SEOUL (AP) — It's a North Korean version of Christmas, with Kim Jong-il playing Santa Claus. In past years, the authoritarian leader has celebrated his birthday by handing out gifts to his people ranging from rice to Rolexes, an annual attempt to buy loyalty and stability.
But this year, there are signs that gift baskets may be lighter and knockoff Gucci could replace the real thing as Mr. Kim celebrates his 69th birthday on Wednesday.
North Korea already is begging other countries for food handouts, and newly tightened international sanctions are squeezing Mr. Kim's ability to secure foreign merchandise, suggesting this year's celebration could be curtailed. Any such belt-tightening would be a gamble, though.
Mr. Kim needs to maintain loyalty while maneuvering his inexperienced youngest son, Kim Jong-un, into position eventually to succeed him. The annual gifts, especially those given to the elite, have been a way for Mr. Kim to do just that, no matter how tough times get.
But this year, many North Koreans are hungry, and a brutal winter is threatening the early spring harvest. The country is coping with natural disasters: Foot-and-mouth disease has devastated its livestock,.and heavy flooding swamped precious farmland last year. There is also the ever-present tension with neighboring South Korea.
A little traditional birthday cheer wouldn't go amiss in such times.
North Korea, however, has vowed to turn itself into a powerful country by next year, the centennial of the birth of Mr. Kim's father, Kim Il-sung, the country's revered founder and eternal president. It may be necessary to skimp on gifts this year to save up for next year's celebrations, when making sure there are enough gifts and food to go around could be even more crucial.
In the past, Pyongyang proudly has announced that every child in the country got presents on the Kims' birthdays, the nation's most important holidays.
For Mr. Kim's birthday in 1998, North Korean troops received Seiko watches, a former elite soldier told the Associated Press, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the issue's sensitivity. The ex-soldier, who defected to South Korea in 2003, also said houses, Mercedes-Benzes, Audis, Toyotas, Rolexes and other luxury goods were doled out to important officials.
The North's state-run media reported Tuesday that airplanes filled with gifts from Mr. Kim to children were sent to eight isolated islands in the Yellow Sea.
Those gifts that do get handed out, however, may include rip-offs of luxury goods.
Over the past three months, North Korean officials have bought clothing and textiles, including fake Gucci and Armani suits, in bulk from Beijing's Silk Street market, a person with direct knowledge of the transactions said, speaking anonymously because of the issue's sensitivity.
Popular among both Chinese and foreigners, the cramped, multistory Silk Street market is filled with hundreds of clothing shops, many selling Ralph Lauren, Gucci and Armani fakes. Some are so well made that only experts can distinguish them from genuine designer goods.
A North Korean defector working with the Seoul-based civic group Committee for the Democratization of North Korea, Seo Jae-pyoung, said Pyongyang usually buys large amounts of fabric from Chinese markets to distribute to people taking part in events linked to Mr. Kim's birthday.
The North appears to be taking extraordinary measures to prepare for what the government hopes will be a triumphant 2012.
North Korean diplomats have been asking for food aid when meeting officials in foreign countries, a South Korean intelligence official said. North Korea's food shortage is grave, and the North likely is looking to stockpile food to distribute to citizens next year, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he wasn't authorized to talk to reporters.
North Korea also has asked a South Korean aid group to visit Pyongyang to discuss food shipments, according to Park Hyun-seok of the Korea NGO Council for Cooperation with North Korea. South Korea has yet to approve the visit.
The North also has reached out to the U.N. World Food Program, saying it needs help because of the severe winter and a bad vegetable harvest. On Monday, the United Nations said it had begun a new assessment of North Korea's food needs and planned more than 300,000 tons of humanitarian assistance.
As Mr. Kim marks another birthday, there is also speculation about the state of his health. U.S. and South Korean officials believe a stroke in August 2008 kept him out of the public eye for months.
But Mr. Kim has been incredibly active this past year. In recent weeks alone, Mr. Kim, sometimes accompanied by Kim Jong-un, has given "field guidance" at an army medical institute, an art studio and complexes devoted to machines and fertilizer, according to state media.
It remains to be seen, though, how lavish he'll be when he plays Santa Claus this year.
Associated Press writers Hyung-jin Kim in Seoul, Cara Anna and researcher Zhao Liang in Beijing, and Matthew Pennington in Washington contributed to this report.