SEOUL, South Korea — North Korea urged its citizens Wednesday to rally around Kim Jong Il on his 69th birthday, but the authoritarian leader apparently struggled to provide his people with promised gifts.
In the past, Kim has marked his birthday by handing out luxury items and other goods meant to cement loyalty. This year, however, there were signs the country was skimping on the usual largesse and saving up for next year's 100th anniversary of North Korean founder Kim Il Sung's birth. The North is eager to make good on its promise to build a "powerful, prosperous" nation by 2012.
The North's authorities had promised to dole out a day's worth of food to its 24 million people in the days leading up to Kim's 69th birthday, but a South Korean activist said Wednesday that the country failed to do so.
Ha Tae-keung, chief of Open Radio for North Korea, based his claim on a recorded phone conversation with a North Korean woman living near the border with China. The woman, who spoke in a thick North Korean accent, said her family had not received any Kim birthday gifts. Ha's organization declined to identify the woman, citing worries about her safety.
North Korean diplomats have been asking for food aid when meeting officials in foreign countries, a South Korean intelligence official said. North Korea's food shortage is grave, and the North is likely looking to stockpile food to distribute to citizens next year, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he wasn't authorized to talk to reporters.
Still, the North's propaganda machine was busy Wednesday, calling for loyalty to Kim.
The head of parliament told a national meeting on the eve of Kim's birthday that all North Korean soldiers, officials and people "should remain loyal to the monolithic leadership of Kim Jong Il" and build a "great, prosperous and powerful nation," according to the North's official Korean Central News Agency.
Kim's birthday is one of the most important holidays in North Korea, along with the birthday of his father, the country's founder Kim Il Sung. Kim Jong Il took over after his father died of heart failure in 1994.
Kim suffered a reported stroke in 2008 and is apparently moving to hand over power to his third and youngest son, Kim Jong Un. The son – believed to be in his late 20s – made his international debut late last year by taking up a slew of political jobs.
It's not immediately known what specific role the son has taken in preparation for his father's birthday.
In the capital Pyongyang, streams of uniformed soldiers, citizens and children offered bouquets of flowers and bowed before a giant statue of Kim Il Sung, according to footage from AP Television News service.
"We are greeting the 16th of February, an important holiday in our country, completely sure that the day of becoming a powerful and prosperous country ... will definitely come, under the leadership of our respected General Kim Jong Il," Yun Kum Sun, a Pyongyang citizen, said at Mansu Hill, which overlooks the city.
A giant portrait of Kim and replicas of automatic rifles and rockets with the North's national flag were set up near the flowers with a sign reading "Let's fight desperately to safeguard (Kim)."