|Kim was praised for being a "peerlessly brilliant commander" [KCNA/Reuters]
North Korea has hailed its "peerlessly brilliant" leader, Kim Jong-il, as the country marks his 68th birthday in a festive atmosphere complete with parades, flower shows and goodie-bag handouts for children.
Kim's birthday on Tuesday is the second biggest annual holiday in North Korea and comes amid persistent questions about his health and the future leadership of the nation of 24 million people.
|State media has shown Kim Jong-il, right, busy making official visits [KCNA/Reuters]
The notoriously reclusive North Korean leader typically does not appear in public on his birthday and is rarely seen outside of carefully choreographed visits to factories, farms and military bases.
In the run-up to his birthday celebrations, the North's official news agency said children received "gifts of love", which in past years meant bags of sweets and snacks, while adults received liquor, fruit or household necessities.
On Tuesday state television showed footage of Kim and aired separate video of gifts being delivered by helicopter to children on a remote island.
In Pyongyang, children were seen receiving gift bags or skipping ropes and spinning tops along with a department store jam-packed by shoppers with banknotes in their hands.
Across the border in South Korea meanwhile, activists marked Kim's birthday by launching a series of helium balloons toward North Korea carrying leaflets denouncing the North Korean leader and radios for listening to anti-Pyongyang programmes.
"Our campaign is to tell our northern brothers that Kim Jong-Il is not an idol but a dictator who deprived them of freedom," Park Sang-Hak, a North Korean defector and activist, told reporters.
At a celebratory gathering on Monday, senior North Korean officials heaped praise and hailed Kim as a "peerlessly brilliant commander", the North's official KCNA news agency said.
Kim Yong-nam, the country's second in command, also used the occasion to call for dialogue with the US to end hostilities between the two countries, the KCNA said.
He "underscored the need to put an end to the hostile relations between [North Korea] and the US through dialogue and negotiations", it said.
Kim Yong-nam, no relation to Kim Jong-il, cited the government's "steadfast" stand to improve inter-Korean relations and pave the way for reunification, as well as to improve living standards in the impoverished country.
Kim's birthday comes amid continuing rumour and speculation over his well-being, although his health remains a tightly-guarded state secret.
He is believed to be suffering from a number of ailments in addition to the stroke he reportedly suffered in August 2008.
South Korean intelligence officials say they believe he has resorted to sending North Korean officials overseas to buy expensive and rare remedies such as bear gall bladder, rhinoceros horn and musk.
Meanwhile photos periodically released in state media of Kim visiting military bases and factories show he remains gaunt compared to past years.
Concerns over his ill health have also fuelled speculation over his possible successor.
Kim has not publicly named any of his three sons to succeed him but is said to favour the youngest, Kim Jong-un, about whom little is known other than that he is believed to be in his mid-20s.
Whoever succeeds the North Korean leader will have a key role to play in future dialogue over the country's nuclear programme.
|North Korea is facing mounting pressure to disarm its nuclear weapons programme [AFP]
Earlier this month Kim reiterated a pledge to remove nuclear weapons from the Korean peninsula and sent his top nuclear envoy to Beijing in a move that could bode well for resuming stalled disarmament talks.
Analysts say that while he has made, and broken, similar pledges before, the North has faced mounting pressure due to UN sanctions imposed after the North's second nuclear test last year.
However, as a condition for returning to disarmament negotiations, the North wants a US commitment to hold talks about a formal peace treaty on the Korean peninsula.
It says it developed nuclear weapons to counter US hostility after the 1953 armistice brought a halt to the Korean War, and it cannot give them up until the two sides formally make peace.
The six-way talks chaired by China also include envoys from the two Koreas, Russia, the United States and Japan.
The US, South Korea and Japan say the North should return to the talks and take steps towards denuclearisation before other issues are discussed.