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North Korea Stages Mass Birthday Celebration for Leader Kim - 2002-02-16

North Korea staged huge celebrations Saturday to mark the 60th birthday of its leader, Kim Jong Il. Mr. Kim still has an iron grip on power after seven and a half years as head of one the world's last outposts of Communism.

The North Korean government threw an elaborate celebratory birthday concert for their exalted leader, broadcast all day on official state television.

On stage, hundreds of children, waving flags and banners, performed acrobatics and danced in formation to military music. The performance took place under a gigantic screen that flashed images of gunfire mixed with a picture of a smiling Kim Jong Il in army uniform. Young soldiers then goose-stepped onto the stage to communist anthems and waving North Korean flags.

Meanwhile, North Korean officials intensified the flowery tributes they regularly heap on the man they hail as the "Dear Leader" and "the great successor to the revolutionary cause." Pledging to "ardently worship" Mr. Kim, the country's ruling Communist Party, Army, Parliament, and Cabinet promised to become absolute adherents and implementers of Kim Jong Il's ideas and politics.

The government also published an ominous message, vowing to make every effort to increase the combat capability of the North Korean army.

The message is thought to be a warning to President Bush, who last month in a speech branded North Korea, Iran, and Iraq as an "axis of evil." Pyongyang responded angrily, saying Mr. Bush's visit to Seoul next week is really intended to plan a war against the North.

Despite Pyongyang's tough talk, few experts believe Kim Jong Il can afford to devote any more of his teetering economy to a military build-up.

Pyongyang is currently believed to be the world's biggest exporter of missile parts a trade that gives North Korea much-needed hard currency. Even though the North Korean media extols Mr. Kim for what they call "immortal feats," his years in power have coincided with deadly famines and a rapid economic decline.

North Korean expert Scott Snyder in Seoul said he believes Mr. Kim will have to maneuver hard politically in the coming years to keep North Koreans loyal to him. "What challenges does Kim Jong Il have on a day-to-day basis in terms of government his own country? We know that the DPRK [Democratic People's Republic of Korea] has enormous problems and challenges," he said. "The bureaucratic system in North Korea is not known as the most efficient and in fact, many would say it is broken."

Kim Jong Il was thrust into the limelight in 1994 on the death of his father North Korean founder Kim Il Sung. Little is known about the younger Kim other than official media accounts, which credit him with such things as writing six operas in two years.

The cult surrounding him extends even to his birth. Outside experts say Mr. Kim was born in Siberia in 1941 during Kim Il Sung's exile in the former Soviet Union. But North Korean biographers insist he was born at his father's guerilla base on the country's highest mountain, Mount Paek-tu, in 1942.

His birth, biographers say, was marked by a double rainbow and a bright star in the sky.