Special to WorldTribune.com
SEOUL — The youngest son keeps his mouth shut, and the oldest one talks too much. Clearly, the silent one knows what’s best for him as he plays the title role bequeathed to him by his late father, North Korea’s “Dear Leader” Kim Jong-Il.
Kim Jong-Un is showing off his image as the genial if rotund “supreme leader” of just about everything that counts in North Korea — that is, according to the Pyongyang media, “the state, the armed forces and the Workers’ Party”.
His older half-brother, Kim Jong-Nam, past 40 and even heavier, is not only left totally out of the picture but may be suffering hard times for having wondered, in an interview with a writer for Tokyo Shimbun, “how a young successor with some two years [of training as heir] can retain the absolute power” of their father.
North Korea and maybe China, if we can believe a report in a Russian weekly, Argumenty i Fakty, may have borrowed a leaf from the United Nations, which imposed sanctions on the North after its long-range missile test in April 2009 and then its second nuclear test in May 2009.
In the case of Kim Jong-Nam, according to the paper, as quoted by South Korea’s Yonhap news agency, North Korea and China have cut off his funding, and he’s been kicked out of the luxury hotel in which he was living in the gambling enclave of Macau, on China’s southeastern coast.
Kim Jong-Un, meanwhile, carried off the act of heir to the throne to perfection on Thursday. On what would have been his father’s 70th birthday, he was on display most visibly since the funeral on a snowy day in late December and then an appearance the next day before tens of thousands of mainly military people gathered in Kim Il-Sung Square in central Pyongyang.
In a ceremony that once again dramatized his accession to power, Kim Jong-Un, not yet 30, smiled and managed a salute before the soldiers on parade before him and the generals who really rule the roost. And, in a traditional gesture of filial piety, he led several hundred mourners in bowing before a huge new portrait of his father inside the memorial hall where his body lies encased in glass.
But what’s the kid sound like, what’s he got to say? So far, no one’s heard a single utterance from him in public. All the words of praise for the dynasty founded by “Great Leader” Kim Il-sung, who died in 1994, the pleas for total loyalty to Kim Jong-Un, flow from the mouths of the same clique who’ve been running things for years.
The difference is, before Kim Jong-Il died of a heart attack in December, this bunch of old men presumably acted on the leader’s orders. Nowadays, it’s assumed that Kim Jong-Un is acting at the behest of the generals — and Jang Song-Thaek, the “uncle”, married to Kim Jong-Il’s younger sister, who also holds the rank of general but rose to power as a skillful party hack with a direct line to his brother-in-law.
Surrounded by friends, relatives and advisers like these, has Kim Jong-Un been told to keep his mouth shut? Or is he just showing the instincts of his father, who is known to have spoken just a single sentence in public after he took over from Kim Il-Sung more than 17 years ago?
Maybe a little of both. “He’s too important to speak,” said Kim Bum-Soo, editor and publisher of a political journal, Mirei Hankook, that is, Future Korea. “His silence means he doesn’t have to say anything to people.”
More than ever, the question of who’s in charge seems critical. Before Thursday’s ceremonies, Kim Jong-Un was reported to have promoted 23 generals. Was he aware of the order before the announcement — and who’s really calling the shots? It seems unlikely that the top military people would want Uncle Jang telling them what to do.
The anniversary observances seemed to cover just about every imaginable form of tribute. 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.
And, as if all that weren’t enough, the day before came the announcement of Kim Jong-Il’s posthumous promotion to “generalissimo” — a tribute to his “revolutionary courage”, though he’s not known to have had any military training, much less been exposed to gunfire.
The goal is to prop up the kid with the same degree of loyalty and respect, 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.
Kim Jong-Un since his father’s death has appeared on camera visiting numerous military units — a campaign to show that he is perpetuating his father’s policy of songun, meaning “military first”. The aim is to prove the young man is capable of leading the country despite his inexperience. A recurrent theme, the most often quoted line of the day in the North Korean media was, “I would be willing to sacrifice my life” for the new “supreme commander.”
In the coming months, expect the show to get much more elaborate, the rhetoric if possible more flowery. The observances for Kim Jong-Il’s birthday in a sense were a dress rehearsal or preview of many more ceremonies on, before and after the 100th anniversary in April of the birth of Kim Il-Sung.
The theme for that occasion will be to demonstrate North Korea’s rise as a “strong and prosperous nation” in breath-taking displays conceived to dramatize the enduring power of a dynasty that has ruled the North since the founder of the dynasty, “Great Leader” Kim Il-Sung, a former Soviet army captain, was installed by Russian forces at the end of World War II.
In the planning stages, the idea was that Kim Jong-Il and Kim Jong-Un together would appear before cheering crowds in May Day Stadium, where North Korea every year stages mass games with 100,000 participants armed with flash cards in the stands and on the ground depicting scenes of glory.
Without Kim Jong-Il, “North Korea is concentrating on how to legitimize the son’s leadership,” said 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. Sooner or later, problems will be revealed.”
The rasping voice most often heard is that of the 86-year-old titular head of state, Kim Yong-Nam. At what was called “a general meeting”, Kim Yong-Nam, as 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” who made his country a nuclear state.
Kim Yong-Nam indicated the underlying insecurity, however, as he called on “all the party members, service persons and people” to “protect Kim Jong-Un politically and ideologically with their lives and get united around him.”
As if to fend off criticism, Kim Yong-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. Could it be that Kim Yong-Nam had Kim Jong-Nam in mind as big brother makes do without the funding that enabled him to live high in Macau — out of sight and out of contention for power?