PYONGYANG: Less than two days after the assassination of the half-brother of North Korea's leader, small girls in frilly pastel leotards opened an ice skating gala in Pyongyang to honour the late father of both men.
|People in Seoul watch a television news report on the assassination of Kim Jong-Nam, the half-brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un AFP/JUNG Yeon-Je|
The Paektusan Prize International Figure Skating Festival is held every year to celebrate Kim Jong-Il, the leader who oversaw the North's first nuclear tests.
His children - by different women - included both Kim Jong-Un, who inherited power from him five years ago, and Kim Jong-Nam, older by several years, who fell from grace after a bizarre attempt in 2001 to enter Japan on a false passport to try to visit Disneyland.
In exile Jong-Nam voiced occasional criticism of the regime. He was murdered at Kuala Lumpur's international airport on Monday, apparently by two poison-wielding female agents.
With no announcement of the death by the North's official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA), the vast majority of Wednesday's audience at the ice rink in Pyongyang would have been oblivious of the killing.
But for anyone who was aware, some elements of the programme could have appeared darkly ironic: One early number was set to Pink Floyd's Hey You, lyrics: "Hey you, out there in the cold, getting lonely, getting old."
In another, a skater performed a pistol-shot gesture to James Bond-like theme music.
“Let us safeguard with our lives the Central Committee of the Party headed by the respected Supreme Leader Comrade Kim Jong-Un,” read a white-on-red banner dangling over the ice.
“Let us uphold great leader Kim Jong-Il as the eternal sun,” proclaimed another.
Others read: 'Peace', 'Independence' and 'Friendship'.
North Korea marks Kim Jong-Il's Feb 16 birthday as the “Day of the Shining Star”, although accounts differ as to where and when he was born.
Officially, he came into the world on the slopes of Mount Paektu, the spiritual birthplace of the Korean nation, in 1942 - which would make Thursday the 75th anniversary of the event. But according to independent historians he was actually born a year earlier and in the Soviet Union, where his father Kim Il-Sung enjoyed the backing of Moscow.
Kim Il-Sung would go on to found the Democratic People's Republic of Korea – the North's official name – and the Kim dynasty in 1948.
Events scheduled for the occasion include a synchronised swimming show and a firework display. Above the ice rink hung portraits of Kim Jong-Il and his father, smiling benevolently.
Serried ranks of around 3,000 government officials in dark uniforms packed the arena, with other sections filled by women wearing colourful hanbok, traditional Korean dresses.
The perfomers included double Olympic gold medallist and triple world champion Evgeni Plushenko of Russia, and Brian Joubert of France, who won the world championship men's singles gold in Tokyo in 2007.
“I just tried to give 100 per cent on the ice,” Joubert told AFP.
Unlike most European Union members, France does not maintain diplomatic relations with North Korea, which is subject to United Nations Security Council sanctions over its nuclear and missile programmes – which Pyongyang says are defensive in nature.
“I'm very curious. I hear a lot of things but I wanted to form my own opinion, I wanted to discover,” Joubert said about his participation in the event. “I'm just doing my job. I don't even try to find out who it's for, I do it for the people who come to see the gala, so that they are happy.”