Praise, propaganda at Kim Jong Il’s birthday party

Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

The devoted threw a party fit for a prince: There were dancers, singers and synchronized swimmers, not to mention unnamed foreign dignitaries -- all celebrating the 68th birthday Tuesday of Kim Jong Il, North Korea’s glorious “Dear Leader.”

In Pyongyang, state-run media lauded a national hero “praised by mankind as the most outstanding political elder and the peerlessly brilliant commander of the present era.”

Outside the isolationist state, though, the take on Kim’s milestone was a bit less breathless as analysts questioned his physical and mental health following a suspected stroke in 2008.

In a South Korean journal article published this month, a senior analyst wrote that many North Korean officials do not expect Kim to live longer than another five years.

Cheong Seong-chang, a senior analyst at the private Sejong Institute think tank outside Seoul, says that Kim regularly undergoes kidney dialysis due to complications from diabetes.

Citing what the report called reliable sources, Cheong wrote that Kim suffers from depression and is psychologically unstable.

“Kim Jong Il is known to have shed some tears when bodyguards were with him, unlike in the past,” according to the journal report.

Choeng says Kim’s failing health has led him to hasten his search for a successor. Rumors persist that Kim last year named his third son, Kim Jong-un, to succeed him.

One anonymous South Korean intelligence expert told the Associated Press that Kim has forsaken Western medicine for expensive, hard-to-find remedies such as bear gall- bladder, rhinoceros horn and musk -- much of it imported from China.

But Kim is still walking. Government-run media often releases undated photos documenting his supposedly tireless personal inspections of factories and military compounds.

“Kim Jong Il seems to be doing well in governing. He is working on foreign relations and going out for field guidance,” said Yang Moo-jin, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul. “And it’s likely he’ll visit China soon.” North Korea recently completed an investment deal with China that equals half its annual economic output, according to Seoul’s Yonhap news agency.

Meanwhile, Pyongyang threw a party on a day that’s considered North Korea’s most poignant national holiday. Performing before unnamed foreign guests, synchronized swimmers “depicted beautiful frost flowers carrying boundless reverence” for Kim as they swam to such nationalistic North Korean tunes as “Let’s Meet Each Other on the Front,” and “Let the Soldiers Be Heroes,” according to state media.

The nation’s Social Youth League also gave a performance that included a rendition of the song “Thunder over Jong Il Peak.”

“There are festivities in cities and provinces, including lots of athletic games, performances, gun salutes and contests, to enhance the North Korean people’s solidarity,” said Yang. “Everything is to emphasize King Jong Il.”

But there were also cracks in the propaganda onslaught.

North Korea has in recent months been beset by a deepening cash shortage and even internal unrest following U.N. sanctions and a misguided move to devalue its currency that almost brought its already-anemic economy to a standstill.

A report by the North Korea’s Central News Agency pointed out that all the nation’s children usually received gifts from Kim to commemorate his birthday.

Not this year.

The agency cited “abnormal climatic conditions” and “blocked sea routes” to explain why that would not happen this year.

Still, never doubt the Dear Leader.

“Presents were transported by helicopter for a small number of children,” the release reported, “a measure taken by Kim Jong Il”

Times Seoul bureau researcher Ju-min Park contributed to this report