Pyongyang: Bearing bouquets and dressed in their finest, row after row of North Koreans bowed deeply on cue at the foot of a towering statue of late President Kim Il Sung to mark his birthday, the nation`s most important holiday.
April 15 is called "The Day of the Sun" in honour of the former guerrilla fighter who founded North Korea in 1948 and maintains godlike status in the country now led by his son, Kim Jong Il. In preparation for the holiday, workers fanned out across Pyongyang on Thursday to decorate the city, climbing ladders to adorn buildings with celebratory banners and crouching in flower beds to plant marigolds, mums and bright-red begonias.
Each man has a flower named for him, and both blooms could be seen throughout the capital ahead of the two-day springtime holiday that offers North Koreans a chance to relax with friends and family over a leisurely picnic by the river or a night at the amusement park.
This year, it`s also an occasion to rally national pride as the country undergoes a sensitive leadership transition and as tensions with the outside world persist.
Kim Il Sung led North Korea for decades until his death from heart failure in 1994 and was succeeded by his son in a hereditary succession heralded as the first in the communist world. Now 69, son Kim Jong Il is grooming his third son, Kim Jong Un, to eventually assume the mantle of leadership.
It`s widely believed Kim Jong Il will formally bestow the son, who is in his late 20s and is known familiarly in Pyongyang as "the Young General”, with top-level posts over the next year confirming his status as the next leader.
Since making his debut at a political convention in September, he has already been made a four-star general and appointed to a top military post within the ruling Workers` Party. Prominent positions on the National Defence Commission and the Workers` Party are expected to follow.
At the thatched cottage in Pyongyang`s outskirts where Kim Il Sung spent his early years, guide Kim Jin Ok said the young Kim hasn`t yet toured the humble home that has become a mecca for North Koreans. But she hoped he would make the trip next year — the centenary of Kim Il Sung`s birth and a major milestone in the country`s history.
"He hasn`t been here yet, but we hope that when we commemorate the 100th anniversary of the president`s birth next year, General Kim Jong Il and his son will come for a visit," she said as hundreds of North Koreans, from ruddy-faced cadets to blue-clad traffic police in knee-high black boots, filed past.
North Korea`s leadership has spurred the country to strive toward becoming a "great and prosperous nation" in 2012, one excelling in science and technology, with a robust and self-sufficient economy.
It`s an ambitious challenge for a country sanctioned by the UN and frozen out by a host of nations for developing its nuclear and missile programs, and struggling to feed its people in the wake of decades of economic hardship and one of the harshest winters in history.