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Pyongyang after rites

Publication Date : 17-04-2012


After days of costly rituals to mark the centenary of their eternal leader Kim Il-sung, North Koreans are returning to their usual routine with the decade-old goal of becoming a “mighty, prosperous state” still beckoning them like a mirage. Awaiting them in reality are tonnes of debris from an all-night fireworks display in Pyongyang and continuing shortages of food and necessities.

The more gruesome fireworks show of launching a long-range rocket on Friday, April 13, failed when it exploded minutes after liftoff, but the celebrations went on undisturbed. The generals in charge of the rocket development took part proudly in a pompous military parade which showed off a model of an ICBM and a newly-activated missile command.

Kim Jong-un, the grandson of Kim Il-sung, gained two more titles prior to his grandfather’s birthday. The fourth Workers’ Party convention on April 11 named him “first secretary” after honouring his deceased father Kim Jong-il as “eternal general secretary”. Two days later, the 12th term fifth session of the Supreme People’s Assembly appointed Kim Jong-un as “first chairman” of the National Defence Commission to distinguish him from his father, who is eternal chairman.

The new leader who had already grabbed two other titles -- chairman of the party central military commission and supreme commander of the People’s Army -- now holds all conceivable leadership positions of the party and state except for “president” which was eternally dedicated to Kim Il-sung, founder of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. In return for being bestowed quadruple titles, Kim Jong-un decorated 132 officials with state orders and promoted 70 People’s Army officers to general grade.

In the main event of military parade at the Kim Il-sung Square, Kim Jong-un made a 20-minute speech, which was telecast live. Older North Koreans must have been surprised by the striking resemblance of the young leader’s voice and gestures to those of his grandfather, who liked to make public addresses -- a trait not inherited by Kim Jong-il. Outside experts detected traces of deliberate efforts to emulate Kim Il-sung’s way of speaking.

Four months after the death of his father, the elaborate process of Kim Jong-un’s accession to the throne of the DPRK dynasty has been completed. How much real power Kim Jong-un will be able to exercise over the party, government and the military is subject to speculation, but he will be from now on held accountable for whatever happens in the country of 23 million people.

For several decades, North Korea has made a miracle by surviving nearly complete international isolation and extreme economic adversities while many attributed it to an effective internal control with gulags everywhere. A personality cult was adroitly created for the dictator by mixing myths with true exploits while a siege complex has been constantly fomented among the populace since the war.

Whoever stage-managed the accession process seem quite anxious about the art of symbolism, a common factor in modern dictatorships. Kim Jong-il’s designation of his third son Jong-un as his successor was due largely to his resemblance to Kim Il-sung in physical features and character. Now the young leader acts like his grandfather, dresses like him, and speaks with a very similar soft hoarse voice. Yet, real content is more important than symbols.

We are not inclined to give too much meaning to Kim Jong-un’s first address to his subjects, which was more a centennial eulogy than a practical policy speech. Still, it contained his tacit admission of failure to make the country great and calls for efforts to combine the “industrial revolution of the new century” with invincible military power to realise a powerful socialist state.

Chasing the two goals with the ideological drive of Juche (independence) thought proved unfeasible under the two previous leaders. And there is absolutely no way of estimating the leadership ability of the new leader. At this moment, we can only say that Kim Jong-un’s life as ruler will depend more on practical efforts to improve the lives of his people than any symbolism produced by himself and his helpers.


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