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North Korean leader relies on grandfather's legacy

Publication Date : 17-04-2012


An aura of strong leadership was hardly sensed when North Korea’s young head of state Kim Jong-un delivered his first public speech on Sunday to mark the centennial of the birth of the communist state’s founder Kim Il-sung.

In stark contrast to the autocratic image of his late father Kim Jong-il, the fledgling leader, thought to be in his late 20s, looked down and fidgeted while reading the script in an unenthusiastic, monotonous voice.

Although the speech went smoothly given his lack of experience, the outside audience cast doubts over whether he would be able to maintain the delicate mix of coercion and forced public consent - the key elements his family’s dynastic rule is based on.

“He looked somewhat daunted by the fact that it was his first time to deliver the speech to a gathering of tens of thousands of people. He appeared to imitate Kim Il-sung, but was lacking confidence and energy, though he might have practiced a lot,” said Ahn Chan-il, director of the World North Korea Research Centre.

Observers said that his relatively weak appearance indicates that Jong-un, who gained top posts in the ruling Workers’ Party and the National Defense Commission last week, still needs more time to establish firm leadership.

Unlike his father, who was groomed for about two decades to officially take power in 1998, Jong-un rose to power only after a few years of preparation.

“Kim Jong-un looked like a man wearing someone else’s clothes, appearing uneasy with his (leadership) role yet. He has yet to be fully trained for the national public speech and thus looked nervous,” said Kim Heung-kwang, head of the North Korean Intellectual Solidarity.

“As he looked shy when he received cheers at a parliamentary session rather than showing an image of his wielding a formidable power, he doesn’t look as if he has already held a strong leadership control.”

Palpable during Sunday’s speech was what analysts called an “imitation” of Kim Il-sung, whom the grassroots still have considerable nostalgia for. His gestures and appearance were apparently designed to conjure up the image of the beloved leader.

“North Koreans still harbour nostalgia for the Kim Il-sung era when economic conditions were quite good. They have been told and educated to idolise and honour him as an eternal leader,” said Ahn.

“By imitating his grandfather, Jong-un can ride on the revived loyalty and respect for the national founder. Then people might believe that they can start anew with the new leader from scratch though all social, economic conditions are bad.”

By trying to project an image as a leader communicating and caring more about his people, Jong-un appears to strengthen public support for the regime, which has apparently been eroded due to his father’s lack of efforts to reach out to his people.

“Kim Jong-il was negligent of politics based on communication. To his people, he was the subject of fear and awe as he did not reach out to the people,” said Cheong Seong-chang, a senior research fellow at the Sejong Institute.

“Unlike his father, Kim Jong-un appears to take more care in communicating with the public through his on-site guidance and direct contacts with his people.”

The content of the speech, however, indicated that he would uphold his father’s military-first policy, which analysts said has made it easy to mobilize the military manpower in state projects and others at a time of economic travails.

In apparent efforts to make power elites coalesce around him, Jong-un has conducted a leadership reshuffle in the ruling party and the 1.2-million-strong military.

What drew much attention is the rise of Choe Ryong-hae, a long-time aide to the Kim dynasty. Last week, he made it to the five-member standing committee of the ruling party’s Politburo and also was given the post of a vice-chairman of the Central Military Commission at the party.

Experts said that Kim Kyong-hui, Jong-un’s aunt, and her husband Jang Song-thaek still hold considerable power without bringing themselves to the fore, possibly to avoid blame for possible policy flip-flops.

“The most important heavyweights do not appear at the vanguard. His aunt and uncle are behind the scenes and appear to have strong influence in the decision-making process in the North,” said Ahn.

With Jong-un focused on enhancing the military in line with his father’s military-centered policy, experts said that the communist state may continue to resort to aggressive foreign policy and could conduct a third nuclear test in the near future.


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