North Korea celebrated the 100th anniversary today of the birth of state founder Kim Il Sung, two days after the regime was embarrassed by the disintegration of a long-range rocket that was meant to demonstrate its power.
State television broadcast a military parade in Pyongyang on the so-called “Day of the Sun” to honor Kim and laud the new leadership of his grandson, Kim Jong Un. The younger Kim, thought to be less than 30 years old and who took over after his father died on Dec. 17, told the crowd gathered in Kim Il Sung Square that the nation was at a “critical” juncture in history.
“In order to realize our goal of building a socialist, strong and prosperous nation, we must first, second and third strengthen the people’s army on all fronts,” he said in his first public address to the nation, flanked by military and Workers’ Party leaders. “We have never lost a battle and now have a military that can handle any modern war.”
The launch debacle on April 13 prompted a rare public admission of failure to the outside world and raised questions over whether Kim can secure his grip on the military and government as he confronts international condemnation and an economy that struggles to feed its own people. Today’s parade, featuring goose-stepping soldiers in dress uniform, tanks and mobile rocket launchers, was an opportunity for Kim to showcase his might to the North Korean people.
The parade also featured what appeared to be a new, larger ballistic missile, said Baek Seung Joo, who studies Pyongyang’s military at the Korea Institute for Defense Analyses in Seoul. South Korea’s Defense Ministry was unable to comment on the design or whether it was a real missile.
Kim, the third son of Kim Jong Il, resembles his grandfather and wears the same dark Mao suits favored by the state founder. He was made a four-star general in September 2010 in the first official notice he was being groomed to succeed his father.
Kim inherited a country of 24 million people suffering from chronic malnutrition and dependent on China for assistance. North Korea has twice detonated atomic devices and refuses to abandon its nuclear program.
“An era where enemies threatened us has forever passed and our military’s dignity is proof of that,” he said today from a podium high above Kim Il Sung Square.
The rocket that was fired on April 13 was launched in defiance of warnings it would scupper an American food aid deal. The crash touched off a scavenger hunt by the U.S. and South Korea for pieces of the debris.
“Kim Jong Un’s political fate depends on how much he can control the military,” said Park Young Ho, senior fellow at the Korea Institute for National Unification in Seoul. “Were this long-range rocket launch successful, he would have cleared doubts about his ability to lead and gain legitimacy.”
South Korea warned that chances are “very high” the regime will soon conduct a nuclear test to save face and rally domestic support. The U.S. called off food assistance to North Korea that was to be provided under a February deal, and the United Nations Security Council “deplored” the launch, according to U.S. Ambassador Susan Rice.
The missile reached an altitude of 151 kilometers (93 miles) before disintegrating into 20 pieces and falling into the ocean 100 to 150 kilometers off the western coast, South Korean Major General Shin Won Sik said in Seoul. North Korea’s state-run Korean Central News Agency said scientists “are now looking into the cause of the failure.”
The rare public admission contrasted with previous tests, and came after the regime invited foreign journalists to watch the launch. When North Korea in April 2009 fired a Taepodong-2 missile that crashed into the Pacific Ocean, it claimed to have successfully orbited a satellite.
Last week’s launch violated North Korea’s February agreement to suspend missile and nuclear tests in exchange for 240,000 tons of U.S. food aid. Japan and South Korea joined the Obama administration in condemning the launch.
The U.S. won’t send the food aid and will take further steps if the totalitarian state engages in additional “provocative behavior,” Ben Rhodes, a deputy national security adviser at the White House, told reporters traveling on April 13 with President Barack Obama.
A South Korean intelligence report a week ago warned that North Korea may soon detonate its third nuclear device. Recent activity at the Punggye-ri nuclear testing site is consistent with preparations for previous detonations in 2006 and 2009, according to the report.
North Korea will allocate 15.8 percent of the total state budgetary expenditure for national defense this year, KCNA said, citing Finance Minister Choe Kwang Jin.
At the UN, Security Council members have agreed that the North Korean launch violated previous sanctions imposed by the world organization, according to Rice, who spoke as president this month of the 15-member body.
“The Security Council agreed to continue consultations on an appropriate response in accordance to its responsibilities given the urgency of the matter,” she said.
As part of the centennial celebrations, the country’s sole political party named Kim Jong Un its head on April 11, and the Supreme People’s Assembly on April 13 named him head of the National Defense Commission, positions previously held by his father.
North Korea’s “military first” ideology holds that the top priority is strengthening the 1.2 million-strong armed forces. The country technically remains at war with South Korea since their 1950-53 conflict ended without a peace treaty and public statements regularly accuse the South, the U.S. and Japan of having belligerent intent.