N.Korea marks leader's birthday

SEOUL: North Korea Tuesday heaped praise on leader Kim Jong-Il as it marked his birthday with the customary national holiday, but took a softer tone towards the United States and South Korea after a turbulent year.

Children nationwide received bags of sweets and biscuits, and the birthday has also been marked by a synchronised swimming display and a festival featuring the national "Kimjongilia" flower, state media reported.

A meeting Monday of senior communist party, army and state officials lauded Kim, who turns 68 by official accounts, "as the most outstanding political elder and the peerlessly brilliant commander of the present era".

But in contrast to last year's birthday, when the North threatened South Korea and vowed to defy the world with a ballistic missile launch, the tone was softer.

Kim Yong-Nam, number two leader, underscored the need to end hostile relations with the United States "through dialogue and negotiations", and noted a desire to improve tense inter-Korean relations and to raise living standards.

The North's rocket launch in April 2009 brought international censure, causing it to quit six-party nuclear disarmament talks.

It staged a second atomic weapons test in May, and the United Nations responded with tighter sanctions which have crimped lucrative weapons exports.

A bungled currency revaluation last November reportedly intensified severe food shortages, sent prices soaring and fuelled unrest in the tightly controlled state.

Kim, shaken by a stroke in August 2008, is widely reported to be preparing for the eventual succession of his youngest son Jong-Un.

Under pressure from ally China, the North in recent months has expressed readiness to return to nuclear talks. But first it wants sanctions lifted and a US commitment to discuss a formal peace treaty -- conditions rejected by Washington.

Paik Haksoon, of Seoul's private Sejong Institute think-tank, said the North has toned down the rhetoric because it "is implementing a strategy for its survival and prosperity in the 21st century.

"What it needs as an 'exit' strategy is to improve ties with the United States, Japan and South Korea, and then to get help from them to survive," Paik told AFP.

"North Korea needs to supply ample consumer goods to enhance the living standards of people and pave the way for becoming a 'powerful and prosperous nation' -- as pledged," he said.

Pyongyang has set this goal for 2012, 100th anniversary of the birthday of Kim Il-Sung -- the country's late founder and the father of the current ruler.

Paik said he expects North Korea and the United States to hold talks to narrow differences early next month, with the six-party talks resuming later in March.

The intense personality cult surrounding the Kim dynasty has obscured even the birth year and birthplace of the current leader.

Official accounts say he was born on February 16, 1942, on Mount Paektu, a sacred site for Koreans, with a double rainbow and a bright star marking the event.

Most analysts believe he was in fact born in Siberia, where his father was in exile from Japanese colonisers. Some put the birth year at 1941.