PYONGYANG, North Korea — North Koreans bundled against the freezing cold paid respects again to late leader Kim Jong Il in Pyongyang’s main plaza Monday and celebrated the Lunar New Year holiday with colorful flowers and children’s games.
A massive portrait of Kim Jong Il, absent after the mourning period for his death last month, has been restored at the vast Kim Il Sung Square. People stood in line to bow and lay single red flowers — the late leader’s namesake “kimjongilia” begonias — made of fabric.
The capital city that was barren and somber for several weeks is filled with color again: flower beds and planters bursting with blossoms and the red, white and blue national flag fluttering from signposts. Banners celebrating the year and posters marking the holiday called “Sol Myong Jol” here were pinned to buildings and walls.
The North Korean year “Juche 101” counts from 1912, the year founder Kim Il Sung was born.
The holiday comes as new leader Kim Jong Un, who has pledged to uphold his father’s “military first” policy, visits military units. North Korea recently credited him with commanding nuclear tests and working closely with his father on military and economic matters, dismissing other countries’ doubts about his ability to lead a country with an active nuclear program and chronic food shortages.
The new era of leadership comes as North Korea prepares to celebrate the 100th anniversary in April of the birth of national founder, late President Kim Il Sung.
In downtown Pyongyang, lanterns printed with “2012” and “Congratulations” dangled from the eaves of Pothong Gate. At the plaza in front of the Pyongyang Grand Theater, hundreds of children scampered and shouted as they flew kites and played traditional Korean games in freezing temperatures.
Pyongyang residents said they were encouraged to celebrate the holiday as they usually do, despite the death of Kim Jong Il, only the second leader North Koreans have known since the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea was founded in 1948. State television aired a segment late Sunday on making rice cake soup, a traditional New Year’s meal in both Koreas.
At the Mangyongdae Schoolchildren’s Palace, high-ranking military and political officials watched an annual song-and-dance performance by students and a troupe of performers from the ethnic Korean community in Japan.
On Mansudae Street, Ro Chang Hae said his first emotion on Lunar New Year’s Day was to miss the late leader.
“My eyes sting with tears whenever I think about how he provided us with such a comfortable home and always worried so much about us year after year,” he told The Associated Press.
His granddaughters, an 8-year-old dressed in a school uniform and a 3-year-old wearing in a pink Korean dress, bowed as they wished him well.
The girls poured a tumbler of Korean liquor for him, saying: “Grandfather, we hope you’ll be healthy and hope for your longevity.”
Ro, 68, said the whole family would gather at lunchtime for rice cake soup.