It’s the season for birthday bashes in North Korea. North Koreans showered superlatives of praise for the late “Dear Leader” Kim Jong-il on what would have been his 70th birthday on February 16 had he survived the heart attack that killed him two months earlier. On a beautiful day mingling mourning for Kim Jong-il’s death and celebration of the anniversary of his birth, crowds swarmed Pyongyang’s Kim Il-sung Square, named for his father, the “Great Leader” who ruled for nearly half a century before dying in 1994.
Kim Jong-il’s third son and heir, Kim Jongun, picked by his father as the third-generation leader of the dynasty, proclaimed as ”supreme leader” of the army, the state and the Workers’ Party, was the star of the holiday. Not since the funeral for Kim Jong-il on a snowy day in late December and then an appearance the next day before tens of thousands in Kim Il-Sung Square had the son been visible for so long in public. This time, blessed with sunny skies, Kim Jong-un managed a benevolent smile and salute for the soldiers on parade before leading hundreds of the elite past his father’s portrait in the memorial hall where the late leader’s body lies under glass.
The observances for Kim Jong-il’s 70th year were a dress rehearsal, or preview, of much more elaborate ceremonies, still years away in planning, for the 100th anniversary on April 15 of the birth of Kim Il-sung. The primary aim on that occasion will be to demonstrate North Korea’s rise as a “strong and prosperous nation” in breathtaking displays conceived to dramatize the enduring power of a dynasty that has ruled the North since the founder of the dynasty, “Great Leader” Kim Il-sung, a former Soviet army captain, was installed by Russian forces at the end of World War II. The theme for that occasion will be to demonstrate North Korea’s rise as a “strong and prosperous nation” in breath-taking formats conceived to dramatize the enduring power of the regime.
In the early planning stages, the assumption always was that Kim Jong-il and Kim Jong-un together would appear before cheering crowds in May Day Stadium, where North Korea every year stages mass Arirang games in which 50,000 people flip flash cards in the stands depicting scenes of glory while another 50,000 enact the same scenes on the playing field below. The displays are expected to focus as much on Kim Jong-un’s as yet unproven prowess as on the legacy of his father and grandfather. With Kim Jong-il gone, “North Korea is concentrating on how to legitimize the son’s leadership,” said Kim Tae-woo, a long-time military analyst who is now president of the Korea Institute of National Unification in Seoul. “He’s in the middle of a regency system. Sooner or later, problems will be revealed.”
The question is whether Kim Jong-un, the youngest of his father’s three sons, not yet 30, will say a few words at his grandfather’s birth centennial either while reviewing the massive military parade as it passes before him on Kim Il-sung Square or from a place of honor high above the great show in May Day Stadium. Either venue would be most appropriate for the young man who has thus far uttered no words in public.
Like his father, who in more than 17 years in power is known to have spoken just one brief sentence as recorded by North Korean state broadcasting, Kim Jong-un prefers to leave the talking to 86-year-old Kim Yongnam, titular head of state. At what Pyongyang’s Korean Central News Agency called “a national meeting” on the eve of the anniversary of Kim Jong-il’s birth, Kim Yongnam , as chairman of the presidium of the Supreme People’s Assembly, hailed the late “Dear Leader” for “leading the most brilliant life of a peerlessly great man” who made his country “a nuclear state.”
The allusion to North Korea’s nuclear weapons confirmed the pride engendered by the country’s success in developing nuclear warheads as well as the enduring nature of the program – and the certainty that nothing will change in the initial phase of Kim Jong-un’s leadership. No one believes that North Korea is going to abandon the program in negotiations with the United States or South Korea – or in the six-nation format that also has included China, as host, Japan and Russia. North Korea has conducted two underground nuclear tests, in October 2006 and May 2009, and is assumed to be preparing for a third while developing the mechanisms needed to attach these fearsome weapons of mass destruction to missiles capable of reaching targets as near as Japan – and as far as the U.S. west coast. The nuclear program will go on regardless of the transition from father to son.
But who’s really in charge? More than ever, that question seems critical. Kim Jongun was reported on the eve of the 70th anniversary ceremonies to have promoted 23 generals. Was he aware of the promotion order before the announcement – and who’s calling the shots? Nowadays, it’s assumed that Kim Jong-un is acting at the behest of the generals – and Jang Song-taek, the “uncle,” married to Kim Jong-il’s younger sister, who also holds the rank of general but rose to power as a skillful party hack with a direct line to his brother-in-law. It seems unlikely that the top military people would really want Uncle Jang telling them what to do.
