2.16 is a two day national holiday in North Korea, celebrated by various public displays, rest from work, and the general giddy feeling that comes with being surrounded by the aura of KJI. Though there is some dispute about the location of his birth (the NKers insist that he was born in the country itself, whilst the rest of the world insists with some truth that he was born and spent his early years in Russia). Nonetheless, on Feb. 16 2005, KJI turned 63, and we were on hand to celebrate.
To mark the occassion, the Kimjongilia Flower Festival was held all week in a pavillion in central Pyongyang. The Kimjongilia is the national flower of North Korea, and most of the ones on display had a brilliant red colour to them, and looked a little rose-like, but without the prickly stems. Our first encounter with the festival was the enormous queue of people who lined up to enter. In an orderly manner, hundreds, potentially thousands, of people lined up in single file outside the entrance, and the queue turned several corners, passed through an underpass underneath a deserted road, and continued to wind out of site behind another building. Many of the people in the queue were soldiers in uniform (as a sidenote, there are few countries on earth which can boast that on days off from duty, its soldiers flock to a flower festival for entertainment). Others in the queue were excited primary school children, waiting in a surprisingly docile and patient way.
Once inside, we were free to wonder around the horse-shoe shaped display, on both the ground and first level. Each stand at the festival seemed to be sponsored by some government department, and featured an almost identical arrangement. A large collection of Kimjongilia were arranged in an elaborate floral pattern, whilst behind them a large illuminated picture showed a North Korean natural scene, and superimposed over or integrated within the picture would be a portrait of KIS, KJI, both and occassionally neither. Christmas-style fairy-lights were also regularly part of the display. Each display was staffed by professional-looking men and women, the latter of which were in brightly coloured traditional dresses, with of course the KIS badge taking pride of place.
Other celebrations for the birthday of KJI included a dancing session in Kim Il Sung Square. What looked like 15,000 people gathered at three in the afternoon, dressed in suits and traditional clothing, to dance to traditional Korean music. With surprising synchronicity, the dancers went through a sequence of circle dances to the music, and it seemed oddly similar to many a daggy wedding, with everyone seemingly familiar with the steps and the music blaring at an uncomfortable volume. Despite our repeated requests, we weren't allowed to venture close to the dancers or to join in. We didn't have an invitation, you see.
Also to mark the Dear Leader's birthday was a performance of the Pyongyang Military Circus. Performances of this fine performing troop are regular occassions, and other than the neon-coloured '2/16' sign atop the stage, it is doubtful that there was much different about this particular circus presentation. The performers were exceptionally skilled, and the usual array of jugglers, trapeze artists, tightrope walkers, and jump-ropers kept the youthful audience's attention. A remarkable trapeze act saw the performers thirty metres in the air, performing death-defying tricks before reaching a climax by falling the full thirty metres into a safety net. It was fascinating to see a short, largely mimed sketch, which featured an exadurated American (think of Shylock from the Merchent of Venice, although with far less subtlety) as the frequent butt of slapstick gags. At the end of the show, a giant projection of KJI appeared on the back wall, and the NK flag was marched through the circus ring. It truly was a cunning array of stunts.
One glaring ommission from the birthday celebrations was Kim Jong Il himself. The previous day we asked our tour guide whether we would have a chance to see KJI, and were told forcefully that we wouldn't be seen on the day. True to form, he was absent as all around him celebrated the birthday. Watching the news bulletin on the sole NK TV channel (Juche TV) that night, story after story featured luminaries singing his praises, but nigh a word from the man himself.
The only public appearance he made during our five days in DPRK was a night or two later, when we saw him receive a rousing ovation from the audience at the end of a performance by visiting Russian dancers, singers and musicians. Watching this all on Juche TV, the following evening, the footage seemed to be genuine, and the applause rousing. It does beg the question, however, why KJI would make an appearance before a group of visiting Russians, but fail to acknowledge his own people's best birthday wishes.
There have been theories circulating for some time that suggest KJI is either dead, or no longer in control of the country. This second theory would seem to have some truth given how infrequently public appearances are made, however the suggestion that he is dead is clearly untrue. Just what motivates him to appear or not appear at various events is a tricky question, but the answer may give a good clue as to just what is happening amongst the DPRK elites.
Any how Kim, happy birthday. Sorry I forgot to bring a present, but at least I made it to the party.