SEOUL, South Korea (AP) _ North Korean leader Kim Jong Il spent his 57th birthday on Tuesday visiting soldiers, the backbone of his rule of the isolated communist state, the country's media reported.

North Korea's 22 million people observed the day with sports events, cultural festivals and other gala programs.

The North's foreign news outlet, KCNA, reported that Kim spent his birthday visiting a women's antiaircraft gun battery and inspecting a training exercise by an army unit.

South Korean analysts said Kim's activities reflect the importance of the military's role in North Korea, a country with enormous economic, political and diplomatic problems.

With its economy in shambles, Kim has been relying on outside aid to feed his people. Analysts believe that the North's 1.1 million-member army is the key prop of his rule.

Kim Jong Il succeeded his late father, President Kim Il Sung, who died in 1994 at age 82. Tuesday was his first birthday since he officially became the North's head of state as chairman of the national defense commission.