February 16, 2006

N.Korea showers leader Kim with praise on birthday

By Jon Herskovitz

SEOUL (Reuters) - North Korean leader Kim Jong-il was
showered with praise at home for his 64th birthday on Thursday
but for the outside world the day underscored lingering
questions about succession and an unresolved nuclear crisis.

Kim, who often is conspicuously out of sight on a day North
Korea calls the "most auspicious holiday of the nation,"
received congratulatory messages from Russian President
Vladimir Putin as well as from a host of communist
organizations at home and in countries such as Benin and Laos,
official media reported.

After all this is a man who pilots jet planes, pens operas
and shot 11 holes-in-one the first time he played golf,
according to official accounts about the man known as the "Dear

Kim still sports a bouffant hair-do that has slightly
thinned over the years and dresses in jumpsuits, but some
people familiar with the North say he has mellowed a bit and
cut back on his drinking to an occasional glass of wine.

Kim's most recent appearance on the world stage came last
month when he visited China, where he inspected factories,
farms and firms that have helped propel the Chinese economy.

Kim said he was deeply impressed with what he saw in China,
North Korean official media quoted him as saying, spurring
hopes among some analysts that he may speed nascent reforms to
help North Korea's moribund economy.

More skeptical analysts have noted Kim's main concern has
been and always will be to stay in power.

"This year's birthday is expected to serve as an
opportunity for Kim to reconfirm his country's loyalty to him
as well as his hold on the country's system," the South Korean
Unification Ministry said in a statement earlier this week.

In recent years, North Korea analysts have kept close tabs
on whether Kim will choose the day to name one of his three
known sons to succeed him in the world's only communist

Kim Jong-il is about the same age his father was in 1974
when he made his son secretary to the Central Committee of the
Workers' Party of Korea.

That appointment was tantamount to Kim Il-sung anointing
Kim Jong-il as his successor, analysts said.

The eldest known son, Kim Jong-nam, 34, has apparently
fallen out of favor for trying to sneak into Japan a few years
ago to visit Tokyo Disneyland.

The others, Jong-chol and Jong-un, are in their 20s and may
be too young to be named leader-in-waiting, analysts say.


Kim's birthday also comes at a time when North Korea is
locked in a standoff over its nuclear weapons programs.

Pyongyang says it cannot return to stalled six-party talks
on ending its nuclear programs because, it argues, the United
States is trying to topple its leaders with an economic
crackdown and is bringing the Korean peninsula to the brink of

Washington has cracked down on firms it suspects of helping
North Korea in counterfeiting, money laundering and drug
trafficking. It says the matter is one of law enforcement and
separate from the nuclear talks.

Daniel Pinkston, director of the East Asia Nonproliferation
Program at the Center for Nonproliferation Studies in
California, said the longer it takes to reach an agreement, the
more time North Korea has to produce fissile material.

"They have had time to increase their nuclear
capabilities," he said by telephone.

He also noted Washington has been bogged down with a
nuclear crisis in Iran and Congressional elections later in the
year, and that may have taken some of the focus of U.S. leaders
away from North Korea.