear Leader."

"Presents were transported by helicopter for a small number of children," the release said, "a measure taken by Kim Jong Il."

john.glionna@latimes.com

Ju-min Park in The Times' Seoul Bureau contributed to this report

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