North Korea celebrates birthday of founding leader Kim Il Sung

Fireworks are set off in Pyongyang, North Korea, to celebrate the birthday of the late Kim Il Sung, the country's founding leader.
(David Guttenfelder / Associated Press)

SEOUL -- North Korea on Tuesday celebrated the birthday of its founder, Kim Il Sung, with current leader Kim Jong Un reportedly paying respects at his grandfather’s mausoleum amid efforts to more closely associate him with the late leader’s legacy.

Kim Il Sung would have turned 102 this year, and his birthday, known as the Day of the Sun, is a major holiday in North Korea. Since his death in 1994, the day has been celebrated with pageantry and displays of military hardware in the capital, Pyongyang.

This year, Kim Jong Un, who is believed to be 31, made a midnight visit to Kumsusan Palace of the Sun, where the embalmed bodies of his grandfather and father, Kim Jong Il, lie in state, North Korea’s official media reported.


All members of the North’s military were called on to pledge loyalty to the current leader, the Rodong Sinmun newspaper reported.

“Being loyal to comrade Kim Jong Un’s leadership is the decisive guarantee to carry forward with the great comrade Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il’s thoughts and accomplishments,” the titular head of state, Kim Yong Nam, was quoted as saying.

The current leader made his first public address on the Day of the Sun in 2012, which was his grandfather’s centenary. That year, a large military parade was held in a Pyongyang square named for Kim Il Sung.

There were no military parades this year, although South Korea’s Yonhap News Agency quoted an unidentified government official as saying that rocket launchers and other weapons were being assembled near the North’s capital, and a show of military might could be in store.

Kim Il Sung is referred to as the “eternal leader” in North Korea and has remained the official head of state after his death.

Kim Jong Un is the dynasty’s third generation, having taken over in early 2012 after the death of his father. To allay concerns about his youth and inexperience, Kim has played up his family ties and the continuity of the Kim dynasty, analysts say.


“He has made a conscious effort to hark back to the era of Kim Il Sung, which is seen as a more functional, prosperous time,” said Sokeel Park, director of research and strategy at Liberty in North Korea, an organization that helps refugees escape to China and elsewhere.

“For him to try to appear as a kind of modern incarnation of his grandfather is a good PR strategy.”

The Swiss-educated Kim has made symbolic moves to create an image of more openness in North Korea. He has led development of the country’s tourism infrastructure, most notably through the opening of a ski resort this year, and this week opened a marathon to foreign runners for the first time.

But his two years in power haven’t seen major policy changes from his predecessors. The execution in December of Jang Song Taek, Kim’s uncle and the most reform-minded in the top leadership, triggered a purge that has seen dozens of people, possibly hundreds, executed or summarily banished to prison camps.

Every spring, when South Korea holds joint military exercises with the United States that the North calls a rehearsal for invasion, tensions rise on the Korean Peninsula.

In March, North Korea test-launched two medium-range ballistic missiles and exchanged artillery fire with the South across their disputed maritime border in the Yellow Sea. The North has also recently alluded to the possibility of conducting another nuclear test.


President Obama is expected to discuss North Korea’s nuclear weapons program with South Korean President Park Geun-hye during a scheduled visit to Seoul next week. Obama’s two-day stay in the South Korean capital is part of an East Asian trip that will be followed by a state visit to Tokyo.

Borowiec is a special correspondent.