North Korea’s new leader delivered his first major public speech on Sunday as the impoverished state celebrated the centenary of its founder’s birth, calling for a push to “final victory” despite a failed rocket launch two days ago.
A jowly Kim Jong-un, clad in black and the third of his line to rule North Korea, read monotonously from a script in Pyongyang’s central square after goose-stepping soldiers and sailors showcased the North’s military power in a parade in spring sunlight.
Smiling and joking with top generals on a podium after the speech, Kim watched as the country’s missiles paraded past, a reminder that despite Friday’s embarrassing failure, North Korea still packs a big military punch.
In a move that indicated Kim would stick to the “military-first” policies that have put North Korea on the verge of nuclear weapons capacity, he lauded respectively his grandfather, Kim Il-sung, and his father, Kim Jong-il, as the “founder and the builder of our revolutionary armed forces”.
North Korea is believed to be readying a third nuclear test, based on intelligence satellite images and a past pattern of rocket launches followed by tests.
“Let us move forward to final victory,” the 20-something leader urged tens of thousands of military and civilians as they applauded his more than 20-minute speech, the first time a North Korean leader has delivered a major public set-piece comment.
The thousands of soldiers, goose-stepping like marionettes, spelled out Kim Jong-un’s name and “strong and prosperous”. The crowd also waved fake pink flowers, celebrating the two dead Kims who ruled the nation in an event that was hosted by one of the country’s top generals, Ri Yong-ho.
‘Building a strong and prosperous socialist country
“In order to enhance the dignity of Songun (military-first) Chosun (Korea) and to accomplish the task of building a strong and prosperous socialist country, we have to make every effort to reinforce the people’s armed forces,” Kim said.
Given Kim Jong-il’s years of silence, North Korea specialists said the speech was likely another attempt to remind people of happier days under Kim Il-sung, a revered and avuncular figure the current ruler closely resembles.
“It shows a new governing style for the Kim Jong-un era,” said Koh Yu-hwan, a professor at Dongguk University’s department of North Korea studies.
“Admitting to the failure of the rocket launch and making public speech follows is not just the pattern of a new ruler but the way of his grandfather Kim Il-sung.”
North Korea departed from its usual practise of not telling its population about embarrassing failures when state television on Friday broadcast news that its rocket had failed to put a satellite into orbit.
Part of a plan
Critics say that the long-range rocket launch was part of a bid to develop a ballistic missile capable of delivering a nuclear warhead to hit the United States.
The state that Kim inherited in December after the death of his father boasts a 1.2-million-strong military but its population of 23-million, many malnourished, supports a puny economy worth just $40-billion annually in purchasing power parity terms, according to the US Central Intelligence Agency.
The size of the economy means development is not the answer, tying Kim into the policies of his late father who oversaw the development of the state’s nuclear and missile ambitions.
The United States vowed it would seek to prevent North Korea fulfilling those ambitions, although in reality there is not much more that can be done to one of the most sanctioned nations on earth that is backed diplomatically by China.
“We will continue to keep the pressure on them and they’ll continue to isolate themselves until they take a different path,” President Barack Obama said in an interview with Telemundo, a US television network.
The small scale of the economy is matched by North Korea’s limited diplomatic clout. It has few friends other than China, whose strategic interest is in keeping a buffer between it and South Korea which has US military bases.
Periodic rocket launches
Even China sounded increasingly exasperated in the run-up to Friday’s rocket launch as Pyongyang ignored its pleas for restraint, despite aid pumped in by Beijing, and its diplomatic protection at bodies like the United Nations.
Without real weight in the international arena, Pyongyang is forced to rely on periodic rocket launches, nuclear tests and attacks on South Korea, such as the one in 2010 when it shelled an island, to remind the world of its existence, analysts say.
That is likely to mean it will stick to the same script. In 2009, North Korea followed a failed attempt to put a satellite into orbit with a nuclear test.
Intelligence satellite images showing a tunnel being dug at the site of two previous tests imply that it either wishes to remind the world of the possibility, so as to prompt a return to aid for disarmament talks, or is actually preparing for one.
“Internationally, now they have to do a nuclear test, preferably using uranium, just in order to show that they should be taken seriously,” said Andre Lankov, a North Korea expert at South Korea’s Kookmin University.
While North Korea confessed on Friday that its rocket had failed to deliver a satellite into orbit, it also continued to churn out reams of propaganda aimed at bolstering the legitimacy of Kim Jong-un and his claim to power based on his bloodline.
“Kim Jong-un is unlikely to be losing power over the launch, as the elite and the military need his legitimising and mythical presence in order to pacify the North Korean population,” said Virginie Grzelczyk, a North Korea expert at Nottingham Trent University in Britain. — Reuters