NEW: State television shows a large military parade in Pyongyang
Kim died in December and has been succeeded by his son, Kim Jong Un
Thursday is the first of two big occasions for North Korea in the early months of 2012
In April, the country will mark the 100th anniversary of the birth of its founder, Kim Il Sung
North Korea held a huge military parade in Pyongyang on Thursday, using the 70th anniversary of the birth of its late leader Kim Jong Il as an opportunity to try to invoke deeper reverence for his son and chosen successor, Kim Jong Un.
State television broadcast footage of the younger Kim and senior officials from the secretive regime on a platform overlooking a square filled with thousands of people. The platform was bedecked with Kimjongilias, the brilliant pink flower named after the dead leader.
With a giant portrait of a smiling Kim Jong Il, who died in December, looking down on proceedings, soldiers carried out a salute to him and his father, Kim Il Sung, who founded North Korea.
The soldiers paid “high respects” to the two deceased Kims and pledged loyalty to Kim Jong Un, the official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) reported.
In South Korea, two dozen North Korean defectors met in a park to release balloons carrying criticism of Kim Jong Il over the heavily militarized border that separates the two countries, a move that has irritated Pyongyang in the past.
Thursday is the first of two big occasions in the early months of 2012 for the nuclear-armed North Korean regime to eulogize former dictators and reinforce the position of its young new leader.
The 100th anniversary of the birth of Kim Il Sung, who ruled North Korea for almost half a decade, takes place on April 15. The date of his birth, known as “the Day of the Sun,” is the biggest national holiday in North Korea. Kim Jong Il’s birthday was recently dubbed “the Day of the Shining Star.”
The significant anniversaries come soon after Kim Jong Un, who is thought to be in his late 20s, was elevated to the position of “supreme leader” of the insular state.
North Korean newspapers on Thursday carried special reports on Kim Jong Il. Before the parade began airing, Korean Central Television (KCTV), the government-run news broadcaster, showed chorus groups singing lyrics in praise of him, as well as images from his life.
And state-run media have already documented a number of events and initiatives that took place ahead of the anniversary of his birth.
Kim Jong Un and other senior officials attended a “national meeting” Wednesday to commemorate the occasion, according to KCNA.
Kim Yong Nam, the president of the North Korean parliament, made a speech at the event praising Kim Jong Il’s “immortal feats” and also urging that “all the party members, service persons and people should protect Kim Jong Un politically and ideologically with their lives and get united around him.”
Other recent measures related to Kim Jong Il’s birthday reported by state media include an ice sculpture festival held by public security forces and the delivery of gifts to children across the country, in some cases by helicopter.
Pyongyang has warned South Korea and other countries not to expect any change in its policies under Kim Jong Un. It has kept up its criticism of the current South Korean government of President Lee Myung-bak.
The United States said Monday that a U.S. envoy will meet with North Korean officials next week to test Pyongyang’s stance on its nuclear program. Special Representative for North Korea Policy Glyn Davies will meet with his counterpart, North Korean First Vice Foreign Minister Kim Kye Gwan, in Beijing
The North Korean regime’s willingness to talk to Washington but not Seoul has been criticized in South Korea.
“Two months after a leadership change in Pyongyang, North Korea is returning to the dialogue table,” The Korea Times, an English-language daily, said in an editorial Thursday. “That’s good news. Not so good news is it seems to be interested only in its conversation partner across the Pacific, not across the inter-Korean border.”
The North Korean defectors in the park in Paju sent balloons Thursday carrying leaflets that called on the North Korean people to rise up and fight. The large helium balloons had writing on them, saying things like, “Kim Jong Il starved to death 3 million people,” “Liberate the North Korean people” and “North Korean killer Kim Jong Il.”
They sent 200,000 leaflets, 500 DVDs and $1,000 in one dollar bills.
CNN’s Paula Hancocks, Jethro Mullen and Judy Kwon contributed to this report.