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Happy Birthday, Dear Leader

The 4 wild ways North Koreans are celebrating Kim Jong Il's 69th (or 70th).

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North Korea’s official story is that Kim Jong Il came into the world on a mythic mountaintop under a double rainbow. Party poopers say he was born in Siberia in a guerrilla camp that his father, Kim Il Sung, the founder of communist North Korea, had founded. And no one is quite sure how old the North Korean dictator actually is now. (Current estimates say that he is either 69 or 70 years old.)

But either way, the Dear Leader’s birthday has been among his impoverished country’s most important holidays since 1983 — the occasion for weeks of preparation and at least one day of mandatory celebration. Here are some of the highlights from this year’s extended bash.

2011/AFP/KCNA

Flowers for Kim: Visitors to Pyongyang shouldn’t miss the 15th annual Kimjongilia Festival. The festival’s namesake — the Kimjongilia — is actually a perennial begonia specially cultivated in 1988 by a Japanese botanist in honor of Kim Jong Il (hence the catchy name). This year, the show kicked off two days before the Dear Leader’s birthday on Valentine’s Day, Feb. 14, appropriately enough, given that the begonia in question is bright-red. For an event organized by a totalitarian dictatorship, it’s fitting that the festival will feature only a single type of flower named after the country’s leader. According to the North Korean news service, the festival features examples of the flower raised by the armed forces, national ministries, and people “from all walks of life.”

In his book North of the DMZ, writer Andrei Lankov cites a poem that employs the flower as a metaphor for the nation’s love for its leader:

The red flowers that are blossoming over our land
Are like hearts: full of love for the leader.
Our hearts follow the young buds of
kimjongilia;
Oh! The flower of our loyalty!

MARK RALSTON/AFP/Getty Images

Kim on Ice: The North Korean government organizes elaborate sports exhibitions in honor of its leader. On Feb. 14, North Korean figure skaters started vying for the Dear Leader’s attention at the 20th Paektusan Prize International Figure-skating Festival. (Footage from previous Paektusan festivals makes clear that the event is a combination of traditional competition and nationalistic pep rally.) North Korea also staged a synchronized swimming show titled “Eternal Spring in February,” a highlight of which involved participants arranging themselves in the form of a Kimjongilia (see Item No. 1).

2009/KCNA/AFP/Getty Images

Empty stockings: Kim Jong Il no doubt will have plenty of thank-you cards to send out, including one to the president of Laos for the floral basket he had delivered. But as North Korea’s benevolent father figure, Kim has traditionally been gracious enough to use his birthday not only as an occasion to receive gifts but also to give some to his metaphorical children, the country’s population at large. But with international sanctions taking a bite out of the economy, it seems Dear Leader has been decidedly less generous this year. He had promised all 24 million North Koreans a day’s worth of food — a big deal in a country that suffers chronic shortages. But, according to the Associated Press, the rations never arrived. The presents doled out to regime insiders have also been downgraded: Rather than Rolexes or luxury cars, loyal lackeys will likely be receiving fake designer suits that the government ordered in bulk from China in advance of the festivities.

2009/KCNA/AFP/Getty Images

Trial balloons: Some South Koreans also marked Kim’s birthday, though in less forcibly joyous fashion than their neighbors to the north. The government of South Korean President Lee Myung-bak lent its support to local NGOs that released a fleet of balloons containing anti-Kim messages in the direction of the North Korean border. The balloons also had South Korean media reports about recent uprisings in the Arab world — a not-so-subtle hint to a population that, due to strict media censorship, has no idea of the momentous and inspiring events in Egypt and Tunisia.

2011/LEE HOON-GOO/AFP/Getty Images

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