SEOUL, South Korea – The devoted threw a party fit for a prince: There were dancers, singers and synchronized swimmers, not to mention unnamed foreign dignitaries – all celebrating the 68th birthday Tuesday of Kim Jong Il, North Korea’s “Dear Leader.”
In Pyongyang, state-run media lauded a national hero “praised by mankind as the most outstanding political elder and the peerlessly brilliant commander of the present era.”
Outside the isolationist state, though, the take on Kim’s milestone was a bit less breathless as analysts questioned his physical and mental health following a suspected stroke in 2008.
In a South Korean journal article published this month, a senior analyst wrote that many North Korean officials did not expect Kim to live more than another five years.
Cheong Seong-chang, a senior analyst at the private Sejong Institute think tank, says Kim regularly undergoes kidney dialysis due to complications from diabetes.
Citing what the report called reliable sources, Cheong wrote that Kim suffered from depression and was psychologically unstable.
One anonymous South Korean intelligence expert told the Associated Press that Kim had forsaken Western medicine for expensive, hard-to-find remedies such as bear gall bladder, rhinoceros horn and musk – much of it imported from China.
But Kim is still walking. Government-run media often release undated photos documenting his personal inspections of factories and military compounds.
Meanwhile, Pyongyang threw a party on a day that’s considered North Korea’s most poignant national holiday.
Performing before unnamed foreign guests, synchronized swimmers “depicted beautiful frost flowers carrying boundless reverence” for Kim as they swam to such nationalistic North Korean tunes as “Let’s Meet Each Other on the Front” and “Let the Soldiers Be Heroes,” according to state media.
The nation’s Social Youth League also gave a performance that included a rendition of the song “Thunder Over Jong Il Peak.”
But there were also cracks in the propaganda onslaught.
A report by North Korea’s Central News Agency pointed out that all the nation’s children usually received gifts from Kim to commemorate his birthday. Not this year.
The agency cited “abnormal climatic conditions” and “blocked sea routes” to explain why that would not happen this year.