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Kim Jong-il's 69th birthday: profile

According to North Korean lore, Kim Jong-il's birth was foretold by a swallow and heralded by a glorious double rainbow and the appearance of a new star.

His official biography says he was born on White-Headed Mountain, the highest peak on the Korean peninsula. On top of the mountain sits the volcanic Heaven Lake.

However, a set of grey and prosaic Soviet Union records say Kim was born in 1941 in the remote Siberian fishing village of Vyatskoye, where his father was commanding a scraggly army battalion made up of Chinese and Korean exiles.

The mystery surrounding Kim's birth is just one of the legends designed to reinforce his right to the "Mandate of Heaven" to rule over the Democratic Peoples' Republic of Korea.

On the face of it, there seems little reason why 23 million North Koreans should continue to support their "Dear Leader". The country's economy has been devastated since the early 1990s and millions of people live on the edge of famine.

That has not deterred Kim from indulging his eccentric tastes. He allegedly imports €420,000 of cognac a year and eats lobster, caviar and sushi. He spent millions on a fleet of Mercedes Benz luxury cars and spends his time watching Hollywood movies such as Rambo or Friday the 13th.

No one inside North Korea would ever hear of this excess. Kim has banned mobile phones, newspapers, the internet and books. In 2004, he brought in a new criminal law, penalising anyone who tried to bring in outside music.

Talking about his successor is banned too.

However, Kim is not technically in charge. His father, Kim Il-sung, who died suddenly of a heart attack in 1994, was proclaimed "Eternal President" and never replaced. Kim junior, who took up the post of General Secretary of the Workers' Party of Korea and head of the National Defence Commission, simply expresses his deceased father's will.

His ability to hold North Korea together, despite huge economic problems and public discontent, is a tribute both to his skill as a communicator and to his father's doctrine of Juche, or self-reliance.

The younger Kim wanted to be a movie director and famously kidnapped a South Korean film director and movie star to build the North Korean film industry.

Even in 2006 he got involved in making a movie about a girl whose parents were scientists. This skill for storytelling and a certain visual flair has served him well.

Then there is Juche, the political doctrine that his father first introduced in the 1950s. According to Juche, North Koreans must be independent, economic self-sufficiency and self-reliance when it comes to defence. At the time, the leader must be venerated.

The younger Kim, however, is more bellicose than his father, and regularly spends North Korea's budget on terrorism, rockets and nuclear development programmes when his people desperately need food.

Kim's private life has long been secret, but his third son, Kim Jong-un, has now apparently been confirmed as his heir-apparent, receiving the latest in a series of promotions, culminating this February with the vice-chairmanship of the powerful National Defence Commission.

A race is now on to prepare Kim Jong-un to take over from his father who is said to be suffering from the after-effects of a 2008 stroke that has been worsened by long-standing diabetes as well as kidney and heart disease.

Facing international sanctions and an almost total blockading of aid and trade from South Korea, Kim Jong-il has reportedly scrambled to sure up his alliance with his old ally China to maintain stability ahead his death.

In recent months the two Kims, who first formally appeared together at a military parade in October last year, have been photographed regularly for the country's state media visiting factories and military facilities.

Kim Jnr was even spotted wearing the same luxury otter-fur hat as his father earlier this year, a sure sign, said North Korea watchers, that he was being groomed for succession.