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Kim Jong Il Birthday Marked with Signs of Diplomacy

North Korea is celebrating one of the country's most important holidays.

Synchronized swimming displays, candy for children, and thousands of flower bouquets were reported to mark what North Koreans know as the "February Holiday" on Tuesday - the birthday of leader Kim Jong Il.

According to the North's official records, Mr. Kim is now 68, although there are some academics who suspect he may be slightly older.

Kim Yong Nam, president of North Korea's parliament and nominal number two leader of the country, told a mass gathering that Mr. Kim is a "peerlessly brilliant commander."

At the same time, Kim Yong Nam emphasized what he calls the need "to put an end to the hostile relations" between his country and the United States, and to develop "neighborly and friendly relations with other countries."

Regional experts say the soft message indicates a diplomatic overture in line with the North's recent welcoming of envoys from China and the United Nations. A South Korean media report says Beijing is ready to invest $10 billion in the North's impoverished economy, and there is widespread optimism that multinational talks aimed at ending the North's nuclear weapons programs may resume soon.

Many experts on North Korea say it is facing tough economic times. Among the problems it faces are new United Nations sanctions imposed after Pyongyang's second nuclear weapons test last May, a troubled currency reform plan last year, and poor harvests.

Here in South Korea, human rights activists on Tuesday released balloons near the border carrying anti-Kim Jong Il leaflets and a number of small radios for receiving shortwave broadcasts.

North Korean defector Park Sang-hak led the demonstration.

He says today, on Kim's Jong Il's birthday, our duty is to tell the truth about the North's abuses.

Questions remain about the health of Kim Jong Il, who is believed to have suffered a stroke in August of 2008. Regional experts say he has taken some preliminary steps to prepare his youngest son to take over, but it is unclear if the North's totalitarian system can survive without the elder Kim's personal involvement.