A trio of banners exulting, from left, late North Korean founder Kim Il-sung, current leader Kim Jong-il and his youngest son and heir Kim Jong-un hangs from a wall in North Korea in this photo taken by a recent visitor. Analysts say Jong-un’s inclusion in the triptych shows the regime speeding his succession process. / Yonhap
By Kim Young-jin
At first the trio of red banners now popping up in North Korea, idolizing its leaders, may seem standard fare for the Stalinist regime known to prop up its ruling family with an elaborate personality cult.
Indeed, the first two signs — reading “Suryeongbok” and “Janggunbok,” respectively — offer North Koreans typical congratulations for having the “good fortune” to be led by late country founder Kim Il-sung and his son, incumbent leader Kim Jong-il.
It is the emergence of the third congratulatory phrase — “Daejangbok” — that is causing a stir among watchers of the North.
The phrase, they say, is among the regime’s first attempts to publically exult Kim Jong-un, Kim Jong-il’s youngest son and hand-picked successor. Commemorative plaques, too, are being installed at sites he visits.
They are the latest signals that the regime is speeding up an unprecedented back-to-back hereditary power transfer. Experts say the junior Kim, thought to be no older than 29, is well on his way to power one year after he emerged on the world stage.
“He’s 70 percent there,” said Cheong Seong-chang, a leading expert with the Sejong Institute located just outside of Seoul. “He already has political power over ranking officers, the army and public organizations.”
The previously unknown Jong-un emerged a year ago today at a rare congress of the ruling Workers’ Party, when he was made a four-star general and vice chairman of the party’s Central Military Commission, setting the succession in motion.
Since then, the South Korean government says he has gotten a firmer grip on power, involving himself in the country’s economic and internal power structure.
Kim accompanied his father in 100 out of 152 inspection tours over the past year, Seoul’s Ministry of Unification said, with an even share of visits to military and industrial facilities.
He is believed to be purging the regime of older officials within military and public security agencies, replacing them with younger-generation figures close to him. He has also been tied to the regime’s recent emphasis on light-industry.
Dr. Cheong said Jong-un issued a directive against potential air strikes against bases holding long-range missiles, commanding a counterattack in any such case.
Analysts also say the heir, who studied artillery at Kim Il-sung University, has been credited internally with last November’s deadly shelling of Yeonpyeong Island, which killed four and sent tensions soaring to its worst point in decades. They said such a move could help build confidence in the succession within the “military-first” regime.
Many predict he could grab such posts as a member of the party’s politburo, secretary of the party’s secretariat and a member of the powerful National Defense Commission in the coming year.
The activities come amid the regime’s push to become “strong and prosperous” by 2012, when it will observe the 100th anniversary of the birth of Kim Il-sung.
They also come amid persisting questions about the health of Kim Jong-il, who suffered a stroke in 2008 and will turn 70 next year.
Many believe that Pyongyang has been calling for aid in a bid to shore up its economy ahead of the crucial year and to build confidence in the regime during the succession process. Some defectors, however, reported cynicism among citizens over the campaign.
Jong-un’s rise has been reflected in the North’s state-controlled media, in which his name is now regularly listed directly below his father’s among officials who accompany the senior on field guidance trips. Only Kim Yong-nam, Pyongyang’s head of parliament is ever listed ahead of Jong-un.
Senior officials are often captured giving deep bows to the heir apparent on state TV.
Andrei Lankov, a North Korea watcher at Kookmin University, said while Jong-un has yet to be widely eulogized publically, a vigorous propaganda campaign has been underway within the regime, hidden from outsiders.
“On balance, this follows the pattern which could be seen in the 1970s when Kim Jong-il himself was promoted. This is done to create an impression of spontaneous outbursts of popular love towards the emerging leader,” he said.
This leaves the outside world knowing virtually nothing more about Jong-un than it did a year ago save for his physical appearance, which was a mystery before the party conference. Among the puzzle pieces, he is thought to have been educated in Switzerland, speak English, French and German and love basketball.
Brian Meyers, a North Korea watcher at Dongseo University in Busan, said the new banner dedicated to the heir hinted that it wouldn’t be long before a full-fledged campaign to create his own personality cult began.
“The next step is a biographical myth telling the North Korean people who this is and why he is great — and not great just because he is Kim Jong-il’s son. I expect they are going to tell more about him in the near future.”
International interest remains high given the elder Kim’s advanced age and projections that his sudden death could trigger a struggle among power elites, destabilizing the impoverished country believed to posses multiple nuclear weapons.
Defector groups with lines in the North say an increasing number of citizens are cynical about the inexperienced young man whose father spent twenty years learning statecraft before taking the reins. In another sign of possible friction, some reports said old-guard generals recently replaced by Jong-un resisted en masse.
Lankov argued that the signs of discontent were outweighed for now by the feeling among power holders that regime stability depended on maintaining the hereditary line.
“Even if Kim Jong-un is not that good in management etc., nobody in the officialdom will express much doubt, since the entire North Korean elite needs, above all, domestic stability, and the dynastic succession seems to be good for domestic stability.”
Experts noted that Jong-un has yet to get heavily involved in foreign affairs, leaving that in the hands of his father as the regime makes a push to secure international aid and apparently seek to leverage its nuclear weapons program.