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Kim Jong-il birthday: North watches tributes, South sends propaganda balloons

Kim Jong-il’s different birthday celebrations in North and South Korea dramatize current tensions. For the first time the South's President Lee openly supported groups lofting balloons northward with leaflets bearing insulting messages.

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An image of North Korea's heir apparent Kim Jong-un (c.) is shown on the screen during a performance to celebrate the 69th birthday of their leader, Kim Jong-il, in the North Korean capital of Pyongyang on Wednesday, Feb. 16.

Kyodo News/AP

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South and North Koreans observed North Korean leader Kim Jong-il’s birthday Wednesday – albiet in quite different ways. South Korean activists fired off leaflets proclaiming North Korea a “Republic of the Fat,” while North Koreans spent the day, among other things, watching films honoring their leader and viewing displays of figure-skating and “Kimjongilia" flowers – and trying to stay warm.

Mr. Kim’s exact age is unclear – it depends on whether he was born in 1941 or 1942, and whether his date of birth counts as his first birthday, in accordance with Korean custom.

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But whatever his age, the observances north and south of the line between the two Koreas dramatized North-South tensions in a period of deadly incidents and failed moves toward reconciliation. For the first time, the conservative government of President Lee Myung-bak openly supported nongovernmental organizations lofting balloons northward with bundles of leaflets bearing insulting messages.

“It’s a rare official event that openly protests the North Korean regime,” says Kim Chung-ho, president of the Center for Free Enterprise one of six groups sending the balloons into hazy skies above the Imjin River south of the North-South line.

Previously, he says, the government and the ruling Grand National Party “suppressed the anti-Kim Jong-il movement.” And during the decade of the Sunshine policy of reconciliation between the two Koreas, from 1998 until President Lee’s inauguration, balloons launches northward were blocked by policemen swarming launch sites.

On Wednesday, however, dozens of South Korean policemen stood by as the balloons disappeared, with leaflets on waterproof pieces of plastic carrying nasty messages about Kim Jong-il and his three sons as well as information on protests in Egypt.

Will the messages to North Korea's dictator spark protest?

One leaflet pasted to a DVD shows images of revolutionary protest in the Middle East, none of which gets reported by the North Korean media. Although few North Koreans are likely to be able to play the DVDs, activists believe some will pick them up and play them despite the draconian penalties inflicted on those caught with such material.

“North Koreans are beginning to learn about Egypt,” says Kim Beo-tai, representing the media organization Reporters Without Borders in South Korea. “They talk with Chinese across the border on cellphones, and they return from trips across the border with news.”

Discontent, he believes, is rising during the coldest winter in North Korea in recent years. No one, however, believes North Koreans are in any position to protest openly.

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“The people we contact say protest and the fall of the regime is impossible in North Korea,” says Ha Tae-keung, whose Open Radio for North Korea gleans news from informants by cell phone and broadcasts by short wave into the North. “They don’t see any chances of success in protesting.”

North Koreans are enduring a winter of discontent exacerbated by total lack of electricity for home heating or lighting. In Pyongyang, says Mr. Ha, electrical power is a luxury that few are qualified to receive. Residents have battled the sub-zero cold, he says, by draping vinyl over windows and doors.

Along with news about Egypt are photos of Kim Jong-il quaffing a glass of wine and of the faces of his oldest, Kim Jong-nam, and youngest, Kim Jong-un, in line to succeed his father as North Korea’s leader, the headline reads, “Republic of Fat.”

“They’re sick because they ate too much,” says the caption under the pictures. Opposite those are pictures of emaciated children and a young woman whose body was discovered in a field after she starved to death. “This woman is picking clover not for a rabbit but for herself,” the caption says.

The government also is reportedly unable to distribute extra rice and small gifts normally handed out on Kim Jong-il’s birthday, but there’s somehow enough power to turn on festive lanterns.

One problem protester for South Korea

At the balloon launch, South Korean police did encounter one problem in the form of a loud and lengthy harangue from a North Korean defector, Park Sang-hak, who also has launched balloons into North Korea.

“Why did you ask us to stop sending leaflets over North Korea three years ago,” he shouted at members of the National Assembly who were here to watch the launch. “Why are you sending balloons now, and you didn’t do it then?”

The answer, explains Park Jin-keol, an official with the Network for North Korean Democracy and Human Rights, is that the government did not want to offend the North Koreans. “The atmosphere is different,” says Mr. Park, citing the shift in mood North Korean forces shelled an island in the Yellow Sea in November and sank a South Korean navy ship last March.