, SEOUL, Feb 16 – North Korea was in festive mood as leader Kim Jong-Il turned 69 on Wednesday, state media reported, but a defector group said birthday handouts were cut back as the regime struggles to feed its people.
"The whole country is pervaded with great pride and joy," the official news agency reported late Tuesday on the eve of one of the most important holidays in the impoverished communist nation.
Artistic performances, a film show, a synchronised swimming performance and a festival of Kimjongilia — a hybrid begonia — were among events being staged, and streets were decorated with lanterns and goodwill messages.
Aircraft delivered gifts to eight islands in the Yellow Sea as part of an annual handout of candy, chewing gum and cookies to all children, the agency reported.
Spring has even come early to the leader\’s claimed birthplace at Mount Paekdu on the border with China, the agency said Monday, and a solar halo appeared above Jong-Il Peak there.
But Seoul-based Internet newspaper The Daily NK said traditional birthday food handouts failed to materialise in at least one province.
The paper, quoting a source in the northeastern province of North Hamkyung, said authorities usually provide five to 10 days\’ worth of rice or corn three days before the birthday.
As of Tuesday morning, this had not materialised and there had not even been gifts for officials, the source told Daily NK, which is run by opponents of the regime.
The source said munitions workers in the province did however get extra food and children received their candy gifts.
Party organisations and trading firms have been making "all-out efforts" to secure food for special birthday rations, Seoul-based welfare group Good Friends reported recently, quoting a North Korean party official.
Kim is struggling to revive the ailing command economy and ease persistent food shortages as he prepares for an eventual handover of power to his youngest son Jong-Un.
His own state of health is uncertain after a stroke in August 2008, although he continues to undertake a gruelling round of "field guidance" visits to factories, industrial plants and military units.
Relations with South Korea, a one-time major food supplier, are icy after two deadly border incidents blamed on Pyongyang last year.
The North is also under international sanctions designed to curb its nuclear and missile programmes, although China provides an economic lifeline.
Pyongyang last month reportedly asked the United States to resume food aid shipments.
Two UN agencies have begun a mission to the secretive state to assess the food situation after a particularly savage winter and a sharp rise in global food prices.
The mission comes after a visit by the World Food Programme and the Food and Agriculture Organisation last year, which found that an estimated five million people would face shortages in 2011.
About 150 South Korean defectors and other activists marked Kim\’s birthday by launching tens of thousands of leaflets attacking his regime across the closely-guarded border.
"Free North Koreans!" and "Lynch Kim Jong-Il!" they shouted, defacing and burning photos of the leader, his late father Kim Il-Sung and Jong-Un.
The Korea Herald noted that the birthday comes as pro-democracy movements spread in North Africa and the Middle East.
The North\’s technicians "may be able to black out some items of online information for some time, but they cannot do so for every selected item forever", it said in an editorial.