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Page last updated at 10:54 GMT, Tuesday, 16 February 2010

N Korea calls for US dialogue on Kim Jong-il birthday

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State TV showed pictures of a massive fireworks display

North Korea has been holding birthday celebrations for its leader, Kim Jong-il, who, with the military, holds a firm grip on the country.

Officials praised Mr Kim's leadership, but in contrast to tough talk last year also called for dialogue with the US.

The celebrations come as diplomatic efforts continue to try to restart multi-nation talks with North Korea on ending its nuclear programme.

The country is also recovering from a recent chaotic currency revaluation.

The birthday, one of North Korea's most important public holidays, was marked by synchronised swimming displays, a flower festival and gifts of sweets to children.

Poetry recitals also took place at Mr Kim's official birthplace, although he does not attend any of the events himself.

Officials gathered to praise Mr Kim as "peerlessly brilliant", say reports, but the usual stark denunciations of the West were missing.

North Korea students learn English
Look at our faces - are we depressed, are we unhappy, are we hungry? No
Ri Ji-hye, North Korean student

Instead, the secretive state's number two leader, Kim Yong-Nam, stressed the need to end hostile relations with the United States "through dialogue and negotiations".

The BBC's John Sudworth in Seoul says that at a supposed 68 years old, Mr Kim has not lost the ability to shock and provoke.

In the past year, North Korea has launched long range missile tests and carried out underground nuclear tests.

But it could also be seen as a year of significant tactical errors, our correspondent adds, with the tests resulting in tougher UN sanctions, backed by North Korea's old ally, China.

China, the US, Russia, Japan and South Korea are keen for the North to rejoin six-party talks on how to end the North's nuclear programmes.

A revaluation of the country's currency two months ago has also thrown the economy into chaos, bringing inflation and a worsening of existing food shortages.

There is also concern about the succession in North Korea following Mr Kim's apparent stroke in August 2008.

'Dictator'

In South Korea, about 100 defectors from the North and other activists shouted "Down with dictator Kim Jong-Il" as they released huge balloons carrying 20,000 flyers just south of the heavily fortified frontier.

Activists release balloons in South Korea (16 Feb 2010)
Defectors say Mr Kim has deprived North Koreans of their freedom

The balloons also carried about 30 small radios to persuade North Koreans to listen to anti-Pyongyang broadcasts from the South.

The bundles of flyers had $1 bills attached to them to encourage North Koreans to pick them up despite the risk of punishment.

"Our campaign is to tell our northern brothers that Kim Jong-il is not an idol but a dictator who deprived them of freedom," said Park Sang-Hak, who heads a group of defectors from the North.

North Korea has often complained about such leaflet drops but the South says it has no laws against such acts.

Mr Kim, like his father Kim Il-sung before him, has sustained a huge personality cult around his leadership - even his birth year and birthplace remain obscure.

Official accounts say he was born on 16 February 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. Some put his birth year at 1941.



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