Kim Jong-il celebrates 69th birthday
Kim Jong-il, North Korea's ailing dictator, celebrated his 69th birthday on Wednesday with a series of lavish public events as his near-bankrupt regime struggled to hide the scale of its crippling food and foreign-exchange shortages.
As the North's state media observed a "solar halo" rising over the Dear Leader's mythical birthplace at Mount Paedku, sources inside North Korea reported that much-anticipated birthday handouts had failed to materialise.
The state media added that "pride and joy" had pervaded the country as officials filled hours of state television professing tearful loyalty to the regime, while the UN reported a mounting food crisis.
In the northeastern province of North Hamkyung even ruling party officials had not received their birthday gifts of up to 10 days rations of rice and corn, according to The Daily NK, a Seoul-based newspaper with connections inside the North.
The handouts are designed to inspire loyalty and confidence in the ability of the regime to provide for its people who are reported by the UN's World Food Programe to be facing shortfalls of more than 500,000 tons of grain this year, leaving five million people short of food.
The shortages come at a politically perilous moment for the Kim as he seeks to engineer a dynastic handover of power to his youngest son, Kim Jong-un, who is only in his late 20s and is still building his powerbase with North Korea's militarist state apparatus.
More senior officials are said to receive gifts including Rolex watches, Armani Suits and Gucci handbags, however this year reports from Seoul said that the North's cash-strapped buyers in China had been reduced to purchasing fake goods for the first time.
Buyers who in the past only bought original items were resorting to Beijing Silk Market, an emporium well-known for its knock-off goods, reported the Associate Press in Seoul citing a source with direct knowledge of the transactions.
South Korea intelligence has also reported that North Korean diplomats have been asking for food aid when meeting with officials in foreign countries.
North Korea has been hit by a devastating combination of UN sanctions and natural disasters, including floods and the harshest winter for 60 years.
In December the North also suffered an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease that has infected 10,000 of the cattle and oxen the North's farmers still use to plough their fields, according to a report by the World Organisation for Animal Health.
Despite rising trade in raw materials with China, the North is also reeling under the impact of two rounds of UN sanctions imposed after its illegal nuclear and missile tests and the withdrawal of aid from South Korea after a series of military provocations last year.
The obvious privations endured by most of the country's 23-million strong population come despite promises by the regime to create a "strong and prosperous" nation by 2012.
Reports from the North's state media suggested the regime was still doing its best to paper over the cracks of its manifest economic failures, staging a film show, a figure-skating spectacular and the obligatory festival of Kimjongilia - a hybrid begonia bred especially for Kim.
Pyongyang has also mounted a photo exhibition of the "energetic external activities" of the heavy-drinking Kim Snr who has walked with a limp since suffering a reported stroke in 2008 and is reported to be in poor health.
Analysts say the regime will be hoping for an improvement of its fortunes in 2012 when it will be forced to stage a truly lavish ceremony for double celebration of the Dear Leader's 70th birthday and the centenary of his father, the North's Eternal President, Kim Il-sung.