North Korea marks the 65th birthday of leader Kim Jong Il on Friday amid progress in ending its nuclear programs and lingering speculation abroad over who will eventually succeed him. Kim hasn't yet publicly named a successor, prompting speculation abroad about who might eventually take the reclusive country's helm and whether Kim will designate one of his sons as the North's next leader -- continuing the world's only communist dynasty.
Kim's birthday is one of North Korea's most important national holidays and one in which the personality cult inherited from his father, the country's founder Kim Il Sung, is arguably the most visible.
North Koreans usually receive benefits such as extra food, but it remains unclear whether the country can dole out such largesse this year, given chronic food shortages and U.N. sanctions imposed over its October 9 nuclear test.
"Holidays in North Korea mark occasions on which the leadership is obligated to show tangibly its ability to care for the people," said Scott Snyder, a senior associate at the Asia Foundation.
The North Korean "leadership will be able to perform at a higher level in this area" amid reduced tensions with the international community following this week's nuclear agreement, Snyder added.
"Psychologically, Kim Jong Il would not be in a somber mood," said Koh Yu-hwan, a North Korea expert at Seoul's Dongguk University, citing the nuclear deal and the prospect of winning economic aid.
Still, on the eve of Friday's birthday celebrations, North Korea escalated its anti-American rhetoric and urged its people to rally around Kim, known as the "dear leader." "We will mercilessly repel the aggressors and achieve reunification by mobilizing all potentials" in case of a U.S. attack, the North's No. 2 leader Kim Yong Nam said Thursday in a speech to thousands of party members and military officers in Pyongyang. The speech was monitored in South Korea.
In a separate speech, Choe Thae Bok, a member of the Central Committee of the North's ruling party, also accused the U.S. of escalating "appeasement, pressure and sanctions" on the country, warning that the North will never tolerate any moves to tarnish its authority and prestige.
Experts, however, dismissed the harsh language as being aimed at bolstering support at home.