North Korea celebrates late leader's birthday amid hardships

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A group of synchronized swimmers perform celebrating the Day of Shining Star on the occasion of the 80th birth anniversary of former North Korean leader Kim Jong Il at the swimming gymnasium in Pyongyang, North Korea, Sunday, Feb. 13, 2022. (AP Photo/Cha Song Ho)

SEOUL – North Korea celebrated the 80th birthday of late leader Kim Jong Il with a concert, fireworks and a rare outdoor ceremony near its border with China, state media reported Wednesday, as the country pushes for greater public support amid pandemic-related hardships.

The snowy celebration involving a cheering crowd is likely meant to solidify the leadership of Kim’s son and current leader, Kim Jong Un, as he faces one of the toughest moments of his decade in power. The younger Kim said last year his country was grappling with “the worst-ever situation” due to the pandemic, U.N. sanctions and other problems.

North Korea’s state TV showed Kim Jong Un, dressed in a dark winter coat, waving when people clapped their hands and hopped as he appeared at the ceremony at Samjiyon city Tuesday on the eve of his father’s birthday.

The official Korean Central News Agency said the ceremony showed participants’ firm resolves to rally behind Kim Jong Un and achieve a prosperity with self-reliance.

Similar ceremonies were held across North Korea to mark the birth anniversary, while senior officials visiting Samjiyon city observed fireworks and a music concert, according to KCNA.

It’s rare for North Korea to hold a high-profile state event in the city at the foot of Mount Paektu, the highest peak on the Korean Peninsula which is the heart of North Korea’s foundation myth revolving around the Kim family. A major development project has also been underway in Samjiyon, which Kim Jong Un has said epitomizes his country’s “iron will” to achieve prosperity.

The birthday of Kim Jong Il is one of the most important holidays in North Korea, along with that of Kim Il Sung, the late grandfather of Kim Jong Un who established North Korea in 1948. Kim Jong Un has ruled North Korea since Kim Jong Il died of a heart attack in late 2011.

On Wednesday, North Korean citizens climbed Pyongyang’s Mansu Hill to lay bouquets of flowers and to bow before the giant statues of Kim Jong Il and Kim Il Sung. Elsewhere in Pyongyang, signs with celebratory messages like “the great event of the nation” were set up along streets.

Last month, North Korea conducted a spate of missile tests in what some experts say was an attempt to pressure the United States to offer concessions like sanctions relief. North Korea paused testing activity before the start of the Winter Olympics in China, its last major ally and economic pipeline, earlier this month.

South Korea’s Defense Ministry said North Korea’s military hasn’t showed any suspicious activities Wednesday.