N. Korea to celebrate late leader’s birthday amid economic hardship


Despite years of economic hardship and an ongoing dispute over the dismantlement of its nuclear arms program, North Korea is once again setting up the mood for a nationwide celebration of the country’s largest holiday, the birthday of its late leader Kim Il-sung.

Kim, the founder of the North, died of heart failure on July 8, 1994, and his son Jong-il took power afterward in the first hereditary succession in a communist state. The junior Kim was officially named successor in 1980.

The celebrations follow weeks of festivities to mark leader Kim Jong-il’s birthday on Feb. 16, but they also come amid a dispute between Pyongyang and Washington over the North’s first steps toward ending its nuclear weapons program by mid-April.

A mass gymnastics event called “Arirang” is to begin in the North’s capital Pyongyang next Sunday to mark the 95th anniversary of the birth of the late leader, which falls on April 15, the North’s Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) reported Wednesday.

The Arirang festival was held in 2002 and 2005, but was called off abruptly last year due to floods, causing hundreds of U.S. and other Western citizens to cancel their planned trip to one of the world’s last remaining communist states. North Korea said it will organize the event in April and August every year.

The anniversary comes amid a stalemate in international negotiations over North Korea’s nuclear development program, which is adding to the country’s economic difficulties that followed nationwide floods and droughts and ensuing famine in the mid-1990s.

On Feb. 13, North Korea promised to shut down and seal its main nuclear reactor at Yongbyon and allow international inspectors back into the country within 60 days. In return, North Korea would receive aid equal to 50,000 tons of heavy fuel oil from South Korea.

But the latest round of six-nation talks, involving the two Koreas, the United States, China, Japan and Russia, broke down in Beijing last month when North Korea refused to participate in further meetings unless its frozen assets at a U.S.-blacklisted Macau bank were released.

The impoverished country has depended on international handouts to feed a large number of its 23 million people, but continues to mobilize massive resources and people to celebrate the late leader’s birthday, known as the “Day of the Sun.”
In a recent meeting with U.N. World Food Program officials, a North Korean vice agriculture minister acknowledged that the communist country has a shortfall of about 1 million tons in food and called for aid from the outside world.

National committees in many countries, including China, Cambodia, Indonesia and France, have been established weeks ahead of the holiday to prepare celebrations and other commemorative events marking the birthday of Kim Il-sung, who the North calls the country’s eternal father and president.

Kim Jong-il rules the country with an iron grip, but officially he is only the chairman of the National Defense Commission and general secretary of the Workers’ Party. He reserves the office of president for his late father as a way of showing his filial piety.

The North is officially headed by its titular leader Kim Yong-nam, the president of the Presidium of the Supreme People’s Assembly, the country’s parliament.


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