North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-un rose to the rank of marshal of his country Wednesday in the latest act of symbolism, evidently intended to show that he’s in charge seven months after the death of his father, Kim Jong-il.
North Korea’s state radio and TV networks disclosed the move around noon Korea time, after having told listeners and viewers to await “an important announcement.” The portentous nature of the advance notice gave the impression that a drastic overhaul in the power structure was under way. After all, the last time North Korea said an "important announcement" was coming at noon was Dec. 19, when a wailing woman in black delivered the news that Kim Jong-il had died two days earlier.
Instead, however, the news on Wednesday only served to reiterate that Kim Jong-un, to outward appearances, reigns supreme as successor to his father.
The urge to embellish Kim Jong-un’s image with a super-rank suggests to some experienced observers a sense of insecurity about the man, widely believed to be in his late 20s. “This is a reflection of instability,” says Kim Tae-woo, long-time military analyst here. “The most important interpretation is North Korea wants to establish the new leader.”
Kim Jong-un’s military credentials are especially vulnerable since his father only named him a general in Sept. 2010.
His newest title represents, perhaps, a climactic move in a shake-up in which Ri Yong-ho, the chief of staff of the Korean People’s Army, which includes all of North Korea’s armed forces, was ousted. After Mr. Ri, a vice marshal, was “relieved,” another military leader, Hyon Yong-chol, was named a vice marshal – though it was not clear if he had replaced Mr. Ri as chief of staff.
Kim Jong-un’s rank of marshal puts him more than one significant rung above all eight or nine vice marshals. He is marshal of his entire country, not simply the armed forces. But he still has one more rank to which to aspire – that of “great marshal,” the title held by his grandfather, Kim Il-sung, and his father. Meaningless though the difference between "marshal" and "great marshal" may appear, the inference is that he is rapidly falling into place as heir to the dynasty – and may soon reign on their same level.
On the day that Kim Jong-il named Jong-un a general, he also named his younger sister, Kim Kyong-hui, a general. Her husband, Jang Song-thaek, another general with no military experience, is vice chairman of the national defense commission. Kim Jong-il served as chairman of the commission and remains “eternal chairman” while Kim Jong-un holds the title of “first chairman.”
The inner workings of the ruling elite remain a deep mystery, but the sense is that Mr. Jang, his wife, and others with no military background are anxious to hold the real military generals, those with years in charge of the country’s 1.2-million man military establishment, in check.
“What they have in mind is how to firmly establish their power,” says Kim Tae-woo.”The North Korean government is afraid of resistance from military cadres. They are uncomfortable about things to come.”
The North Korean media reported Kim Jong-un’s “award of the marshalship” in the most superlative terms. “All people throughout the country have taken the news as the nation's great auspicious event,” said the Korean Central News Agency, (KCNA) while the state radio broadcast songs “reflecting their will to fully display the might of single-minded unity.”
Kim Jong-un’s acquisition of the title showed “the foremost strength of Songun,” the military-first policy advanced by his father, according to KCNA.
One general, Hyon Ki-chong, was quoted as saying “it was our ardent wish to confer the title of Marshal” on him “at an earlier date.” Military people, according to KCNA, “have respected him as a brilliant commander of varied attainments who is strong in faith, will, and grit, prominent in strategy and command and versed in civil and military affairs.”
In fact, Kim Jong-un has no military background other than a degree from the Kim Il-sung Military Academy – though there’s no evidence he ever studied there.