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N. Korea’s late Kim Jong-il gets military birthday tribute

- Associated Press - Thursday, February 16, 2012

PYONGYANG, North Korea (AP) — Army trucks loaded with artillery rolled by the memorial palace for North Korea's late leaders as Kim Jong-un presided over a military birthday commemoration for his father Thursday.

Kim Jong-il died of a heart attack in December, and North Koreans marked what would have been his 70th birthday by remembering him and showing support for his young son and successor.

Across Pyongyang, they bowed before Kim Jong-il's portrait and laid single blossoms in his honor on the holiday now called "Day of the Shining Star."

The Kim Jong-un ode "Footsteps" reverberated across the capital all day, emphasizing the son's inheritance of the family legacy bequeathed to him by his father and his grandfather, North Korea founder Kim Il-sung.

The Kims have ruled North Korea since its inception in 1948 following the division of the Korean Peninsula into the communist-backed north and the U.S.-allied south. Kim Il-sung remains the country's "eternal president" even after his death in 1994.

The transition to a third-generation in the Kim family comes at a delicate time for North Korea, which struggles with a chronic food shortage and faces pressure to dismantle its nuclear weapons program.

The nation's leadership has leaned heavily on legacy in building up Kim Jong-un's credentials, highlighting the similarities to his grandfather in looks and style and to his father in vision and policy.

"We're very proud to have him as a successor to Kim Jong-il. He's brimming with energy," said Jang Ye-song, a guide at a flower exhibition featuring Kim Jong-il's namesake red kimjongilia begonias. "We were completely charmed at the first sight of him."

Thursday's military show outside the Kumsusan Memorial Palace, the mausoleum where Kim Jong-il's body lay in state, reinforced Kim Jong-un's vow to uphold the "military first" policy that defined his father's rule.

Thousands of soldiers goose-stepped past the reviewing stand where Kim Jong-un stood, flanked by top military political leaders, beneath a massive portrait of Kim Jong-il.

As a military brass band played and fireworks exploded, tanks, trucks and jeeps filed by, loaded with artillery guns and rocket launchers. A sea of people waving red and pink plastic flowers blanketed the plaza outside the grandiose mausoleum.

"Bearing guns, we will faithfully uphold the 'military-first' leadership of our respected supreme commander and comrade," Ri Yong-ho, vice marshal of the Korean People's Army and the military's General Staff chief, said in a speech at the ceremony.

"Let's dedicate our lives to protect Kim Jong-un!" troops in the plaza roared.

The military show was nowhere near as extravagant as the massive parade at Kim Il-sung Square in October 2010 for the 65th anniversary of the Workers' Party of Korea, and an even bigger procession is expected for the April 15 celebrations that will mark the centenary of Kim Il-sung's birth.

But it was believed to be only the second military parade held at the memorial palace that once served as Kim Il-sung's presidential offices, and it was seen as a fitting tribute to the late leader at a time when the nation is in a semiofficial state of mourning. Kim Il-sung's body has lain in state at Kumsusan since 1995, and his son's remains are expected to be displayed there as well.

Kim Jong-un was calm and composed as he saluted the troops. At times, he cracked a smile as he chatted with Marshal Ri and Armed Forces Minister Kim Yong-chun. Other key figures present were Kim Yong-nam, the president of the Presidium of North Korea's parliament; Premier Choe Yong-rim; Kang Sok-ju, a vice premier who was Kim Jong-il's key foreign policy adviser; and his Kim Jong'un's aunt, Kim Kyong-hui.

Later, MR. Kim attended a performance of songs and orchestral music in his father's honor at the Pyongyang Indoor Stadium that ended with a spirited rendition of "Footsteps" featuring tap-dancing soldiers. Afterward, the orchestra and performers stood to clap and chant "Kim Jong-un, single-hearted unity!" and "Kim Jong-un, defend to the death!" for five minutes, with the audience joining in.

Elsewhere in Pyongyang, at the main plaza at Kim Il-sung Square, the Pyongyang Circus Theater, the stadium and the Mansudae Art Studio grounds where a bronze statue of Kim Jong-il on horseback was unveiled this week, North Koreans paid their respects to Kim Jong-il by bowing and laying flowers.

Among them was Paek Won-chol, who described himself as a "soldier and disciple" of Kim Jong-il. "I will devote my all for the building of a powerful and prosperous nation" under Kim Jong-un, he said.

Thursday's memorial could serve as closure to North Korea's mourning ahead of important nuclear talks next week with the United States, said John Delury, an assistant professor at Yonsei University's Graduate School of International Studies in South Korea.

Kim Jong-il's death put discussions between Pyongyang and Washington on food aid and nuclear disarmament talks on hold. A U.S. nuclear envoy will meet with North Koreans next week in Beijing, the first such negotiations since Kim Jong-i's death.

"There were a lot of balls in the air when Kim Jong-il died, so things froze," Mr. Delury said. "The timing of this public ceremony ... allows North Korea to make a last major public expression of grief as part of moving on and getting back to a lot of orders of business."

Associated Press writers Kim Kwang-hyon in Pyongyang and Hyung-jin Kim and Sam Kim in Seoul contributed to this report.

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