North Korea marks Kim Jong-il's birthday: Why's his son so quiet?

North Korea commemorated Kim Jong-il with parade, dancing, and pledges of loyalty to his son. But as usual, Kim Jong-un remained silent. 

Kyodo News/REUTERS
North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un (R) exchanges smiles with chief of general staff of the Korean People's Army Ri Yong-ho during a military parade to mark the birth anniversary of the North's late leader Kim Jong-Il in Pyongyang, in this photo taken by Kyodo, February 16.

North Koreans showered superlatives of praise for the late “Dear Leader” Kim Jong-il on what would have been his 70th birthday Thursday.

Crowds swarmed Pyongyang’s Kim Il-sung Square, named for Mr. Kim’s father, who ruled for nearly half a century before dying in 1994. Kim Jong-il’s son and heir Kim Jong-un, picked by his father as the third-generation leader of the dynasty, now “supreme leader” of the Army, the state, and the Workers’ Party, led hundreds past his father’s portrait in the memorial hall in Pyongyang where his body lies under glass.

The anniversary observances seemed to cover just about every imaginable form of tribute. Soldiers and military vehicles were on parade, bronze statues of both Kim Jong-il and Kim Il-sung on horseback were unveiled, figure skaters and synchronized swimmers performed in his memory, his name was gouged out of the rock on a mountain and commemorative stamps and coins were issued.

The real point of all the hoopla, however, seemed to be to project the image of Kim Jong-un as a credible leader of a country suffering from endemic hunger and disease after years of economic mismanagement and devastating central planning. But as usual, Kim Jong-un uttered no words in public – a silence in the tradition of his father, who in his years in power was heard to speak only a sentence or two on public occasions.

Instead, as when Kim Jong-un appeared the day after his father's funeral, he left the talking to Kim Yong-nam, the octogenarian titular head of state.

Since his father’s death, Kim Jong-un has appeared on camera frequently of late visiting mainly military units – a campaign to show that he is perpetuating his father’s military first policy. The aim is to prove the young man is capable of leading the country despite his inexperience.

At what the Korean Central News Agency called “a national meeting,” Kim Yong-nam, chairman of the presidium of the Supreme People’s Assembly, hailed Kim Jong-il for “leading the most brilliant life of a peerlessly great man” and making his country “a nuclear state.” As if all of that wasn't enough, Kim Jong-il was posthumously promoted to "Generalissimo." 

The observances for Kim Jong-il’s birthday were a preview of much more elaborate ceremonies, long in planning, for the 100  year anniversary in April of the birth of Kim Il-sung. The idea on that occasion is to demonstrate North Korea’s rise as a “strong and prosperous nation” in displays dramatizing the enduring power of a dynasty that has ruled the North since “Great Leader” Kim Il-sung, a former Soviet Army captain, was installed by Russian forces at the end of World War II.

“North Korea is concentrating on how to legitimize the son’s leadership,” says Kim Tae-woo, a long-time military analyst who is now president of the Korea Institute of National Unification. “He’s in the middle of a regency system,” says Mr. Kim, led by his uncle, Jang Song-thaek who is married to Kim Jong-il’s younger sister.

“Sooner or later,” Kim Tae-woo predicts, “problems will be revealed.”

Kim Yong-nam indicated the underlying insecurity as he called on “all the party members, servicepersons and people” to “protect Kim Jong-un politically and ideologically with their lives and get united around him.”

As if to fend off criticism, KimYong-nam upheld “the spirit of single-minded unity to invariably defend the center of the unity and the center of the leadership no matter how much water may flow under the bridge.”

The reference to water flowing “under the bridge” in the official Korean Central News Agency article suggested dissent beneath the surface.

“In Pyongyang they celebrate the anniversary,” says Kim Bum-soo, editor and publisher of a political journal in Seoul, “but they can’t keep going like this.”

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