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Tensions with Seoul mar birthday celebrations for N. Korean president

February 16, 1997
Web posted at: 12:43 p.m. EST (1243 GMT)

PYONGYANG, North Korea (CNN) -- North Korea glorified President Kim Jong Il as if he were deity Sunday on his 55th birthday, but a diplomatic standoff with rival South Korea cast the leader in a less-than-divine light.

Thousands of birthday revelers crowded the streets of Pyongyang to honor their leader. Fireworks boomed, state-run television beamed pictures of happy celebrants, and diplomats praised Kim, known as "Dear Leader" in his Stalinist homeland.

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The official North Korean newspaper, Rodong Sinmun, boasted: "The Great General Kim Jong Il is trusted absolutely, eternally and fully as if he were a god."

But the celebration appeared scaled down due to severe food shortages throughout the nation. Live coverage of the event was abruptly canceled without explanation.

"It's dangerous to invite tens of thousands of hungry citizens to the North Korean capital," explained Korean analyst Nozomu Akizuki. "You have to remember people down there are really starving."

Chilled atmosphere on Korean Peninsula

murder clues

The celebration seemed to be overshadowed further by a series of events that have heightened tensions on the Korean Peninsula, capped off by a Saturday shooting in South Korea of a prominent North Korean defector.

Police said Lee Han-young, 36, was shot in the head and chest outside a friend's apartment south of Seoul. Doctors said he remained brain dead Sunday and was unlikely to survive.

Two empty cartridges from a Belgian-made Browning pistol, a standard weapon for North Korean agents, were found near Lee's body, police said.

Lee, a nephew of President Kim's first wife, had defected to South Korea in 1982. His real name is Lee Il Nam, and he had been under close protection since his arrival because of his relationship to the North Korean president.

South Korea Seoul

The shooting came three days after Hwang Jang Yop, a founder of Communist North Korea, fled to Seoul's consulate in Beijing and sought asylum. North Korea has refused to accept news of the defection, contending Hwang was kidnapped. The North has also pledged unspecified retaliation.

Seoul linked Saturday's shooting to Hwang's defection. "In response to the Hwang incident, North Korea has threatened to take hundred- and thousand-fold revenge. This attack shows that the threat is something concrete," South Korean Prime Minister Lee Soo-sung said.

The prime minister ordered greater security at government buildings and other public places and protection for politicians and other possible targets of terrorism.

S. Korean embassy under tight security

Meanwhile, outside the South Korean Embassy in Beijing where Hwang, 73, is holed up, armed Chinese police set up a fortress-like defense wall. Police cars blocked the streets leading to the white consulate building. Officers with AK-47 rifles made occasional patrols.

One North Korean diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity, stood near the checkpoints and repeated Pyongyang's charge that Hwang was kidnapped. "We are determined to prevent them from taking him to the South."

He added, "The Dear Leader is a pillar in our minds. Hwang, deep in his mind, will be thinking of this day, and we believe he will celebrate it as well."

Kim's birthday was a two-day festival this weekend in North Korea, one of the world's most tightly controlled countries. Most of its 22 million people have not heard of Hwang's defection.

Reuters contributed to this report.

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