North Korea Praises Kim Jong Il on First Nuke Test Anniversary

North Korea marked the first anniversary of its nuclear test on Tuesday, with leader Kim Jong Il getting praise for pulling off a "truly great miracle" that sent the reclusive communist country "soaring as a powerful and great" nation.

The Oct. 9, 2006, test marked a peak in international concern over the country's nuclear status and prompted the U.S. to soften its policy toward North Korea, paving the way for steps toward a goal of dismantling the Asian country's program.

The North's main Rodong Sinmun newspaper ran a lengthy editorial to mark the anniversary, imploring the poverty-stricken population of 23 million to rally around Kim, the official Korean Central News Agency said.

"Never forgettable are acclamations of October, 2006, when we shouted hurrah again and again at the top of our voices in admiration of General Kim Jong Il who unfolded an eternally clear sky of peace, prosperity and hope above the heads of the 70 million people," the state-controlled paper said, referring to both North and South Koreans.

The nuclear test was a "truly great miracle," the paper said, sending the North "soaring as a powerful and great nation" at a time of hardship.

The country is believed to have conducted the underground test explosion at an unknown location in its northeast. The size of the blast was relatively small, with the U.S. government estimating its yield at less than a kiloton. Each kiloton is equal to the force produced by 1,000 tons of TNT.

The explosion sent tensions spiraling in the standoff over North Korea's nuclear program, prompting widespread international condemnation of the defiant communist regime. But it also added urgency to the need to resolve the standoff, and led the U.S. to address one of North Korea's key demands, which involved a banking dispute that had stalled negotiations.

North Korea responded positively to the U.S. overture, promising in February to shut down and then disable its sole functioning nuclear reactor as a step toward its dismantlement. In exchange, it was promised economic aid and political concessions from the U.S. and four other countries — China, Japan, South Korea and Russia.

North Korea closed the Yongbyon reactor in July, and committed last week to disabling it and other facilities by year's end. A team of U.S. nuclear experts is scheduled to visit the North to survey the Yongbyon nuclear complex to help map out its disablement plan.

The improved relations between Pyongyang and Washington has led to the U.S. government deciding to ship heavy fuel oil to North Korea as part of the February shutdown deal, and separately offer food aid for the North. Washington also promised to take steps to take Pyongyang off its blacklist of countries sponsoring terrorism.

South Korea's presidential security adviser, Baek Jong-chun, said Monday that U.S. and North Korean officials are expected to meet in the near future to discuss the proposed food aid.

Buoyed by the progress in the nuclear issue, South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun agreed at a summit last week with Kim to seek to replace the truce that ended the 1950-53 Korean War with a peace treaty and pursue a meeting of leaders of parties to the cease-fire.