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Birthday praise for N. Korea's Kim

Plaudits for Kim include 11 holes-in-one in his first try at golf, according to North Korean publications.
Plaudits for Kim include 11 holes-in-one in his first try at golf, according to North Korean publications.

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SEOUL, South Korea (Reuters) -- North Korean leader Kim Jong Il has turned 62, basking in lavish praise from his country's state-controlled media but under heavy pressure from an outside world trying to stop his quest for nuclear weapons.

Kim was hailed as "the sun of the 21st century" and "the most prominent statesman in the present world" at official birthday celebrations in Pyongyang on Monday, while people from Nepal to Peru were marking the day with films and parties, state media said.

"The great personality of Kim Jong Il as a political elder in the present world has been exalted by his unusual leadership ability," Yang Hyong-sop, vice-president of North Korea's parliament, told a gathering of Pyongyang elite on Sunday.

North Korean publications describe Kim Jong Il as a renaissance man who has flown fighter aircraft, written operas and shot 11 holes-in-one in his first try at golf.

Despite Kim's reputed brilliance, his years in power have coincided with precipitous economic decline and deadly food shortages. About a third of all North Koreans are dependent on outside food aid, which is at risk of drying up.

As his people go hungry, he continues to pursue nuclear weapons as a way of preserving his regime, which President George W. Bush once said is part of an "axis of evil" along with Iran and pre-war Iraq.

Isolated and demonised by the much of the outside world, the reclusive leader will cast a large shadow over six-party talks next week in Beijing, where five states will try to persuade North Korea to defuse a crisis that is largely his handiwork.

Kim's envoys will sit down on February 25 with diplomats from Russia, China, South Korea, the United States and Japan to try to resolve the second atomic crisis in a decade on the Korean Peninsula.

Kim, who leads the planet's only communist dynasty, is one of few North Koreans with unfettered access to news from the outside world through satellite television and the Internet.


It may not be lost on the Web-surfing Kim that while his 23 million subjects are told daily of his leadership feats, outside his country many are hoping he may see the wisdom of following another country that was once similarly isolated.

"North Korea needs to make a strategic choice -- and make it clear to the world as Libya has done -- that it will abandon its nuclear weapons and programmes in a complete, verifiable and irreversible manner," said U.S. Assistant Secretary of State James Kelly, Washington's chief negotiator with Pyongyang.

Libya agreed last year to abandon its nuclear arms programme and other weapons of mass destruction. In January, North Korea's Foreign Ministry said hopes that Pyongyang might follow suit were the "folly of imbeciles" who don't understand Kim's country.

"Of the seven 'rogue states', North Korea is the only one left," said Kim Sung-han of the South Korean Foreign Ministry's Institute of Foreign Affairs and National Security. Washington has designated those countries as state sponsors of terror.

"Iran has accepted IAEA nuclear inspections, Iraq is as you know, Syria is showing conciliatory gestures, Sudan is sending messages on cooperating on al Qaeda, Cuba is all but forgotten and Libya is talked of as the model solution," he said.

Last man standing

Kim's official biography says he was born in the deep forests of sacred Mount Paekdu on February 16, 1942, at a secret camp on the Chinese border as Korean guerrillas fought the Japanese who ruled the peninsula as a colony. Outside historians say he was actually born near Vladivostok in the Soviet Far East.

Groomed since 1980 by his father Kim Il Sung as the communist world's first dynastic successor, he became North Korea's "Great Leader" in 1994 when the elder Kim died. Kim Jong Il took his father's place as supreme military commander in 1991 and formally succeeded him as communist party secretary in 1998.

But Kim declined to assume the title of president. Instead, he designated Kim Il Sung "eternal president" and rules as Chairman of the National Defence Commission. Nearly all of his reported travels in North Korea are visits to army bases designed to maintain support among the powerful 1.1 million-strong army.

Intelligence experts say Kim's resume also includes ordering of a 1983 bombing in Myanmar that killed 17 senior South Korean officials and a 1987 bombing of a Korean Air jetliner that killed 115. In 2002, he apologised to Japan for the kidnapping decades earlier of more than a dozen Japanese.

Kim was rarely seen or photographed before he burst onto the world stage in 2000, holding an unprecedented summit with South Korean President Kim Dae-jung in June and later a landmark visit by then U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright in October.

Copyright 2004 Reuters. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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