Kim Jong-un speaks: North Korea to keep 'military first'

Speaking in public for the first time, North Korea’s new leader Kim Jong-un vowed to keep the military front and center in the already heavily militarized nation. 

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un made his first public address on Sunday to commemorate the 100th anniversary of his grandfather's birth.

North Korea’s new leader Kim Jong-un vowed today in his maiden address before his people to build on the “military first” policy of the Kim family dynasty. He spoke before a massive crowd in Pyongyang for the 100th  anniversary of the birth of his grandfather, North Korea’s “Great Leader” Kim Il-sung.

The celebration on Pyongyang’s Kim Il-sung Square – the biggest such event in North Korea since the 50th  anniversary of the founding of the Korean People’s Army in 1992 – left no doubt of the primacy of North Korea’s armed forces in perpetuating the hard-line policies of the dynasty, in power since the end of World War II. 

North Korea’s “powerful military,” Kim Jong-un assured the throng – and millions more listening on the North’s state TV and radio networks – was “capable of waging modern warfare with offensive and defensive tactics.”

In a clear allusion to North Korea’s nuclear program, he said the era in which foreign powers could intimidate the North “with atomic weapons is forever gone.” That remark appeared to fortify the widespread view that Kim Jong-un, spurred on by the generals who dominate the power structure, is likely to press ahead with a third nuclear test.

Bolstered by his newly acquired title of chairman of the national defense commission, the center of power in North Korea, Kim Jong-un appeared solemnly confident as he stepped forward on a balcony high above the square, grasped the podium behind six or seven microphones and in a heavy monotone paid homage to the legacy of both his father and grandfather. Clad in a dark Mao-style suit, in contrast to the uniformed, bemedalled generals on either side of him, he read from a prepared text as he spoke defiantly of the country’s need to defend itself against foreign aggressors.

The grand occasion, under clear skies in cool spring weather, was intended to solidify the authority of  the new leader, believed to be 29 years old, as much as to honor his grandfather, who ruled for nearly half a century before dying in 1994. Kim Jong-un now has “all the formal levers of power,” says Lee Jong-min, dean of the graduate school of international studies at Yonsei University, “and this is the world’s most militarized state.”

Mr. Lee believes Kim Jong-un, like his father Kim Jong-il, who died in December, feels a special need to demonstrate his military strength since he has no real military experience beyond the few years that North Korean propaganda claims he spent at the country’s military academy. “This young chap has to burnish his military credentials,” says Lee, though “I don’t think anyone in North Korea is going to tell him to his face” that he has little or no military experience.

In contrast, says Lee, Kim Il-sung, after years as a revolutionary fighter in Manchuria and then service as an officer in the Soviet army in World War II, “had the charisma of direct military experience” and could make the Workers' Party the center of power. Like Kim Jong-un, Kim Jong-il had little if any military experience. Partly for that reason, well before his father's death, Kim Jong-il sensed the need to establish himself as leader of the national defense commission as it gained ascendancy over the party. Kim Jong-un, in visits to military bases as well as his remarks today, leaves no doubt he intends to carry on where his father left off. 

“The party is not supposed to control the military as in the Kim Il-sung era,” says Choi Jin-wook, senior fellow at the Korea Institute for National Unification. “After Kim Il-sung died, Kim Jong-il bypassed the party to control the military.”

Buoyed by titles

Kim Jong-un’s confidence, in colorful recognition of his primacy over the generals and relatives who are believed to be orchestrating his rule, was clearly bolstered by the acquisition of formal titles. He has surrounded himself with newly promoted senior officers as he protects his own position behind an appearance of growing military strength. At the core of his top advisers is his uncle-in-law, Jang Song-thaek, married to Kim Jong-il's younger sister. Kim Jong-il named Jang a general as well as vice chairman of the national defense commission long before he died. 

Leaving no doubt that Kim Jong-un rules over the civilian as well as the military apparatus, the Workers’ Party last week named him “first secretary” before his elevation as “first chairman” of the national defense commission. His father was named “eternal general secretary" of the party while his grandfather, Kim Il-sung, remains “eternal president.”

Kim Jong-un did not mention the failure of the long-range missile that broke up and plunged into the Yellow Sea 80 seconds after its launch on Friday, but he may have had that embarrassment in mind when he remarked, “Our beloved soldiers and commanders,” not “modern weapons,” counted the most.

The fact that Kim Jong-un spoke at all was perhaps the most significant aspect of the festive occasion in which thousands of troops in dress uniform stood in close formation on Kim Il-sung Square before thousands more civilians who alternated between listening intently and breaking into cheers during his 22-minute address. Kim Jong-il was heard to speak only once, very briefly, in public during the 17 years in which he ruled North Korea after his father died in 1994.

In a parade immediately after Kim Jong-un’s address, the sight of heavy-duty weaponry caught the most attention. The most fearsome was a missile said to be about 15-feet longer than the one that failed so abysmally on Friday. The missile, painted olive drab and black, rested ponderously on a slow-moving 16-wheel vehicle.

Although it was unclear if the missile was genuine or a dummy, South Korea’s 24-hour cable network, YTN, described it as “an advanced version” of the long-range missiles that North Korea fired successfully in 1998 and 2009 and unsuccessfully in 2006 and again three days ago.

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