SEOUL, South Korea – It's a North Korean version of Christmas, with Kim Jong Il playing Santa Claus. In past years, the authoritarian leader has celebrated his birthday by handing out gifts ranging from rice to Rolexes, an annual attempt to buy loyalty and stability.
As Kim celebrates his 69th birthday Wednesday, however, the gift baskets may be lighter and knockoff Gucci could replace the real thing.
With North Korea begging other countries for food handouts and newly tightened international sanctions squeezing Kim's ability to secure foreign merchandise, North Koreans might see a curtailed celebration this year.
Any such belt-tightening would be a gamble, though.
Kim needs to maintain loyalty while maneuvering his inexperienced youngest son, Kim Jong Un, into position to eventually succeed him. The annual gifts, especially those given to the elite, have been a way for Kim to do just that, no matter how tough times get.
But this year many North Koreans are hungry, and a brutal winter is threatening the early spring harvest. The country is coping with natural disasters: foot-and-mouth disease has devastated its livestock and heavy flooding swamped precious farmland last year. There is also the ever-present tension with neighboring South Korea; conservative lawmakers in the South planned to mark Kim's birthday Wednesday by floating balloons filled with anti-Kim propaganda across the border.
With all the misery, a little traditional birthday cheer is always welcome in the North.
North Korea, however, has vowed to turn itself into a powerful country by next year, the centennial of the birth of Kim's father, Kim Il Sung, the country's revered founder and eternal president. It may be necessary to skimp this year to save up for next year's celebrations, when making sure there are enough gifts and food to go around could be even more crucial.
In the past, Pyongyang has proudly announced that every child in the country got presents on the Kims' birthdays, the nation's most important holidays.
For Kim's birthday in 1998, North Korean troops received Seiko watches, a former elite soldier told The Associated Press, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the issue's sensitivity. The ex-soldier, who defected to South Korea in 2003, also said houses, Mercedes-Benzes, Audis, Toyotas, Rolexes and other luxury goods were doled out to important officials.
This year, the gifts that get handed out may include rip-offs of luxury goods.
Over the past three months, North Korean officials have bought clothing and textiles, including fake Gucci and Armani suits, in bulk from Beijing's Silk Street market, a person with direct knowledge of the transactions said, speaking anonymously because of the issue's sensitivity. In the past, the source said, the North only bought original luxury brands.
Popular among both Chinese and foreigners, the cramped, multistory Silk Street market is filled with hundreds of clothing shops, many selling Ralph Lauren, Gucci and Armani fakes. Some are so well made that only experts can distinguish them from genuine designer goods.
A North Korean defector working with the Seoul-based civic group Committee for the Democratization of North Korea, Seo Jae-pyoung, said Pyongyang usually buys large amounts of fabric from Chinese markets to distribute to people taking part in events linked to Kim's birthday.
The North appears to be taking extraordinary measures to prepare for what the government hopes will be a triumphant 2012.
North Korean diplomats have been asking for food aid when meeting officials in foreign countries, a South Korean intelligence official said. North Korea's food shortage is grave, and the North is likely looking to stockpile food to distribute to citizens next year, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he wasn't authorized to talk to reporters.
The North has also reached out to the U.N. World Food Program, saying it needs help because of the severe winter and a bad vegetable harvest. On Monday, the United Nations said it had begun a new assessment of North Korea's food needs and planned more than 300,000 tons of humanitarian assistance.
Along with the North's struggles and the birthday celebration, many are closely watching for word on the country's secretive succession plans. Last year, Kim promoted Jong Un to four-star general and gave him key political posts for an eventual transfer of power.
Chinese Minister of Public Security Meng Jianzhu threw his support behind the power hand-over when he met with Kim Jong Il on Monday, hailing "the successful solution of the issue of succession," according to the North's official Korean Central News Agency.
Kim's second son, meanwhile, Swiss-educated Jong Chol, apparently attended a concert by rock guitarist Eric Clapton in Singapore on Monday, an official with South Korea's spy agency said. He gave no further details about the concert, which was first reported by South Korea's KBS television, and asked not to be identified, citing office policy.
As Kim marks another birthday, there is also speculation about the state of his health. U.S. and South Korean officials believe a stroke in August 2008 kept him out of the public eye for months.
But Kim has been incredibly active this past year. In recent weeks alone, Kim, sometimes accompanied by Jong Un, has given "field guidance" at an army medical institute, an art studio and complexes devoted to machines and fertilizer, according to state media.
It remains to be seen, though, how lavish he'll be when he plays Santa Claus this year.
Associated Press writers Hyung-jin Kim in Seoul, Cara Anna and researcher Zhao Liang in Beijing and Matthew Pennington in Washington contributed to this report.