PYONGYANG, North Korea (AP) — North Korea commemorated Kim Jong Il's 70th birthday Thursday with the flowers that bear his name, a military parade and pledges of loyalty to the son who has taken his place.
New leader Kim Jong Un, wearing a dark Mao-style suit and a solemn expression, bowed deeply before a large portrait of his smiling father in Kumsusan Memorial Palace in Pyongyang, the capital. Hundreds of senior officials, military leaders and citizens followed to pay their respects.
Outside the palace, thousands of North Korean soldiers lined up in neat rows on a sunny but frigid day, listening to speeches praising the Kim family. Later, the new leader and other officials watched as a parade of goose-stepping soldiers marched by, followed by military jeeps and trucks carrying artillery guns and rocket launchers. Fireworks exploded, military music boomed and people waved artificial pink and red flowers.
Since Kim Jong Il's funeral nearly two months ago, North Korea's leadership and state media have cast him as a strong but benevolent leader, while praising Kim Jong Un as the unquestioned choice to succeed him in this socialist nation of 24 million.
Events on Wednesday included an international skating show and a synchronized swimming show. Both opened with mournful odes to Kim Jong Il and ended with a new song for his son: "We Will Defend Gen. Kim Jong Un at the Risk of Our Lives."
Kim Jong Il ruled with an iron fist for 17 years, a period that included a famine in the 1990s that killed hundreds of thousands of people and protracted tensions over the nation's drive to build nuclear weapons. Food shortages persist in North Korea and relations with South Korea are at their lowest point in years. But since Kim's death, expressions of mourning and adoration have been common in Pyongyang.
At Kim Il Sung Square, the main plaza in the capital, North Koreans bowed and laid flowers, including red "kimjongilia" begonias, at a portrait of Kim Jong Il hanging on the Grand People's Study House. Among them was Paek Won Chol, who described himself as a "soldier and disciple" of Kim Jong Il.
"I will devote my all for the building of a powerful and prosperous nation" under Kim Jong Un, Paek said.
Thursday's memorial could serve as closure to North Korea's mourning ahead of important nuclear talks next week with the United States, said John Delury, an assistant professor at Yonsei University's Graduate School of International Studies in South Korea.
Kim Jong Il's death halted discussions between Pyongyang and Washington on much-needed food aid in exchange for nuclear disarmament. North Korea has tested two atomic devices since 2006. A U.S. envoy will hold talks with North Korea on its nuclear program in Beijing next week, the first such negotiations since Kim's death.
"There were a lot of balls in the air when Kim Jong Il died, so things froze," Delury said. "The timing of this public ceremony ... allows North Korea to make a last major public expression of grief as part of moving on and getting back to a lot of orders of business."
Composers have crafted new odes to Kim Jong Il, while sculptors have chiseled slogans honoring him into the sides of mountains. His birthday was renamed "Day of the Shining Star," and this week he was accorded a new title: Generalissimo.
The North's leadership has sought to portray Kim as a defender of the nation, which has remained in a technical state of war with the United States since the 1950s, when the Korean War left the Korean peninsula divided into north and south. During his rule, Kim focused on building nuclear weapons, calling them necessary protection against the U.S. military presence in South Korea even as they drew sanctions.
Kim Yong Nam, North Korea's nominal head of state, praised Kim Jong Il on Tuesday for "turning our country into an invincible one that can never be defeated and has a nuclear deterrent."
Portraits of Kim show him smiling beatifically, and a stamp issued following his death captures him sharing a laugh with Kim Jong Un. Those images are replicated across Pyongyang in huge portraits hanging at the People's Palace of Culture, a flower exhibition featuring his kimjongilia begonias and at a book fair at the Grand People's Study House.
It's an image that contrasts with Kim Jong Il in his later years, as he reportedly recovered from a stroke and battled chronic illness. He often appeared in public wearing a heavy parka and dark sunglasses.
Last month, top leaders of the Workers' Party announced that Kim's body would lie in state at Kumsusan, where his father, North Korea founder Kim Il Sung, already lies in state.
Officials said later Thursday that the building had been renamed Kumsusan Palace of the Sun. Kim Jong Il has often been referred to as the "Sun of the 21st Century" in state propaganda, which calls Kim Il Sung's birthday the "Day of the Sun."
While North Korea's leadership has venerated Kim Jong Il, it has also emphasized his son's links to his revered grandfather, whom Kim Jong Un resembles in looks and style.
Shedding the quiet demeanor he displayed when his father was alive, Kim Jong Un wasted no time in asserting himself as the new leader, making energetic visits to military units seen as important to his father's "military first" policy.
At Kumsusan palace Thursday, he strolled slowly onto a reviewing stand beneath another large portrait of his father. The crowd then paid silent tribute to Kim Jong Il, heads bowed, while a breeze ruffled the flags and Kim Jong Un's hair.
During the military parade, Kim appeared relaxed, laughing and speaking with military General Staff chief Ri Yong Ho and Armed Forces Minister Kim Yong Chun.
Among others who paid their respects with Kim on Thursday were Kim Yong Nam; Premier Choe Yong Rim; Kang Sok Ju, a vice premier who was Kim Jong Il's key foreign policy adviser; and Kim Ok, a woman believed to have been Kim Jong Il's companion.
Foster Klug contributed to this story from Seoul, South Korea.
Follow AP Korea bureau chief Jean H. Lee at twitter.com/newsjean.