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North and South Korea Mark Kim Jong-il's 69th Birthday

North Korea celebrated its leader Kim Jong-il's 69th birthday today, yet whilst the country's dignitaries were occupied with parties, South Korean human rights activists were marking the occasion altogether differently.

They sent an unconventional birthday gift to the infamous leader, of gigantic balloons carrying leaflets lambasting his regime. Meanwhile, South Koreans net users and pundits grabbed the opportunity to speculate on how to ignite social change in North Korea, the world's most reclusive state.

Images of Kim Il Sung & Kim Jung Il are ubiquitous throughout the DPRK (North Korea). Image by Philippe Piessens, copyright © Demotix (02/07/2010).

Images of Kim Il Sung & Kim Jung Il are ubiquitous throughout the DPRK (North Korea). Image by Philippe Piessens, copyright © Demotix (02/07/2010).

Contrasting Celebrations

The birthday celebrations began as early as February 12, 2011, and on Tuesday 15 February North Korean state television broadcast a firework display from Kim's hometown near the Chinese border. The North Korean regime's high profile officials and army generals took part in the ceremony by attending skating and ballet performances and more.

At the same time in South Korea, human rights activists and North Korean defector groups took to the sea to launch thousands of balloon-borne leaflets into North Korea; they carried harsh criticisms on the regime's human rights violations, the Kim family's extravagant lifestyle and the imminent power succession to the third generation of Kims – Kim Jong-un.

One of the activist groups, Fighters for Free North Korea wrote on its website the purpose of the balloon launch and details about the content which was flown over to the North:

2월 16일은 [...]북한에서는 ‘최대의 민족적 명절, 경축일'로 각종행사와 축제, 집회를 벌이면서 전체 국민이 김정일의 생가와, 초상화 앞에 머리를 조아리며 2일간 휴식을 취합니다. 북한주민들의 생존권마저 깡그리 빼앗은 민족의 반역자, 학살집단의 수괴가 생일을 ‘화려한 축제'로 맞으려고 하지만 우리는 북녘의 하늘에 김일성, 정일, 정은을 돼지로 묘사해 비판하는 칼라사진과 USB, DVD와 3대세습 끝장내자는 대북전단 20만장에 달러(1000불)를 넣어 뿌릴 것입니다.

February 16 is the biggest national holiday and day of celebration in North Korea. The country hosts various show events, festivals and propaganda demonstrations. The North Koreans (are obligated to) bow down their heads toward Kim Jong-il's birthplace and his portrait and take a two-day rest. This traitor, this thug who massacred people and who deprived North Koreans of the basic rights to survival plans to have a splendid festival. But we will strew the North Korean sky with our colorful images portraying the three Kims (Kim Il-sung, Kim Jong-il and Kim Jung-un) as pigs, three DVDs and 200,000 leaflets. The leaflet, which carries messages encouraging North Korean people to put an end to the third-generation power succession, is individually enclosed with US dollar bills. (The total amount reaches to 1,000 dollars.)

This balloon-borne leaflet is highly controversial in both Koreas however; North Korea has a history of publicly executing its citizens for handling propaganda leaflets, whilst the South Korea government sometimes discouraged the balloon launch for fear it would further aggravate the inter-Korean relationship, even giving North Korea an excuse to take action.

Many South Korean net users were enraged to hear about Kim's lavish spending for his birthday celebrations while his people, even his army, are on the verge of starvation. A net user ID:무한반복 (Endless repetition) [ko] from the Daum's Agora site, South Korea's most visited public web forum, quoted phrases from defector groups’ insider reports.

These reports claim that the money spent on the birthday fireworks alone could have reached higher than USD 5.4 million, enough to feed 700,000 hungry people for about five months:

북한의 군인들이 이처럼 기아에 허덕이는 반면 2월16일의 김정일 생일은 그 어느 때보다 화려하게 치러질 것 같다. 또 다른 대북 매체에 따르면 올해 김정일의 69번째 생일 잔치가 아들 김정은의 총책임 아래 화려하게 준비되고 있다고 한다. 김정은이 아버지의 후계자 세습 심중을 더욱 확고히하기 위해 그 어느 해보다 성대하게 준비하고 있다는 것이다. [...] (그동안의 폭죽 중) 가장 화려했던 것은 지난해 김일성 생일 전날인 4월14일 평양에서 펼쳐진 것이다. 총예산이 한화로 60억원 정도 들었다고 한다. 그런데 이번에는 그 이상의 돈이 들 것으로 추정된다는 것이다.[…] 김정일 정권이 선군(先軍)정치를 내걸면서도 식량을 배급하지 않고 생일잔치 축포만 쏘고 있는 한 군부의 총부리가 내부로 향하지 말라는 법도 없다.

