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Kim Jong-un was not at the ceremony attended by the rest of North Korea’s core military and political leadership.

The ceremonial head of state, Kim Yong-nam, who is president of the Presidium of the Supreme People’s Assembly, praised Kim Jong-il for “applying his unique ‘military first’ policy to turn our country into an invincible one that can never be defeated and has a nuclear deterrent in the face of the deadly pressing offensive of imperialists.”

The unveiling of the statue is the marquee event of birthday commemorations in a nation that remains in a semiofficial state of mourning for the man often referred to as “our fatherly general.”

Workers fanned out across the capital city to decorate streets with flowers and North Korean flags. They pounded at frozen flower beds with picks, making space to plant row after row of bouquets made of fabric.

No big military parades are expected at Kim Il-sung Square, the city’s main plaza, but two birthday fixtures are going ahead as planned: the annual exhibition of his namesake red “kimjongilia” begonias and an international figure-skating competition that traditionally draws Russian and Chinese stars.

Some 30,000 bright red kimjongilia begonias filled an exhibition hall that opened in his honor Tuesday.

Foster Klug and Sam Kim contributed to this report from Seoul.