North Korean heir apparent Kim Jong Un stood at his father’s right side yesterday as they reviewed troops, tanks and missiles in a Pyongyang military parade and attended an evening gala where 50,000 dancers paid tribute to the regime’s economic achievements.
The ground shook as tens of thousands of soldiers goose-stepped through the capital’s Kim Il Sung Square in a parade marking the 65th anniversary of the foundation of the ruling Korean Workers’ Party. The parade was broadcast live on television and relayed around the world after overseas media organizations were given unprecedented access to film the event.
The march and the nighttime mass dance and fireworks display were meant to demonstrate the regime’s stability and strength as Kim Jong Il’s son -- the third generation of the totalitarian state’s founding family -- rises to leadership positions, said Donald Gregg, former ambassador to South Korea and Chairman Emeritus of the Korea Society in New York.
“It’s very strong symbolism as they launch the third man in the family,” said Gregg in a telephone interview. “This kind of show of force is the one thing they can do -- they don’t have much else to demonstrate,” said Gregg, who was U.S. ambassador to the Republic of Korea from 1989 to 1993.
The transition may not be far off. After the last troops had paraded past the rostrum adorned with a portrait of Kim Jong Il’s late father, Kim Il Sung, the 68-year-old leader walked the length of the reviewing stand, visibly limping and holding the railing for support. The crowds, waving flowers named after the two elder Kims, sang “we will follow comrade Kim Jong Il forever.”
The double-chinned Kim Jong Un didn’t join his father on his adulatory walk. The younger Kim, who was promoted to four-star general at the end of September, wore a black suit with a mandarin collar, in the style worn by his grandfather, who founded the nation after World War II.
In the evening, dancers sang “there is no fatherland without Kim Jong Il” and jumped in unison, arms in the air, as prerecorded cheering turned all eyes to the reviewing stand where the elder Kim made his second appearance of the day.
The cheering capped a 70-minute-long program, which featured interpretive performances depicting the life of Kim Il Sung and the country’s history.
Hundreds of dancers in ostrich costumes pranced in the center of the square, highlighting the country’s production of ostrich meat. Men in hard hats depicted the construction of dams. Women in vinyl orange miniskirts danced with men in green tracksuits, celebrating achievements in computer automation. As the ceremony drew to a close, dozens of male and female soldiers on horseback, carrying the red-and-gold flag of the Korean Workers’ Party, galloped in formation around the square.
Earlier in the day on the same plaza, more than 60 battle tanks, driving three abreast, belched diesel fumes at the more than 100 journalists from around the world invited to the event. Vehicles, including 1950s-era Chinese-made “Liberation” trucks, carried rockets and missiles.
The younger Kim’s latest public appearance comes two weeks after he was made general as well as vice chairman of the Central Military Commission of the party, his first official posts. Kim Jong Il’s own rise through the ranks of the party took more than two decades after he was named heir.
Cult of Personality
The regime has maintained its grip on power, in part by generating a cult of personality around the Kim family, as well as through a system of patronage that rewards loyalty -- and punishes transgressions with execution or imprisonment in gulags, according to human rights groups and the United Nations.
That cult was on full display last night and during an Aug. 9 mass performance in the city’s May Day stadium. After each event, female performers wept at the sight of Kim, wiping tears from their eyes.
The younger Kim, thought to be 27 or 28 years old, was first mentioned in the official dispatches of the state-run Korea Central News Agency on Sept. 28, when his appointments were announced. Since then, he has appeared on five occasions, accompanying his father on official engagements.
The two Kims visited the mausoleum of Kim Il Sung at midnight on the eve of the anniversary. Flanking them were Vice Marshal Ri Yong Ho, the other vice chairman of the military commission and the chief of staff, and Kim Yong Chun, the armed forces minister.
Under the North’s “military first” ideology, the nation has built an armed force of 1.2 million soldiers, with about 7.7 million in reserves, according to South Korea’s Unification Ministry. In addition to about 6,000 tanks and armored vehicles, North Korea has more than 10,000 pieces of artillery, some within range of the South Korean capital of Seoul, and Japan.
“You cannot discount the fact that they can lob hundreds of volleys of artillery into Seoul and cause significant destruction and death,” said Paul Haenle, director of the Carnegie-Tsinghua Center for Global Policy in Beijing and a former White House representative in multilateral talks on the North’s nuclear weapons. “It always factors in to the calculus when considering military options with respect to North Korea.”
The U.S. has bases and about 28,500 personnel in the south, a legacy of the 1950-53 war when North Korean and Chinese forces fought American-led UN troops. At the evening event, large television screens depicted the destruction wrought by the war. The U.S. doesn’t have diplomatic relations with North Korea and American visitors to the country are given paper visas so that evidence of their North Korea travel won’t appear in their passports.
“The U.S. government has a hostile policy toward us,” said Kang Samhyon, 44, director of the Pyongyang-based Korean American Private Exchange Society who was escorting journalists during the events.
Yesterday’s military parade came two days after a Washington-based research group reported that North Korea is moving ahead with a program to enrich uranium. The Institute for Science and International Security said that there wasn’t evidence to suggest that the country has a plant with sufficient centrifuges to produce weapons-grade uranium on a “significant scale.”
North Korea’s pursuit of nuclear weapons has led to the country’s increasing isolation as U.S.-led sanctions have cut trade and deterred investment. That isolation increased this year with the sinking in March of a South Korean warship, which an international panel said was caused by a North Korean torpedo.
Ties With China
That has made ties with China, North Korea’s main political ally and its biggest source of trade, more important than ever. The regime on Aug. 9 used one of its most visible propaganda tools -- mass performances in a Pyongyang stadium -- to demonstrate the closeness of those ties.
As the two Kims looked on, as many as 50,000 North Korean dancers, acrobats, soldiers and children took part in the annual Arirang festival, donning panda costumes and clashing cymbals. Placards proclaimed “North Korea-China friendship” in Chinese characters.
Kim Jong Il has made an unprecedented two trips to China this year, both times meeting with President Hu Jintao. China’s influence in the country is evident in Pyongyang, where most cars are of Chinese make, including sedans made by BYD Co., a company 10 percent owned by billionaire Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway Inc.
While Kim Jong Un stood to his father’s right hand side during the parade, to Kim Jong Il’s immediate left stood Zhou Yongkang, a member of China’s ruling Politburo Standing Committee and the country’s top law-enforcement official.