North Korea's Kim Jong Il turned 69 on Wednesday, but his birthday wasn't as spectacularly happy as it's been in the past. With the communist nation struggling to feed its 23 million people amid food shortages, an unusually harsh winter, and stiff economic sanctions, Kim's party planners slashed the budget for the traditionally lavish bash. Here, a quick guide to the relatively frugal festivities:
Normally, how big is this party?
Notably extravagant. The birthday festival, known in Pyongyang as "Kimjongilia," is to North Korea as Christmas is to the west, according to Slate. Streets are festooned with lanterns and "Kimjongilia" flowers. Films honor Kim Jong Il, and the public is treated to figure-skating shows and concerts. Huge extra rations of rice and corn are distributed among the provinces, while favored loyalists score designer gifts (think Rolexes, Armani suits, and Gucci handbags).
And this year?
The streets were decorated as per usual, but many provinces didn't receive their food handouts and the designer freebies were replaced with "cheap knockoffs." Then again, North Koreans, frustrated with their flailing economy, are not feeling very festive. It didn't help that South Korean activists chose to mark the occasion by sending balloons bearing insulting messages over the border.
So was the birthday a bust?
Not for Kim Jong Il. He still amassed plenty of over-the-top gifts, including two $50,000 Steinway grand pianos, several Mercedes Benz automobiles, and a $16 million yacht. And, if you believe the Korean Central News Agency, the cosmos chose to honor him with a "mysterious natural wonder" that miraculously appeared above his fabled mountain birthplace. "The bright sun rose up," the government press organ said, "throwing its brilliant rays and the area of the Paektusan Secret Camp turned into a fascinating picturesque of spring. Then rarely big and bright halo persisted in the sky above Jong Il Peak for an hour, starting at 09:30."