Pyongyang’s Korean Central News Agency reported several days ago that the “morning star” Venus “shed an unusually bright light” above the lake that fills the crater of sacred Mount Paektu on North Korea’s border with China.
Considering that North Korean mythology holds that Kim Jong-un’s father, Dear Leader Kim Jong-il, was born in a log cabin on a slope of Paektu, at 9,000 feet the highest peak on the Korean peninsula, observers take the report of Venus shimmering high above as a serious portent.
North Korea’s party newspaper Rodong Sinmun evoked the image of Paektu again on Friday, calling on readers to “toast to the endlessly bright future of Chosun (the traditional name for Korea) that will resemble the shape of the sun and the holy land of Paektu.”
The editorial, like the report on “the morning star Venus,” did not mention Kim Jong-un by name, but analysts are confident of the connection. “They believe Venus symbolized Kim Jong-un,” says Ryoo Kihl-jae, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul, carefully measuring his words. “Many people who have visited North Korea say so.”
Whether or not Kim Jong-un is openly declared as heir to his father’s power, reports of birthday observances around the country leave little doubt of his rising stature.
Defense commission could be springboard
Daily NK, one of several organizations in Seoul that write about North Korea, reported Friday on a “central conference” in Pyongyang and elsewhere featuring “commemorative events” for officials and “lectures for residents.” Such a conference is normally a grand affair, similar to those staged annually for Kim Jong-il’s birthday, which falls next month, or the birthdays of Kim Jong-il's father, Great Leader Kim Il-sung, who died in 1994, and mother, Kim Jong-suk, who died in 1949.
The commemorations parallel meetings going on around the country to rev up support for a revaluation of North Korea’s currency that has stripped a small but rising mercantile middle class of much of the money hoarded from often illicit black-market dealings. The currency reform is widely viewed as having failed since while the newly valued money goes down markedly in value, hunger persists, and markets flounder.
For all the signs of Kim Jong-un’s growing stature, however, his exact age remains uncertain. That’s presumed to be because North Korea’s aging leadership may well see him as far too young and inexperienced while his father hastily grooms him for power by giving him increasing responsibilities and escorting him on visits to military units and factories.
The North Korean media has reported that Kim Jong-un was born in 1982, one year earlier than the year previously believed. His mother, Ko Young-hee, born in Japan, once a dancer in one of the troupes that performs for North Korea’s ruling elite as well as foreign visitors, reportedly died in 2004, likely from breast cancer.
Kim Jong-un is believed to be serving on the national defense commission while also serving an apprenticeship in the department of organization and guidance, a nebulous agency with tentacles throughout the armed forces, the government, and the Workers’ Party, the three pillars of the North Korean power ruling structure.
A position for Kim Jong-un on the defense commission could well serve as a springboard to succeed his father, the commission chairman, who took over the post well before the death in 1994 of his own father, Great Leader Kim Il-sung.
The Daily NK report adds credibility to a report by the rival NK Open Radio, which reported Thursday that about 7,000 people attended the “central conference” in Pyongyang and that North Koreans on Friday and Saturday are observing a two-day holiday. Ha Tae Keung, president of NK Open Radio, says his station, which broadcasts two hours of news and analysis daily by short wave into North Korea from Seoul, attributes the report to three different sources who inform the station from illegal cell phone contacts near the North’s border with China.
“Of course the observances symbolize to their people the North Korean regime power shift,” says Mr. Ha. “They officialize the power inheritance.”
New emphasis on youth
Yet another sign of the shift that’s under way is the emphasis placed in a New Year’s editorial published in all North Korean newspapers on the rising power of youth.
The editorial described “the youth” as “a shock brigade in the great revolutionary upsurge” – and called on young people to “become heroes, who add luster to the era of the great upsurge with undying labor feats and talented persons.”
Those lines, toward the end of a lengthy message that placed primary emphasis on rebuilding the economy, seems to be a reference to Kim Jong-un’s ascent. He is believed to have been on a fast track to power for at least a year while uncertainty prevails regarding the health of his father, said to be suffering from diabetes and a possible stroke.
Kim Jong-un “becomes more powerful as time goes on,” says Ryoo Kihl-jae. ”Some people argue that he now has a position on the national defense commission,” the center of power in North Korea.
Kim Jong-un seems to have gotten the nod ahead of two older brothers. It is assumed that he basically is a front person for a coterie of elderly leaders, including his uncle, Jang Sung-taek, brother of his late mother.
Mr. Jang’s place in that leadership, however, “will be valid only as long as Kim Jong-il lives,” says Mr. Ryoo. “It is not certain after Kim Jong-il dies.”