North Korean leader Kim Jong-il has been dead for more than four years, but his February 16 birthday is still lavishly celebrated by the regime he left behind. The festivities this year, when the diminutive tyrant would have turned 75, included soldiers carving hundreds of elaborate ice sculptures, as well as an exhibition in Pyongyang, reportedly attended by thousands, that featured a variety of bright red begonia flower named "Kimjongilia" in his honor.
The display also included replicas of the long-range rocket that the country launched earlier this month.
The rocket launch was ostensibly meant to put an "earth observation satellite" into orbit, and went forward on February 7 in defiance of United Nations resolutions that ban North Korea from testing ballistic missile technology. It was itself a sort of tribute to Kim Jong-il, who was the father of current leader Kim Jong-un. The elder Kim was called the country's Kwangmyongsong, or Bright Star, and the rocket was dubbed Kwangmyongsong-4. His birthday, a national holiday, is called the Day of the Shining Star.
Carrying his father's mantle, the younger Kim, who is believed to have turned 33 in January, has continued living large while provoking outrage from the international community with actions like the rocket launch and the nuclear weapons test that was conducted last month. To celebrate the launch, Kim threw a huge party on Sunday that featured a performance by the Moranbong Band, the country's all-female music troupe.
Photos from the event published on Monday by state newspaper Rodong Sinmun showed Kim being feted by officials from the ruling Korean Workers Party and personnel that were involved with the rocket launch. The leader was also pictured enjoying the music show alongside his wife, Ri Sol-ju.
"The course of conquering space was for the purpose of the revolution and independence rather than for that of science, and it was a fierce struggle to defend the peace and sovereignty from the hostile forces as well as to implement the behests of the great leaders," Kim reportedly said in a speech. "Today's great success was recorded as a glorious page in the history of our Party and country as it gave confidence and courage to our people and dealt a telling blow to the enemies seeking to block the advance of our country."
North Korea faces additional economic sanctions from the United States and UN for the rocket launch and nuclear test, and South Korean President Park Geun-hye warned on Tuesday that the Kim regime will collapse if it continues to pursue nuclear weapons. According to the Associated Press, the tone of Park's speech to South Korea's parliament was unusually harsh, and described North Korea as "merciless" and under an "extreme reign of terror."
Park also defended the recent closure of the Kaesong Industrial Zone, a jointly run factory complex, saying workers at the factory were having their pay diverted to leaders in Pyongyang, which indirectly supported the nuclear test and rocket launch.
Park also said that South Korea should not provide unconditional aid to its northern neighbor "like in the past," a reference to more than $3 billion in aid Seoul has sent to Pyongyang since the mid-90s. Most of the aid was delivered from 1998 to 2003 when tens of thousands of people died from famine that occurred under the Kim Jong-il regime. Food security has improved in recent years, but the Day of the Shining Star is still an important holiday in part because children are given candy and the ruling party provides people with increased food rations.
The elder Kim's father, North Korea's revolutionary founder Kim Il-sung, developed a Stalinist cult of personality that saw him and his son worshiped as demi-gods. Though Kim Jong-il was infamous internationally for his ruthlessness and taste in luxury goods, Michael Madden, an expert on North Korean leadership and a contributor to the Johns Hopkins-affiliated North Korea analysis website 38 North, said the late leader tended to shun public appearances on his birthday, preferring to portray himself as a man of the people who would rather inspect a factory or military site than celebrate himself.
According to Madden, Kim Jong-il did, however, have a soft spot for an annual synchronized swimming event in Pyongyang, which he would sometimes attend without his presence being noted in state media. That event was held again on Monday, and state media carried photos of a grandiose spectacle, which it said "represented with elegant rhythms and diverse changes of formation the reverence of all service personnel and people for Kim Jong-il."
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