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World News

All eyes on gifts at North Korean Kim's birthday

SINGAPORE (Reuters Life!) - The birthday of Kim Jong-il on Monday means gifts for the North Korean leader and his people, but also speculation about what the offerings say about the condition of his reclusive state.

The presidents of Russia, Laos, the Palestinian National Authority and the Cambodian king are among dozens of leaders and friendship groups to have sent greetings and floral baskets, according to the North’s official KCNA news agency.

More revealing is the drop in gifts, said Kongdan “Katy” Oh, an East Asia expert at the Brookings Institute in Washington and the co-author of “North Korea Through The Looking Glass.”

“The national media will not report anything about the dwindling numbers of presents and countries expressing their loyalty and love to Kim Jong-il,” Oh said.

“The only people aware of the changes are the cadres handling foreign presents and high rank cadres fed with outside knowledge. They keep their mouths shut.”

The birthdays of Kim and his late father Kim Il-sung have been celebrated as the most important days of the year since the elder Kim’s April 15 birthday became a national holiday in 1968.

In the absence of reliable data, North Korea’s “present index” of gifts reported on KCNA and other official media has become a tool for tracking the nation’s economic health.

Years of careful “gift tracking” suggest Kim Jong-il is struggling to continue the gift-giving traditions his father started under the current harsh economic conditions, Oh said.

“There are no longer lavish presents from Kim or the party to cadres due to the lack of cash,” she said.

The families of the ruling, communist Workers Party cadres will likely get candy, cookies, pork, wine and fabrics to make suits or dresses on the two Kims birthday.

School children in the capital Pyongyang will receive locally made peanut candies for Kim Jong-il’s birthday, South Korean news agency Yonhap reported this month.

That is a far cry from the days when kids received new school uniforms, exercise outfits, school bags and supplies such as pens and notebooks, Oh said.

“Perhaps only limited numbers of kids in the capital and major cities are lucky enough to get a bag of candies, or some poor quality school supplies,” she said.

“The irony is that the party has to collect funds to prepare these gifts. It is sort of taking money out of people’s pockets to buy them a token of appreciation.”

POLITICAL PRESENTS

Kim Jong-il normally does not attend public celebrations of his birthday.

Outside the country, the day will be celebrated at North Korean embassies and by members of Korean Friendship Associations (KFA), said Spaniard Alejandro Cao de Benos, head of an international KFA delegation that will travel to Pyongyang for the birthday.

In Japan, the General Association of Korean Residents in Japan said it had a series of events prepared.

Under Japan’s 1910-1945 colonial rule of the Korean peninsula, hundreds of thousands of Koreans came to Japan. After Japan’s World War Two defeat, many stayed with those remaining pledging their alliance to the new states in the North and South.

Tokyo headquarters and branch offices will send birthday letters and gifts, screen movies and hold receptions, and a small group will travel to the North Korean capital as they do each year, an official from the group told Reuters.

For those who cannot visit, sending presents and greetings is a tradition. Not participating isn’t an option for groups wanting to work in the country, but deciding what to send can be tough.

“For the sake of the relationship it is prudent to acknowledge (the birthdays) with a letter to the DPRK Government,” said Reverend Stuart Vogel, of the New Zealand-DPRK Society, which donated a truck and a tractor for a Pyongyang Friendship Farm it supports.

“It just requires some thought about what to write,” he said.

Editing by Miral Fahmy

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