Kim Jong-un cries during commemorative speech

2020-10-11 : 17:44
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un becomes emotional and takes off his glasses to wipe away his tears during a speech at an event to mark the 75th anniversary of the founding of the Workers' Party of Korea, Saturday. Yonhap

Emotional speech shows depth of North Korean leader's agony amid national crisis

By Do Je-hae

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un's speech last Saturday was quite different from previous occasions, according to experts, Sunday.

Previously, Kim's speeches at large military parades have centered around cliched messages on flaunting its military might. But this time, he dedicated a huge part of the speech to messages specifically designed to sympathize with North Koreans. Experts say the unusual speech was aimed at engineering public support as the North Korean leader struggles to lead the country out of an unprecedented national crisis from the “three hardships” as mentioned in the speech ― international sanctions, the COVID-19 pandemic and natural disasters.

He spent almost one third of the speech, given to mark the 75th anniversary of the ruling Workers' Party of Korea, expressing his gratitude and saying that he was sorry for not being able to significantly improve citizens' lives despite their absolute support.

“Our people have placed trust, as high as the sky and as deep as the sea, in me, but I have failed to always live up to it satisfactorily. I am really sorry for that,” Kim said. “Although I am entrusted with the important responsibility to lead this country upholding the cause of the great Comrades Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il thanks to the trust of all the people, my efforts and sincerity have not been sufficient enough to rid our people of the difficulties in their lives.”

The international media has noted Kim's emotional behavior particularly when speaking about the hardships of the people. He was seen taking off his glasses momentarily to wipe away his tears in the middle of the speech. Analysts say the rare public display of tears is a sign of the level of pressure he is facing.

“It is important to look at why he has come to shed tears at such an occasion,” Hong Min, director of the North Korea division at the Korean Institute for National Unification, told The Korea Times. “Underneath his message, one can sense that Kim is feeling a lot of pressure on his leadership. During the speech, he used terms like 'grave challenges,' 'countless ordeals' and 'disasters unprecedented in history.' This shows that he is having a really hard time governing, and he feels pressured from worries that his people might be upset or swayed by this kind of difficulty. That is why he put a lot of emphasis on the people in this speech.”

Hong added, “At the end of the speech, he calls on the people to extend their full support and trust in him. From this we can see at that he feels bad about the struggles of the people, but he also feels a lot of burden and stress from the situation and is highly concerned about the stability of his regime.”

Intent on maintaining stability during a national crisis, Kim closed his speech with an order for the party, government and the military to hold themselves more accountable for responding to the grave challenges ahead. “I will ensure that all Party organizations, the government and power and military organs make more and more strict demands on themselves, direct strenuous efforts and work with sincerity for our people and for bringing a better tomorrow to them.”

Another view is that the emotion from Kim was aimed at showing the international community that he is a compassionate, global leader. He offered consolation to the entire world suffering from COVID-19, including South Korea. “Availing myself of this opportunity, I offer my heartfelt consolation to all those around the world who are still combating the disease caused by the malignant virus, and do hope from the bottom of my heart that health, happiness and laughter of all people would be guaranteed,” Kim said.

“Kim was showing himself as an emotional human being rather than a wooden figure just reading statements in a mechanical manner,” Donald Kirk, a columnist and author on Korea Peninsula issues, told The Korea Times. ”Thus he sought to get through to his own people as well as a foreign audience before whom he wanted to display humanity, depth of feeling.”

New type of ICBM

Kim shed tears when speaking about the agonies faced by the North Korean people, but had a huge smile on his face when a new type of ICBM speculated to be capable of reaching the U.S. mainland was unveiled during the parade. This was a show his confidence in his military and a firm resolve that his country will continue to develop strategic weapons unless the U.S. shows changes in its attitude toward his regime, according to experts.

In a screen shot from Pyongyang's state TV, North Korea unveils a new type of ICBM at a military parade to mark the 75th anniversary of its ruling Workers' Party of Korea, Saturday. It is believed to be a new liquid-fueled ICBM that seems to be a derivative of the Hwasong-15 that was tested in late 2017. Experts say it is much bigger and more powerful than anything in Pyongyang's arsenal. This could potentially allow North Korea to carry a larger and even deadlier nuclear weapon to a target, such as a U.S. city or military base. Yonhap

"Despite North Korea being hammered this year by three typhoons, constant food insecurity issues, international sanctions and now threats from COVID-19, the Kim regime has shown the world once again its long-range missile program will continue to advance with each passing day,” said Harry Kazianis, senior director at the National Interest. He noted that Pyongyang displayed what could be a new liquid-fueled ICBM that seems to be a derivative of what was tested back in late 2017, known as the Hwasong-15. ”It is much bigger and clearly more powerful than anything in the DPRK's arsenal.”

Another thing to note from Kim's speech was North Korea's mixed attitude toward COVID-19. It was noticeable that no one was wearing masks at the event, despite its all-out quarantine efforts reportedly taken in all corners of the country for protection against the pandemic. It has been widely reported that North Korean military personnel shot and burned a trespassing South Korean official at the western maritime border last month due to its quarantine rules.

NK and COVID-19

“While North Korea's growing missile capabilities are surely concerning, I would argue the bigger worry is the clear lack of any coronavirus safety measures such as masks or social distancing where thousands of people congregated. This parade could end up being the ultimate super spreader event if just a few people were to be infected,” Kazianis said.

“Kim Jong-un clearly has put his people and ultimately himself at great risk as North Korea has very few tools to combat such a deadly virus as its healthcare system is one of the worst in the world. Ultimately, this foolish display could test the regime's stability if the virus were to spread far and wide ― an unforced error of perhaps historic magnitude. There is no missile worth showing off worth such a risk."

Kim confirmed several times in his speech that there are zero COVID-19 patients in his country.

A scene from North Korea's ruling party's 75th anniversary event in Pyongyang, Saturday. Yonhap

Seoul's response

During the speech, Kim mentioned South Korea only once, but the expressions used toward the South raised speculations that the North Korean leader is looking to resume inter-Korean cooperation under better timing.

"I also send this warm wish of mine to our dear fellow countrymen in the South, and hope that this health crisis would come to an end as early as possible and the day would come when the North and South take each other's hand again," Kim said.

Despite a series of hostile actions from the North in recent month, Seoul is taking note of the warm expression toward the people of the South and hope for resuming inter-Korean cooperation in Kim's anniversary speech.

“On the occasion of the 75th anniversary of the North Korea's ruling party's founding, Pyongyang expressed its hope for restoring inter-Korean relations as soon as the environment is created. We are making a note of this," The Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in a statement, Sunday. "We look forward to North Korea's response to President Moon Jae-in's proposal for the end-of-war declaration and a health cooperation framework in Northeast Asia from his keynote speech at the 75th United Nations general assembly in September."

"We urge North Korea to take part in the talks for making actual progress for the complete denuclearization and permanent peace regime on the Korean Peninsula as underlined in the Panmunjeom Declaration [from the April 2018 Moon-Kim summit]; Pyongyang Declaration [from the September 2018 Moon-Kim summit in Pyongyang]; as well as the Singapore joint statement [from the first summit between U.S. President Donald Trump and Kim in June 2018]."

Inter-Korean relations have plummeted since Pyongyang's demolition of an inter-Korean liaison office in Gaeseong in June and the shooting death of a Korean maritime official by North Korean military personnel on Sept. 22.