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Page last updated at 05:34 GMT, Tuesday, 6 January 2009

N Korea rallies for absent leader

Tens of thousands of North Koreans rally in central Pyongyang 5 Jan 09
North Koreans are told to rally round leader, and the economy

About 100,000 North Koreans gathered and thrust fists into the air at a New Year rally in the capital, Pyongyang.

Top government officials attended the apparent display of loyalty and affirmation of leader Kim Jong-il.

Mr Kim did not appear in official footage of the event in the city but officials continue to deny reports of his ill-health.

Mr Kim has not appeared at major events since he reportedly suffered a stroke in August of last year.

Frequently released official pictures appear to show 66-year old Mr Kim visiting factories, soldiers and farms, but they have been undated.

He was reported to have started the new year with a visit to soldiers, rather than holding the traditional meeting with workers, in what analysts suggest might indicate a leadership desire to emphasise the country's military power.

On Tuesday, state media said Mr Kim had toured a newly built power plant on the east coast and dropped in on newlyweds whose home is powered by the plant.

Lock step

Pumping their right fists in unison, marchers gathered in Pyongyang's main Kim Il Sung plaza, some waving huge red flags as top officials watched from a viewing stand.

North Korean radio said the rally was "to thoroughly implement the militant tasks presented in the New Year joint editorial while responding to the letter from the employees of Chollima Steel Complex".

Tens of thousands of North Koreans rally in central Pyongyang 5 Jan 09
North Koreans face huge challenges in the economy, amid succession concerns

The editorial had stressed North Korea's "military first" policy.

It had also revived the idea of a Chollima campaign after the reported trip to the steel complex by Mr Kim.

"The whole country and all the people, as in those years of bringing about a great Chollima upsurge after the war, should launch a general offensive dynamically," Mr Kim was quoted as saying on 24 December.

The first Chollima campaign mobilised the masses in the aftermath of the 1950-1953 Korean War, when Mr Kim's father, the North's founding president Kim Il-Sung visited the Chollima Steel Complex in 1956.

Struggle and strife

The call for new economic efforts was a hint, analysts said, that the country was undergoing renewed economic strife.

North Korea relies on international food aid to feed its people, but has rejected handouts from South Korea amid deteriorating relations in the past year.

Outdated facilities, a crippling energy shortage and a prolonged nuclear stand-off with the West have complicated efforts for economic revival since famine struck North Korea for much of the 1990s.

Outsiders are increasingly worried about succession in North Korea. Mr Kim took over on the death of his father, Kim Il-sung, in 1994, but has not named his own successor.

"He will continue to put importance on the military until he completes naming his successor," Yoo Ho-yeol, a professor at Seoul's Korea University, told The Associated Press.

North Korean radio had a different perspective.

Its Monday broadcast revisited the new year editorial which, it noted, was entitled, "Let Us Glorify This Year as Year of New Great Revolutionary Upswing While Sounding High the Trumpet Calls of the General Onward March".

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