Surrounded by friends, relatives and advisers like these, has Kim Jong-un been told to keep his mouth shut? Or is he just showing the instincts of his father? The 70th anniversary of his father’s birth offered no clues. Instead, the whole occasion seemed to cover every imaginable form of tribute for Kim Jong-il, who suffered a stroke in August 2008 but recovered enough to go on frequent visits to military units, factories and farms in the last three years of his life, often in the company of his chosen son. Bronze statues of both Kim Jong-il and Kim Il-sung on horseback were unveiled, figure skaters and synchronized swimmers performed in his memory, his name was gouged out of the rock on a mountain and commemorative stamps and coins were issued. As if all that weren’t enough, the day before came the announcement of Kim Jong-il’s posthumous promotion to “generalissimo” – a tribute to his “revolutionary courage” though he’s not known to have had military training, much less been exposed to gunfire. The real point of all the hoopla has been to project the image of Kim Jong-un as a credible leader of a country suffering from endemic hunger and disease after years of economic mismanagement and devastating central planning. Kim Jong-un, since his father’s death, has appeared on camera on frequent visits to military units – a campaign to show that he is perpetuating his father’s policy of “songun,” meaning “military first.” Somehow the young man needs to convince everyone he’s capable of leading the country despite his inexperience. Kim Yong-nam indicated the underlying insecurity as he called on “all the party members, servicepersons and people” to “protect Kim Jong-un politically and ideologically with their lives and get united around him.” As if to fend off criticism, Kim Yong-nam upheld “the spirit of single-minded unity to invariably defend the center of the unity and the center of the leadership no matter how much water may flow under the bridge.” Did the reference to water flowing “under the bridge” in the official Korean Central News Agency article suggest dissent boiling beneath the surface –even hostility among jealous family members?
While Kim Jong-un plays the title role bequeathed to him by his father, showing off his image as the genial if rotund “supreme leader” of just about everything, his older half-brother, Kim Jong-nam, past 40 and even fatter, is left totally out of the picture. In fact, he may be suffering hard times in exile in China for having wondered, in an interview with a writer for Tokyo Shimbun, “how a young successor with some two years (of training as heir) can retain the absolute power” of their father.
North Korea and maybe China, according to a Russian weekly, Argumenty i Fakty, may have borrowed a leaf from the United Nations, which imposed sanctions on the North after its long-range missile test in April 2009 and then its second nuclear test in May 2009. In the case of Kim Jongnam, according to the paper, North Korea and China have cut off his funding, and he was kicked out of the luxury hotel in which he was living in the gambling enclave of Macau, on China’s southeastern coast, after racking up an unpaid bill of $15,000.
Kim Jong-un, meanwhile, is carrying off the act of heir to the throne to perfection, at least on camera. But what does he sound like, and what does he have to say? All the words of praise for the dynasty founded by “Great Leader” Kim Il-sung, who died in 1994, as well as pleas for total loyalty, flow from the mouths of the same clique who’ve been running things for years. The difference now is that before Kim Jong-il died of a heart attack in December, this bunch of old men presumably acted on the leader’s orders. The apparent goal is to prop up the kid with the same degree of loyalty and respect, but to what degree does the new leader have to yield to the “suggestions” and “advice” of generals who think they know what’s best? A recurrent theme, among the most oft-quoted lines in the North Korean media, is, “I would be willing to sacrifice my life” for the new “supreme commander.” Nice talk, but how safe is he from those who telling him what to do?
An extraordinary display of the rolypoly Kim Jong-un riding a white horse, while reported by the North Korean media to have recommended a military response to any U.S. attempt to obstruct a missile test, convinced analysts that the young man would enjoy the trappings of power for the foreseeable future. “The messages the NK leadership has tried to project are stability, continuity, and control,” said Scott Snyder, senior fellow for Korea Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. But, he added, “I do not know what is happening under the surface or if these messages reflect reality in Pyongyang” amid efforts “to convince the world of the legitimacy of a third-generation family succession to someone so young.” Doubts about Kim Jong-un’s qualifications may explain the way the North Korean media observed his birthday on January 8th of this year. The Workers’ Party newspaper Rodong Sinmun published an editorial paean to his prowess but did not report on any birthday celebrations. While a two-day holiday was declared, North Korea has been avoiding confirming Kim Jong-un’s exact age, believed to be 28 or 29. Beforehand, there were rumors that his age would be given as 30, putting his birth in line with the 70th and 100th anniversaries of the birth of his father and grandfather. Why not? The answer seems to have been that too many people knew he was not yet 30 – and the topic of his extreme youth would make people all the more aware that he had no qualifications for leading the country. Kim’s oldest brother, Kim Jong-nam, in his comment to Yoji Gomi of Tokyo Shimbun, hinted at the lack of confidence behind the campaign to glorify the new leader. Discarded by their father as a successor more than ten years ago while gaining a reputation as an international playboy, Kim Jong-nam talked about the build-up of his brother while expressing misgivings in an interview with Gomi, author of a new book based on interviews and email exchanges with the eldest son. Kim Jong-nam expected “the existing ruling elite to follow in the footsteps of my father while keeping the young successor as a symbolic figure,” he was quoted as saying in a burst of the kind of frankness that he has displayed in earlier encounters with the Japanese media. It was “difficult,” he went on, “to accept a third-generation succession under normal reasoning.”
That perspective from a close but clearly disillusioned relative jibes with the views of foreign analysts who wonder how long Kim Jong-un can last – or whether he can ever take charge of his own destiny and that of his people. “The efforts to put Kim Jong-un front and center immediately reflects a rushed succession process,” said Victor Cha, who advised on the National Security Council during the presidency of George W. Bush. Cha, now a professor at Georgetown University in Washington, predicted “a potemkin leadership transition” in Pyongyang “will likely run into problems.”
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