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North Korea Defector Escapes Country During Kim Jong Il Birthday Festivities

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SEOUL (Reuters) - A North Korean has walked across the heavily mined border into South Korea, but few of his fellow citizens will hear of the rare defection amid choreographed celebrations for "Dear Leader" Kim Jong-il's birthday.

Military and spy agency officials could not explain how the man managed to walk across the 4-km (2.5-mile) wide minefield and past North Korean guards.

He was being interrogated by authorities after being picked up by South Korean guards late on Tuesday, an official said.

The Demilitarized Zone border that has divided the Korean peninsula since the end of the 1950-53 conflict has been rarely traveled, except through two corridors cleared for passage by officials and civilians after ties warmed beginning in 2000.

Hundreds of North Koreans flee the impoverished country each year across its northern border with China and most make their way to the South, with more than 20,000 having found refuge in the wealthy capitalist neighbor.

North Korea Birthday Protests
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Most cite economic hardship and political persecution as the main reasons for leaving home.
While defections are cause for deep embarrassment for the North Korean authorities, the country's masses do not hear or read about such acts as the media is state controlled and used exclusively for propaganda.

On Wednesday, North Koreans celebrated the country's biggest holiday to mark the 69th birthday of Kim Jong-il, the isolated state's reclusive and ailing leader who is trying to smooth the path for a third generation of family rule.

Kim's youngest son Jong-un, in his late 20s, has been identified to succeed him, and was last year appointed to senior military and political posts, along with Kim's sister and husband, who are widely seen as key caretakers for the hand-over.

Jong-un has been named vice chairman of the powerful National Defense Commission, which his father heads as state leader, South Korea's Chosun Ilbo daily quoted a source who is familiar with the North as saying. South Korean officials could not confirm it.

The move could give the junior Kim additional credentials to take over power in a society that values seniority and official titles but analysts say no public post carries as much weight as being the current leader's son and hand-picked successor.

Kim Jong-il is believed to have suffered a stroke in 2008 and was away from public view for months. He was frail and gaunt when he reappeared months later, although last year he twice traveled to China and visited dozens of factories and military sites at home.

The North has becoming increasingly hostile to its southern neighbor over the past two years, and has conducted nuclear and missile tests, staged military attacks and revealed advances in its nuclear programme.

Analysts say Kim Jong-il uses these acts to boost his own, well as his son's image as iron rulers.

BIRTHDAY FESTIVITIES

Staged festivities are scheduled throughout the week, including exhibitions of Kimjongilia, a hybrid flower named after the leader, as well as ice-skating, acrobatics and musical shows.
The capital's streets were festooned with lanterns, state news agency KCNA reported.

"The venues of the events are pervaded with deep trust in Kim Jong-il who has led the Korean revolution only to victory, true to the will of President Kim Il-sung," KCNA reported, referring to his father and the state's founder.

In the South, politicians released balloons with anti-Pyongyang messages across the border, while in the capital, Seoul, protesters burned posters of Kim Jong-il and his son.

Meanwhile, Kim's second son and the older brother of the heir apparent was seen at a concert by British guitarist Eric Clapton in Singapore and may also have been shopping for gifts for his father, South Korean media said.

Jong-chul was an early favorite to succeed his father but has since lost out to his younger sibling.

(Editing by Jeremy Laurence and Miral Fahmy)

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