Whilst the North Korean army is struggling with hunger, Kim Jong-il's birthday on February 16, 2011, will be the most splendid festival. According to another North Korean special report, Kim's son, Jung-un is directing Kim's 69th birthday, and is intent on making it really magnificent in order to solidify his power succession. [...] The most glamorous party in North Korean history so far was last year's April 14 [2010], a day before Kim Il-sung's birthday in Pyongyang. The party's total expense was estimated around 6 billion Korean Won (USD 5.4 million), but it is believed that this year's celebrations could cost more than those of last year. [...] Kim Jong-il's regime claims to hold the ‘Songun‘ policy. ['Military First' policy, which prioritizes the army in state affairs] Contrary to its policy though, what they actually do is spend money on fireworks for the leaders’ birthday parties, rather than spending that money on distributing food to the army. [...] It is plausible that the army's rifle may take aim at the regime one day.

Blogger NK projects who introduced himself as a Korean-American architect and North Korean human rights activist, posted a dismal forecast for social change in North Korea. He commented that a mass protest like the Egyptians had succeed is highly unlikely and stressed that the change, as well as helps should be coming from the outside:

서울에서 어떤 사람들은 북한에서도 이집트같이 反체재 시위데모가 일어나지 않을까? [...] 김정일과 무바락은 동종 동류의 독재자가 아니다. 북한주민들은 이집트는 물론 중국만큼의 해외정보도 알 도리가 없다. 휴대폰이 있고, 인터넷도 한다 하니, 북한사람들이 해외정보를 받을 수 있고, 이해할 수 있다고? 북한을 몰라도 너무들 모른다. 북한주민들은 이집트 소요도 상관없고, 남한의 비디오도 상관없고, 중국의 천안문도 상관없고, 오로지 오늘 한 끼를 어떻게 해결하나가 문제다. 오늘 밤 추위를 어떻게 견디나가 문제다. 딴 생각할 틈도 없고, 정신도 없다.[…]지난 60여년 계속된 기아와 추위와 공포가 2300만 주민들을 그렇게 만들어 놓았다.

Some people in Seoul ask themselves ‘can there be any anti-regime demonstration starting inside North Korea, as the Egyptians did?’ [...] [But) Kim Jong-il is not the same type of dictator as Mubarak, and North Korean people are less connected and much less informed than the Egyptians or Chinese. You may think since they have their own cell phones and internet connections, they are able to access outside information and get ideas from it. [If you think so] you don't know North Korea at all. They don't care about the Egyptian revolt, nor South Korean video [Note: probably referring to the DVDs the activists sent], nor what the Chinese did at Tiananmen Square. What they care about is how to feed themselves for the day. How to survive the cold tonight. There is not much room or time that they can spare on thinking about things other than their own survival. The continuing hunger, cold and fear for the last 60 years has made North Korea's 23 million people live and think this way.

Pundits are also partly agreeing to this kind of analysis, since an information blackout is the default setting in North Korea. Professor Andrei Lankov, a Russian specialist in North Korean studies who had actually lived in North Korea, spoke about the country's internet access in yesterday's New Media Revolution and U.S. Global Engagement conference held by the United States’ Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG).

Professor Lankov, calling North Korea, “a more Stalinist country than Stalin himself in controlling information” revealed that North Korea has only about 100 IP (internet protocol) addresses for the whole country and it is still in the era of radio.

After the Egyptian revolts, it became somehow unimaginable to think of mass public protests occurring without the use of social networking services such as Facebook and Twitter.

But the history made in recent events has sent a birthday message to Kim Jong-il: that a corrupted regime will be toppled eventually, sooner or later.

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