- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 17, 2007

SEOUL — Thousands of people danced in North Korea’s capital yesterday to celebrate the 65th birthday of “dear leader” Kim Jong-il, as progress was reported in ending the isolated country’s nuclear programs and speculation heated up abroad over who will eventually succeed him.

The ruling Workers’ Party and the military threw a banquet to honor Mr. Kim, under whose leadership North Korea has suffered chronic food shortages.

The official Korean Central News Agency did not report whether Mr. Kim attended the feast. He rarely makes public appearances.

Pyongyang’s wide boulevards were festooned with flags and banners.

Mr. Kim’s birthday is one of North Korea’s most important holidays and one in which the personality cult inherited from his late father, the country’s founder Kim Il-sung, is arguably the most visible.

As on other major holidays, groups of civilians and soldiers visited a statue of Mr. Kim’s father, who died in 1994 but is still called the “eternal president,” to offer flowers and bow in respect or salute in the cold morning air.

“At the time of this significant February holiday I want to see President Kim Il-sung more than ever. That’s why I’ve come to this statue early in the morning,” Ri Un-ha, a North Korean woman, told AP Television News.

North Koreans usually receive benefits such as extra food on holidays, but it is not clear whether the country can dole out such largesse this year, given chronic food shortages and U.N. sanctions imposed after its Oct. 9 nuclear test.

“Holidays in North Korea mark occasions on which the leadership is obligated to show tangibly its ability to care for the people,” said Scott Snyder, a senior associate at the Asia Foundation in Washington who served as chief of its Seoul office.

North Korea’s leadership “will be able to perform at a higher level in this area” amid reduced tensions with the international community following this week’s nuclear agreement, Mr. Snyder said.

In a breakthrough deal reached in Beijing on Tuesday, the hard-line communist regime agreed to shut down its main nuclear reactor and allow U.N. inspectors back into the country within 60 days.

In return, the energy-starved country would receive aid equal to 50,000 tons of heavy fuel oil from the United States, South Korea, Russia and China — which, along with Japan, participated in the six-party talks.

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