PYONGYANG, North Korea (AP) - Bearing bouquets and dressed in their finest, row after row of North Koreans bowed deeply on cue at the foot of a towering statue of late President Kim Il Sung to mark his birthday, the nation's most important holiday. (Scroll down for photos)
April 15 is called "The Day of the Sun" in honor of the former guerrilla fighter who founded North Korea in 1948 and maintains godlike status in the country now led by his son, Kim Jong Il. In preparation for the holiday, workers fanned out across Pyongyang on Thursday to decorate the city, climbing ladders to adorn buildings with celebratory banners and crouching in flower beds to plant marigolds, mums and bright-red begonias.
Each man has a flower named for him, and both blooms could be seen throughout the capital ahead of the two-day springtime holiday that offers North Koreans a chance to relax with friends and family over a leisurely picnic by the river or a night at the amusement park.
This year, it's also an occasion to rally national pride as the country undergoes a sensitive leadership transition and as tensions with the outside world persist.
Kim Il Sung led North Korea for decades until his death from heart failure in 1994 and was succeeded by his son in a hereditary succession heralded as the first in the communist world. Now 69, son Kim Jong Il is grooming his third son, Kim Jong Un, to eventually assume the mantle of leadership.
It's widely believed Kim Jong Il will formally bestow the son, who is in his late 20s and is known familiarly in Pyongyang as "the Young General," with top-level posts over the next year confirming his status as the next leader.
Since making his debut at a political convention in September, he has already been made a four-star general and appointed to a top military post within the ruling Workers' Party. Prominent positions on the National Defense Commission and the Workers' Party are expected to follow.
At the thatched cottage in Pyongyang's outskirts where Kim Il Sung spent his early years, guide Kim Jin Ok said the young Kim hasn't yet toured the humble home that has become a mecca for North Koreans. But she hoped he would make the trip next year -- the centenary of Kim Il Sung's birth and a major milestone in the country's history.
"He hasn't been here yet, but we hope that when we commemorate the 100th anniversary of the president's birth next year, Gen. Kim Jong Il and his son will come for a visit," she said as hundreds of North Koreans, from ruddy-faced cadets to blue-clad traffic police in knee-high black boots, filed past.
North Korea's leadership has spurred the country to strive toward becoming a "great and prosperous nation" in 2012, one excelling in science and technology, with a robust and self-sufficient economy.
It's an ambitious challenge for a country sanctioned by the U.N. and frozen out by a host of nations for developing its nuclear and missile programs, and struggling to feed its people in the wake of decades of economic hardship and one of the harshest winters in history.
Last fall's harvest was meager, subzero temperatures are expected to affect the spring crop and foot-and-mouth disease has weakened and killed scores of livestock, the World Food Program, Food and Agriculture Organization and UNICEF said in a report last month after conducting an extensive survey.
About a quarter of the country's 24 million people need outside food aid, the report said. The concern comes as North Korea heads into the "lean" period from May through July -- the stretch between the spring growing season and the fall harvest.
"Food aid is needed now to prevent another major crisis," said Kathi Zellweger, country director for the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation. "The problem is more an urban problem: People in the rural areas seem to have more food than people in the cities who mostly depend on public distribution systems."
In the showcase capital, however, food appeared in plentiful supply. The country's centerpiece city was in a celebratory mood this week as residents welcomed the delayed arrival of spring after a long, cold winter and made plans for the two-day national holiday Friday and Saturday.
Women in traditional Korean dresses and clutching flowers wrapped in cellophane scurried down streets, spring jackets thrown over billowing "chima" skirts. One young man sped down the street with a girl on the back of his motorbike, a huge spray of flowers squeezed between them.
International hotels were filled with foreign guests arriving with musical instruments strapped to their backs to perform at an arts festival. Posters plastered on the walls advertised a magic show promising that planes would disappear before their very eyes.
At Mansu Hill in central Pyongyang, North Koreans paid their respects at the 60-foot-tall (20-meter-tall) statue of Kim Il Sung: scampering children holding hands, grandmothers in traditional dress, military men in uniforms bedecked with medals.
Security personnel scanned ceremonial flower baskets filled with calla lilies, carnations and red the "kimjongilia" begonias named after the current leader as groups waited their turn to climb the steps up to the statue. Given the OK, they surged forward with their flowers, pausing as mournful music played over the loudspeakers and then bowing in unison.
Flowers, real and fake, were laid at the many statues of Kim Il Sung across the city, from the university that bears his name to the elementary school he attended as a child.
College student Ri Yu Jong said after paying her respects with her family at Mansu Hill or at Kim's birthplace, she planned to meet up with friends.
"We'll probably get together to see the night view at the Arch of Triumph and then I want to eat Pyongyang noodles," the 21-year-old said in fluent English during a break from the swimming pool at Kim Il Sung University, pink goggles pushed onto her forehead.
She called April 15 "the best day of the year" but predicted next year's 100th anniversary celebration would be even bigger.
Nowhere was Kim more colorfully honored than at an exhibition hall featuring elaborate floral displays featuring the "kimilsungia," a delicate, violet-colored flower shaped like a butterfly and tipped with white. More than 20,000 pots of kimilsungia flowers filled the hall in displays offered by government agencies, student groups and foreign embassies.
"We miss the beaming image of the great president" read a slogan emblazoned in gold on the wall beneath a huge portrait of the late leader capturing his trademark laugh.