SEOUL, South Korea - Tens of thousands of North Koreans rallied Wednesday in Pyongyang to support Kim Jong Il as he embarks on his third term as leader and to celebrate a rocket launch that was criticized elsewhere as a violation of United Nations sanctions.

Kim, who is believed to have recovered from a reported stroke in August, was expected to be re-elected as chairman of the country's powerful National Defence Commission during a session of the country's rubber-stamp parliament Thursday.

The 67-year-old Kim rules the impoverished yet nuclear-armed North in his capacity as chief of the commission, which oversees the country's 1.2 million-member military - one of the world's largest.

His re-election comes amid regional tension over the country's controversial rocket launch Sunday. North Korea claims it sent a satellite into space, but neighbouring countries say nothing reached orbit and that the launch was really a test of its long-range missile technology.

The U.S., Japan and South Korea are leading a campaign in the UN Security Council to penalize the North.

"The imperialists and reactionaries who have committed all kinds of despicable acts, tenaciously pursuing anti-(North Korea) moves to isolate and stifle us, will be driven into a yet tighter corner because of our satellite launch," Choe Tae Bok, a top Workers' Party official, told the rally.

Footage obtained by APTN in Pyongyang showed a massive crowd of neatly dressed people packed in the main Kim Il Sung square - named after Kim's father, North Korea's founder - under a banner reading, "We enthusiastically congratulate on the successful launch" of a satellite.

The North's office Korean Central News Agency said about 100,000 Pyongyang citizens took part in the rally.

Choe called the launch "a shining fruition" of Kim's efforts to develop the North's science and technology, "foreseeing a rosy future of the country," according to KCNA.

North Korea previously has organized mass rallies at times of high tensions with the outside world or after key events, such as the country's first nuclear test blast in 2006.

Defence Minister Kim Yong Chun separately told a government meeting later Wednesday that his army will defeat U.S. and South Korean forces with "strong, merciless return fire," accusing them of plotting to launch a pre-emptive attack on the North, according to the North's state TV.

The North routinely issues similar claims, and the United States and South Korea repeatedly have said they have no intention to attack. The U.S. has 28,500 troops in South Korea, a legacy of the 1950-53 Korean War.

Debate in the Security Council on whether to penalize North Korea for the launch remained stalled, with North Korea's closest ally, China, and Russia calling for restraint. The U.S. warned that a response would take time.

Asked whether three days without UN action means North Korea can do anything with impunity, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said, "It's not a long time in relations between nations or in the affairs of the Security Council."

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