PANMUNJOM, Korean demilitarized zone North Korean soldiers have erected new propaganda slogans praising Kim Jong-il along the border as part of elaborate preparations for the leader’s 61st birthday Sunday.
“Long life to Gen. Kim Jong-il, the sun of the 21st century,” read one of the slogans displayed near North Korean guard posts across the border truce village of Panmunjom.
The slogans highlight weeks of preparations in the famine-hit Stalinist country for Mr. Kim’s birthday.
Since the death of his father, Kim Il-sung, in 1994, North Korea has marked Kim Jong-il’s birthday with a propaganda blitz, labeling it an “auspicious holiday” and using the occasion to reinforce devotion to its leader.
North Korea’s state media have run stories detailing preparations ranging from an international figure-skating championship to film and flower festivals in Mr. Kim’s honor.
A 10-day film show opened nationwide Feb. 7 to screen documentary films on Mr. Kim’s exploits, followed by a massive flower show for kimjongilia, the flower named after the North Korean leader, presented by army and government organizations.
Kimjongilia, a variation of the azalea, has come into full bloom at hundreds of greenhouses across North Korea since Wednesday, said the North’s official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA).
“North Korea celebrates the birthday as its biggest national holiday, with Kim handing out special gifts such as candies, beef and rice,” said Chon Hyun-hoon, a North Korea watcher at the Korea Institute for National Unification in Seoul.
This year’s celebrations, he said, would fall short of expectations of many North Koreans because of dwindling food supplies and growing tensions over the country’s nuclear weapons drive.
As the nuclear crisis deepens, North Korea has stepped up propaganda to rouse its people and army to prepare for a showdown with the United States, with Mr. Kim making frequent appearances at military bases.
North Koreans have been mobilized for a series of anti-U.S. rallies.
“Despite famine that forced North Korea to scale back the birthday celebrations, North Korean troops have strengthened winter training this year,” Mr. Chon said.
International aid groups say famine in the impoverished state passed its worst stage from 1995 through 1997. Now, with dwindling foreign donations, the North’s economy is deteriorating once more.
North Korea has relied heavily on outside donations to feed its 23 million people over the past seven years as a result of the failure of its centralized economy and a series of natural disasters.
The U.N. World Food Program says it urgently needs 80,000 tons of food to feed some 3 million North Koreans who have not received food aid since autumn.
Meanwhile, South Korea’s economy took a direct hit this week from North Korea’s nuclear crisis as a top ratings agency downgraded the country’s outlook from positive to negative.
Moody’s Investors Service blamed the nuclear crisis as it announced the move in a statement that sent South Korean financial markets plummeting.
The decision to downgrade South Korea’s sovereign ratings outlook was prompted by “heightened security concerns stemming from North Korea’s nuclear weapons program,” Moody’s said. Seoul’s main stock index shed 2.5 percent within minutes of the announcement, which caught the government off guard.
“Moody’s said it would not change its outlook when its delegation visited South Korea last month,” said Kwon Tae-shin, director general of the Finance Ministry’s international finance bureau.
“I believe today’s action reflects the view of other analysts who assessed the nuclear issue seriously.”
Tuesday’s announcement, which left South Korea’s long-term rating at A3, came a day before the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in Vienna, Austria, by a vote of 31-4, declared North Korea to be in “noncompliance” with its international treaty obligations and referred the matter to the U.N. Security Council.
It also came as European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana met with South Korean President Kim Dae-jung, who urged Mr. Solana to travel to Pyongyang.
“It would help achieve an early resolution to the North Korean nuclear issue and stabilization of the Korean Peninsula if a high-level EU delegation visited Pyongyang,” Mr. Kim was quoted as saying.
An EU plan to send a delegation this week to North Korea has been put on hold for unspecified reasons, though Mr. Solana said he hoped to travel to North Korea soon.
Mr. Kim and his successor, Roh Moo-hyun, who takes office in two weeks, are firm believers in engagement with the North, but accusations of illicit payments to the North by the Kim administration have placed inter-Korean exchanges under a cloud.
Pyongyang blames Washington for the nuclear standoff and demands a nonaggression pact and direct talks to resolve the crisis, which erupted in October with U.S. revelations that North Korea was pursuing a secret nuclear-weapons program.
Washington has said it will talk to North Korea but will not negotiate unless the North dismantles its nuclear program.
The crisis escalated in December and January with Pyongyang expelling IAEA inspectors and pulling out of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
The war of words between the Cold War foes intensified further last week after Pyongyang said it had restarted a nuclear plant frozen for the past eight years under an agreement with Washington.
Angered by a U.S. decision to put 24 long-range bombers on alert for deployment to the region, Pyongyang spoke of an impending total war that would reduce the Korean peninsula to a “land of ashes.”
In Washington, President Bush said a week ago that he was keeping all options open, including military action.