Birthday turns into memorial for North Korean leader Kim Jong-il


North Korea commemorated Kim Jong-il's 70th birthday today with the flowers that bear his name, a military parade and pledges of loyalty to the son who has taken his place.

New leader Kim Jong-un, wearing a dark Mao suit and a solemn expression, bowed deeply before a large portrait of his smiling father in Kumsusan palace in Pyongyang, the capital. Hundreds of senior officials, military leaders and citizens followed to pay their respects.

Outside the palace, thousands of North Korean soldiers lined up in neat rows on a sunny but frigid day, listening to speeches praising the Kim family. Later, the new leader and other officials watched as a parade of goose-stepping soldiers marched by, followed by military jeeps and trucks carrying artillery guns and rocket launchers. Fireworks exploded, military music boomed and people waved artificial pink and red flowers.

Since Kim Jong-il's funeral nearly two months ago, North Korea's leadership and state media have cast him as a strong but benevolent leader, while praising Kim Jong-un as the unquestioned choice to succeed him in this socialist nation of 24 million.

Events yesterday 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."

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. But since Kim Jong-il's death, expressions of mourning and adoration have been common in Pyongyang.

At Kim Il Sung Square, the main plaza in the capital, 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. Among them was Paek Won Chol, who described himself as a "soldier and disciple" of Kim Jong-il.

"I will devote my all for the building of a powerful and prosperous nation" under Kim Jong-un, Paek said.

Today's memorial could serve as closure to North Korea's mourning as the country prepares for important nuclear talks next week with the United States, said John Delury, an assistant professor at Yonsei University's Graduate School of International Studies in South Korea.

Kim Jong-il's death halted discussions between Pyongyang and Washington on much-needed food aid in exchange for nuclear disarmament. North Korea has tested two atomic devices since 2006. A US envoy will hold talks with North Korea on its nuclear programme in Beijing next week, the first such negotiations since Kim's death.

"There were a lot of balls in the air when Kim Jong-il died, so things froze," Delury said. "The timing of this public ceremony ... allows North Korea to make a last major public expression of grief as part of moving on and getting back to a lot of orders of business."