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Mysterious halo heralds Kim's birthday in NKorea

The moon over hermit North Korea gave off a mysterious glow and citizens pledged undying loyalty to leader Kim Jong-il ahead of his birthday.

world Updated: Feb 15, 2009 22:32 IST
Jon Herskovitz

The moon over hermit North Korea gave off a mysterious glow and citizens pledged undying loyalty to leader Kim Jong-il ahead of his birthday.

The rest of the world is wondering whether the head of Asia's only communist dynasty might be ready to mark his 67th year by testing its longest-range missile that could, in theory, carry a warhead as far as the United States.

On top of that, Kim's health problems have set off fresh speculation over who might succeed him as leader of one of the world's most isolated and impoverished states, whose efforts to become a nuclear weapons power mean it is never far from the international community's list of major concerns.

Deified at home as the "Dear Leader", and vilified elsewhere as a dangerous tyrant, Kim celebrates his birthday on Monday, labelled by North Korean state media as "the most auspicious day of the nation".

By some accounts, he may be fortunate to have made it this far after suffering a suspected stroke in August.

Kim, who took power after his father and state founder Kim Il-sung died in 1994, has vexed the world for years with his nuclear arms programme and the constant threat of sending his one million-strong army across the border that has divided the Korean peninsula for over half a century and into the South.

He has also led his country deeper into poverty and, in the late 1990s, a famine estimated to have killed about 1 million of the then 22 million population.

The reclusive Kim has relied heavily on military threats, with some success, to squeeze concessions from regional powers to help keep his ravaged economy afloat.

In recent weeks, the level of angry rhetoric has increased sharply, including a threat to destroy the wealthy South in anger at the hardline policies of its President Lee Myung-bak.

The sabre-rattling has been accompanied by reports that the North is readying a test-launch of its Taepodong-2 missile, which failed in its first and only test in 2006 but is thought to have the potential to go as far as Alaska.

Getting noticed

Many analysts say Pyongyang's motivation in raising tension is to grab the attention of new U.S. President Barack Obama and ensure it is high on Hillary Clinton's agenda when she flies to Asia this week for her first trip abroad as secretary of state.

On Friday, Clinton offered North Korea a peace treaty, normal ties and aid if it eliminated its nuclear arms programme. There has been no response yet from Pyongyang.

North Korea, which tested a nuclear device in 2006, does not have the technology to make a nuclear warhead for missiles, experts have said, but it can threaten South Korea and Japan with a proven arsenal of short-range and ballistic missiles.

In North Korea, the birthday means festivals with singing soldiers, dancing in the street, a few extra handfuls of rice for workers and sweets for children.

State media is relentless in its praise of Kim and his achievements.

A few days ago above Mt. Jong-il "an unprecedented phenomenon of moon halo was observed," the North's KCNA news agency said.

"The surroundings of the peak became as bright as daytime to make the night view above Kim Jong-il's birthplace in the Paektusan Secret Camp brilliant."

It is not unusual for Kim to miss the public birthday celebrations. But his absence in the past year from events he usually attends raised concern about his health, his grip on power and who might be making decisions about the North's nuclear arms programmes.

Kim appears to have recovered although his trademark paunch presses less clearly on his mud-grey jumpsuits, the hair has thinned in his bouffant and he appears to have given up wearing platform shoes -- with speculation in the South that, post-stroke, these are harder for him to balance in.