Kim Jong-il’s birthday, between parades and famine
by Joseph Yun Li-sun
The regime bestows a new title upon the dictator, who now is the ‘Peerlessly brilliant Commander”. It also hands out cookies and candies to children. Meanwhile, most North Koreans do not know how to make ends meet because of an economic crisis that is ravaging the nation.

Seoul (AsiaNews) – Even though the average North Korean is facing hunger and famine, the country’s Communist regime is celebrating in style (and at great cost) Kim Jong-il’s 68th birthday. Pyongyang is in fact covered in flower decorations for what is the country’s only official holiday.

Broke it might be but the government did throw a lavish ceremony, including cookies, candies and small gifts for schoolchildren as well as parades and a public display of admiration for the North Korean leader. In a meeting of Communist leaders, Kim was hailed as “the peerlessly brilliant commander”.

If last year’s celebrations took place in a climate of heightened international watchfulness because of North Korea’s missile tests, this year’s ceremony took place against a backdrop of openness by Pyongyang towards Washington and Seoul.

The regime’s number two leader, Kim Yong-Nam, stressed the need to end hostile relations with the United States "through dialogue and negotiations". He also insisted on the need to improve intra-Korean ties.

Pyongyang’s readiness to take the diplomatic route is dictated by the country’s ravaged economy.

A disastrous currency reform, which wiped whatever little savings North Koreans had, has compounded the effect of international sanctions. For many, survival has become impossible. Currently, ten million North Koreans are living on less than a dollar a day.

In the meantime, this year’s celebrations include the traditional Flower Festival.

For Kim’s birthday, the red kimjongilia was all the rave. The flower, a begonia, was created by Japanese botanist Mototeru Kamo of Shizuoka Prefecture and dedicated to Kim Jong-il.

Two sporting events were also held in the capital yesterday (figure skating and synchronised swimming) in honour of Kim who opted instead to attend a concert by the Unhasu Orchestra, organised to mark the new lunar year, which began on Sunday.