SEOUL — Newly in charge of a country where leaders are idolized but rarely heard from, Kim Jong Eun on Sunday stepped onto a balcony in Pyongyang overlooking tens of thousands. He moved toward a podium affixed with seven identical microphones. And then he spoke.
The young North Korean leader, in his first public address, told a packed crowd of soldiers and citizens that he would follow the legacy of his father and grandfather and prioritize the country’s military strength.
In the speech, broadcast on state television, Kim recited the points emphasized in Pyongyang’s propaganda, saying he would not be intimidated by foreign aggressors. But the speech marked a stark reversal from the style of late leader Kim Jong Il, whose voice was heard publicly only once by North Koreans — and for a matter of seconds — when he shouted “Glory to the heroic Korean People’s Army!” at a military parade in 1992.
Kim’s Sunday speech lasted about 20 minutes. He spoke assuredly but fixed his eyes on his notes. He wore a dark Mao suit, and when he finished he remained on the observation deck overlooking Kim Il Sung Square, clapping and saluting while he watched a massive military parade.
“Superiority in military technology is no longer monopolized by imperialists,” Kim said.
First with a rocket launch, which failed, and then with a series of political conferences, North Korea has tried to use the past week — its biggest national holiday in decades, celebrating the centennial of Kim Il Sung’s birth — to honor its national founder and confirm its emergence into prosperity. The reality is different: Pyongyang depends on foreign aid and domestic oppression, its system held together by government surveillance and the threat of labor camps, where as many as 150,000 are imprisoned, according to Western estimates.
The country’s living standards have fallen since the 1970s, but Kim’s speech Sunday, experts said, showed that the country is trying to tie the new leader to his grandfather, who presided over the decades for which some North Koreans feel nostalgic. Kim Il Sung delivered occasional public speeches, also in a low and commanding voice.
“By putting the young guy out front, with a similar style of speaking, this is a very orchestrated comparison” between Kim Jong Eun and Kim Il Sung, said Kongdan Oh Hassig, a North Korea researcher at the Alexandria-based Institute for Defense Analyses. “We don’t have exact records, but we know Kim Il Sung used his charisma with a very deep voice. Kim Jong Il was the unusual one — the most introverted.”
The impoverished North spent an estimated $1 billion on preparations for the weekend, said Cho Bong-hyun, a Seoul-based analyst at the IBK Economic Research Institute. Even so, Cho said, the celebration amounted to a vast “optical illusion.”
The country renovated apartment buildings in the showcase capital of Pyongyang, but it pulled students from university classes to help with the construction. It built a new hydroelectric power plant, but it has not yet offset severe power shortages that allow for only two hours daily of electricity, according to reports from aid groups that operate in the North. The country also attempted to blast a long-range rocket into orbit Friday, but the device disintegrated 90 seconds into the flight and fell into the Yellow Sea.
With its military parade Sunday morning, the North showed off a procession of artillery, tanks and missile launchers. One particular missile, reportedly unseen during previous parades, caught the attention of intelligence analysts in Seoul who said it could be an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of reaching Alaska, an unnamed South Korean military official told Seoul’s Yonhap news agency. But the missile, others said, might be a mere mock-up or showpiece.
The North has spent at least six or seven years telling its citizens that 2012 — and Kim Il Sung’s April 15 birthday, in particular — would coincide with the country’s rise to First World status. “Strength and prosperity,” was the shorthand. This year’s Rodong Sinmun newspaper New Year’s editorial, a signpost for national policy, described a year of “historical-stage targets” that would open “the gates of a thriving country.”
“North Korea basically said that this year a socialist paradise is supposed to arrive,” said Andrei Lankov, a North Korea expert at Seoul’s Kookmin University. “Now of course, setting such a target is a good idea. But it was a mistake to point to a day that was so close, because clearly a paradise has not arrived. And clearly it will not arrive tomorrow.”
The incongruity of the North’s narrative underscores one of Kim Jong Eun’s chief challenges as he tries to consolidate power and build support. As a result, Kim’s state-tailored image — even the way he dresses and cuts his hair — so far mirrors that of his ruthless but engaging grandfather, not his more private father.
“Kim Jong Il was behind mysterious curtains, refrained from making public speeches and gave orders through the party,” said Cheong Seong-chang, a North Korea researcher at the Seoul-based Sejong Institute. “As a result, the public feared him and were in awe. But Kim Jong Il was never loved by the public” like Kim Il Sung.
Kim Il Sung’s birthday is known in North Korea as the Day of the Sun, and much of North Korea’s state-sanctioned history, moments big and small, corresponds with April 15. In preparation for that day in 1972, officials made it mandatory for all citizens to wear badges with Kim Il Sung’s face. On that day in 1974, the North began to broadcast in color television. For Kim Il Sung’s 70th birthday, in 1982, workers erected the Juche Tower, a pillarlike monument with 25,550 granite blocks — one for every day Kim had lived to that point.
For this particular birthday, North Korean authorities issued new commemorative coins and distributed school uniforms, Pyongyang’s state media said. Citizens gathered in “all provinces, cities, counties and industrial complexes” to hail his accomplishments. The Workers’ Party publishing house released a new book titled “The Great Man,” Volume 5 of “Comrade Kim Il Sung, Peerlessly Great Man.”
“Kim Il Sung’s birthday is the biggest national holiday,” said Kim Yoon-tae, a North Korean defector and a general secretary at Seoul’s Network for North Korean Democracy and Human Rights. “But it’s been a while since people believed what the government says about a strong and prosperous nation. The improvement of people’s lives has been talked about for such a long time, but nothing has happened.”
Special correspondent Yoonjung Seo contributed to this report.