NKorea marks late leader's birthday by backing son

By the Associated Press | February 15, 2012 | 5:55 AM EST

A North Korean stands at attention as others cheer during the unveiling of a new bronze statue depicting the late leader Kim Jong Il and his father Kim Il Sung at Mansudae Art Studio in Pyongyang Tuesday, Feb. 14, 2012. As North Koreans prepare for what would have been the 70th birthday of late leader Kim Jong Il this week, the country's state media have gone to great lengths to build up the man who led the nation for 17 years until his death in December. (AP Photo/David Guttenfelder)

PYONGYANG, North Korea (AP) — Senior North Korean officials are pledging loyalty to new leader Kim Jong Un ahead of what would have been his late father Kim Jong Il's 70th birthday.

Kim Jong Un and thousands of military and party officials gathered Wednesday in Pyongyang. Kim Jong Il's birthday is Thursday.

The audience clapped loudly as ceremonial head of state Kim Yong Nam gave a speech praising Kim Jong Un as the unquestioned successor to Kim Jong Il.

Kim Jong Il died in December. North Korea has since held nationwide rallies and conventions to pledge allegiance to his son.

Kim Jong Un is believed to be in his late 20s. North Korea's General Staff chief Ri Yong Ho sat next to him during Wednesday's gathering.