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2009/02/19 10:58 KST
NORTH KOREA NEWSLETTER NO. 42 (February 19, 2009)

   *** TOPIC OF THE WEEK (Part 1)

N.K. Celebrates Leader's Birthday Amid Heightened Military Tension

SEOUL (Yonhap) -- North Korean leader Kim Jong-il turned 67 on Feb. 16 amid reports that Pyongyang is preparing to test fire a long-range missile and increasing talk of succession in the communist state. Nationwide celebrations were held for the event, which also comes as Pyongyang continues to bombard South Korea with combative rhetoric while trying to gain the upper hand in future negotiations with the new U.S. administration.

   Pyongyang drummed up a festive mood and citizens renewed pledges of loyalty to the state leader on his birthday, according to reports, which analysts say shows Kim appearing to be back in full control after a reported stroke last summer. Speculation lingers, however, as his age and a record of diabetes and heart disease sustain concerns about his health.

   Kim's birthday is the most important holiday in the socialist state along with April 15, the birthday of his late father and North Korean founder, Kim Il-sung. The younger Kim took over when his father died in 1994, the first hereditary power succession in a socialist state.

   The North Korean government handed out free food, liquor and daily necessities to citizens as gifts from the leader. Streets, bridges and residential quarters were decorated with flowers and electric lamps, and a flower festival named after the leader and athletic events stirred up the festive mood.

   Roasted chestnuts and sweet potatoes, peanuts and cotton candy were served in street stalls for the holiday, while food factories increased production to supply gifts from the leader to citizens. An international figure skating festival and the Kimjongilia Festival, which celebrates a flower named after the leader, were held on the leader's birthday, the North's official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) said.

   Buses and trams were serviced to ensure that people were able to travel from one event to another smoothly, the report said, while factories were pressed to churn out food for the numerous parties that were held. An "endless stream of visitors" also flowed to Kim's official birthplace on Mt. Paekdu, the KCNA said. Outside experts believe Kim was actually born in a Soviet village in 1942.

   In stark contrast to the festive mood, military tensions along the inter-Korean border remained high as North Korea intensified verbal threats against Seoul's conservative Lee Myung-bak government. On the eve of Kim's birthday, the North's titular head of state, Kim Yong-nam, berated the administration as "anti-unification war-mongers" and warned of "decisive action."

   The unprecedented threat issued by Kim Yong-nam, president of the Presidium of the Supreme People's Assembly, is a strong sign that North Korea is determined to turn its recent verbal attacks into action, analysts said. Kim, who warned of "decisive actions" against Seoul if the South continues to challenge the North, is the highest North Korean official yet to issue such a threat since inter-Korean relations turned sour early last year.

   Kim Yong-nam, 81, represents North Korea on all state visits and summits and receives visiting heads of state. As the face of the nation, he has often refrained from engaging in Pyongyang's coercive campaigns.

   The latest threat comes after the North's Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of Korea said late last month that the North will no longer honor past agreements reached between the divided Koreas and pledged to take all means necessary to redraw the maritime border in the western sea, known as the Northern Limit Line, farther south. The disputed border was the site of deadly naval clashes in 1999 and 2002.

   At a meeting in celebration of the leader's birthday, Kim claimed South Korea's conservative authorities have defamed what he called the "supreme dignity" of the North Korean people and that they have pushed inter-Korean relations to a new and dangerous low. "If they challenge the DPRK to the last despite its repeated warnings, it would punish the group of traitors with decisive actions," Kim was quoted as saying in the English language report run by the KCNA.

   Kim called for "a struggle to drop a frightening iron hammer on anti-unification war mongers who have pushed inter-Korean relations to the brink of war and are bringing the disaster of a nuclear war on the head of the Korean people."

   The remarks by Pyongyang's leading officials echo recent combative statements issued by the North's military and a sub-committee of the ruling Workers' Party, which threatened to take an "all-out confrontational posture" against Seoul's conservative government and warned of further naval clashes along the western sea border.

   Despite the stepped-up campaign against Seoul, North Korea has notably tone down its rhetoric against the United States in what experts say could be a sign of its desire to forge ties with the Barack Obama administration. "We will develop our relations with countries that are friendly toward us under the principle of independence, peace and friendship," Kim Yong-nam said. Improved relations with Washington would open doors to large economic assistance for Pyongyang from the international community.

   North Korea's latest activities come at a particularly sensitive time ahead of U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's visit to Seoul from Feb. 19-20, the first such trip by a ranking official from the new U.S. administration, and days before the first inaugural anniversary of President Lee Myung-bak on Feb. 25.

   Seoul analysts say Pyongyang is using the missile ploy and other threats to grab the attention of the new U.S. administration and pressure the conservative Lee government into dropping its hard-line policy.

   Clinton urged North Korea not to "threaten the stability and peace" of the region before starting her four-nation Asia trip last week, though Pyongyang made clear on Feb. 16 that it will go ahead with what the intelligence community believes is a long-range missile test.

   A KCNA report claimed Pyongyang's latest activities are related to "space development," repeating a similar claim made in 1998 after the North conducted a test-launch of one of its rockets that it claimed was actually a satellite.

   South Korean activists, meanwhile, dubbed Kim Jong-il "the most vicious dictator and murderer" as they sent propaganda leaflets into North Korea on the leader's birthday. The group, made up of North Korean defectors, attached North Korean currency to some 20,000 leaflets criticizing Pyongyang's top leader. Most of the flyers never reached the North, however, because of unfavorable winds.

   With Kim's birthday comes speculation over who he will name as his successor. Intelligence sources said that Kim, apparently driven by his poor health, has named his third and youngest son, Kim Jong-un, to succeed him. The 25-year-old Jong-un, born to Kim's third wife Ko Yong-hi and educated in Switzerland, has been said to be his father's favorite, bearing a close resemblance in appearance and temperament to the aging leader.

   Kim's personality cult appeared to have peaked over the weekend. In a series of reports on the night of Feb. 14, the KCNA reported that North Koreans were busily keeping up the festive mood for the leader.

   "The Korean people are holding leader Kim Jong-il in high esteem and following him as their dear father," the KCNA said. "He keeps his mind on the people every minute and maps out a plan for the happiness of the people."

   The leader's recent military shake-up was seen by many as a sign that Kim is assembling his closest aides to avert a possible backlash against his choice of a successor. He recently promoted his defense minister and chief of the General Staff on Feb. 11. The military reshuffle also drew keen attention in South Korea because of the sensitive timing.

   Unlike its usual focus on leader Kim Jong-il, this year's ruling party editorial honoring his birthday repeatedly emphasized the "inheritance of bloodline," Seoul officials said amid growing speculation of succession.

   "In the midst of glorious inheritance of bloodline of Mt. Paektu is the bright future of the Juche (self-reliance) revolution," Rodong Sinmun, the organ of the ruling Workers' Party, said in its editorial on Feb. 16.

   "As the revolutionary tradition of Mount Paektu is firmly being inherited, our revolution vigorously maintains life even though generations and centuries change and the condition and climate of our struggle are different," Rodong Sinmun declared.

   Seoul officials said such references to "bloodline" on the leader's birthday are unprecedented. Last year, the party editorial heaped praise on Kim Jong-il and emphasized national unity to build a strong nation.