Like His Grandfather, Kim Jong Un Plays to North Korea's Generals

  • Share
  • Read Later
KCNA / Reuters

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un waves to the crowd during a military parade celebrating the centenary of Kim Il Sung's birth in Pyongyang on April 15, 2012

On April 15, the 100th anniversary of the his grandfather's birth, beefy 29-year-old Kim Jong Un stepped up to the microphone, and for the first time, the citizenry of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK), as well as a world of curious onlookers, could actually hear what the young man sounded like. The spitting image of his forefather's propaganda portraits, Lil' Kim — as he has been called by the foreign press — spoke clearly and with confidence for 20 minutes with the military's general staff at his side and thousands of troops at attention in front of him in central Pyongyang's Kim Il Sung Square, named after the founding dynast and Great Leader.

It took some spine to rise to what was, in the North Korean context, a significant, even august occasion — more so for a young man who has been the top leader of North Korea for just a few months, following the death of his father Kim Jong Il in December. Sunday was an occasion the nation's leadership had been focused on for a long, long time; the centenary of Kim Il Sung's birth was to be the day that North Korea could proudly say it was a "strong and prosperous nation" — a phrase repeated endlessly (and mindlessly) in North Korean propaganda as far back as I can remember. The nation's university students have not been attending classes this year; they have been instead at construction sites, building statues and other monuments of glorification to the Great Leader and the founding of his Democratic People's Republic of Korea. And so the young man who has thus far projected the image of someone with a common touch (he seems to laugh and joke easily both with ordinary soldiers close to him in age and with generals old enough to be his grandfather) managed to pull off his grandest public appearance yet without much of a hitch.

Yet because he is so young, and because he spent time as a teenager going to high school in Switzerland, one of the richest countries in the West, it's impossible to watch Kim Jong Un on an occasion like yesterday's and not wonder whether the young man might have a sense of reality — or irony, even — that's missing among his elders, the men who are the power behind his throne. Just two days before the speech and spectacle, North Korea had allowed 50 foreign correspondents to go and witness the launch of what Pyongyang called a satellite, but what the rest of the world considered a long-range missile. The exercise, presumably, was to demonstrate that the North is indeed a "strong" nation. As it happened, the missile went up from the launch site near the Chinese border, flew for less than two minutes, then plopped pathetically into the Yellow Sea — an abject failure. With the world watching, even the newscaster in Pyongyang conceded as much.

As for the notion that North Korea is becoming a "prosperous" nation, consider that in response to the launch — which violated U.N. resolutions designed to deter Pyongyang from pursuing its ballistic-missile program — the Obama Administration canceled a food-aid program with Pyongyang, which it had agreed to in late February, shortly after Kim Jong Il's death. (Pyongyang had agreed in return to a "moratorium" on both its nuclear program and its ballistic-missile effort.) North Korea, according to military analysts, spent at minimum tens of millions of dollars on the failed missile launch, yet requires food aid in order to be able to feed its population.

On the day of the glorious anniversary, in other words, it couldn't be more obvious that North Korea is neither strong nor prosperous. Surely, at some level, young Kim Jong Un must understand this.

Yet during his speech on Sunday, young Kim Jong Un said he was committed to carrying out the policies of his father, known as "military-first politics." Dating back to the mid-1990s, the policy, simply put, means (as Kim Jong Il put it) "placing top priority of military affairs." For a dictatorship confronted with a famine that was then killing millions, putting the military first made eminent sense for the ruling family. As Cheong Seong-chang, a senior fellow at the Sejong Institute in Seoul, wrote, the Kim dynasty was then "faced with problems in guaranteeing its political security based on its citizens' 'voluntary' support, and its dependence on coercive force increased as ... the domestic economic situation turned more unfavorable." (Translation: take care of the guys with the guns, lest they take care of you.)

The vast majority of North Korea watchers at the time of Kim Jong Il's death believed that Kim Jong Un would carry on with his father's policy, because practically speaking, he has little choice. For all the mythology about the inherent authority of the Kim dynasty in North Korea, the generals are Kim Jong Un's key backers. He's not likely to do anything to anger them — not for a long, long time, anyway. To the contrary, as the speech yesterday indicates, he's likely to want to appease them.

And they are no doubt very angry right now, in the wake of the humiliating failure of the missile launch. They are likely to want to show the world that North Korea's military is actually not a joke. How best to do that? As Ralph Cossa, head of the Pacific Forum at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, says: "The failure makes it even more likely that the North will now attempt a nuclear test in the not-too-distant future."

That, unfortunately, is probably right. Kim Jong Il wasn't much for public speeches, broadcast nationally (according to some analysts, he did it just once), and maybe Kim Jong Un has more of a populist touch, evocative of his grandfather. But when it comes to how the North Korean regime behaves, the bad news is that the new Kim seems like a chip off the old block.