North Korea's Kim Jong Il and likely heir appear at massive military parade

Kim Jong Il's heir apparent joined his father Sunday at a massive military parade in his most public appearance since being unveiled as North Korea's next leader. Kim Jong Un sat next to his father on an observatory platform.
By Chico Harlan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, October 10, 2010; 10:41 PM

TOKYO - North Korean leader-in-waiting Kim Jong Eun appeared Sunday with his father at a mass-scale military parade, orchestrated to showcase Pyongyang's might as it builds support for another hereditary power transfer.

With select foreign news media broadcasting live, North Korea staged one of the biggest celebrations in its history. Leader Kim Jong Il and his youngest son watched from a viewing box as tens of thousands of troops - as well as tanks, missiles and rocket-propelled grenades - moved in perfect geometry through an open public square, named after North Korean founder Kim Il Sung. Kim Jong Eun, wearing a dark Maoist suit, greeted the procession with applause, salutes and the occasional smile.

North Korea took unprecedented steps to turn its Oct. 10 Workers' Party anniversary - among its biggest holidays - into a coming-out party for its young general, who only two weeks ago remained shrouded in mystery. Nearly 80 foreign journalists were granted access to the secretive nation. Although they followed a mandated schedule, always accompanied by official guides, they were allowed to broadcast live footage of Sunday's events.

North Korea typically limits dissent by sealing off outside information, but journalists staying at the Koryo Hotel also discovered two surprises: a press room and Internet access.

North Korea's brief bow to the wired world allowed a glimpse into a nation rarely seen by outsiders. One journalist used his Twitter account to provide his personal snapshot of Kim Jong Il - taken with his Canon 60D. Another journalist, al-Jazeera China correspondent Melissa Chan, said via Twitter that "the North Korean IT guys at the press room really know their stuff - we're logged on!"

According to news media accounts from Pyongyang, Kim Jong Il drew resounding cheers from the crowd. The weakened leader, 68, who suffered a stroke in 2008, appeared to walk with a slight limp. "Kim Jong Il! Protect him to the death!" the crowd chanted, according to the Associated Press.

The parade showcased a series of missiles, bannered with messages about defeating the U.S. military. Speaking at the event, military vice marshal Ri Yong Ho said, according to the AP, "If the U.S. imperialists and their followers infringe on our sovereignty and dignity even slightly, we will blow up the stronghold of their aggression with a merciless and righteous retaliatory strike by mobilizing all physical means, including self-defensive nuclear deterrent force, and achieve the historic task of unification."

North Korea's pep rally coincides with a large-scale sales job, necessary as the Kim family tries to build support for the young Kim Jong Eun in the powerful military and across the nation. Defectors who speak frequently to those in North Korea describe a citizenry that harbors quiet dissatisfaction over Kim Jong Eun, thought to be either 26 or 27. They think he lacks credentials, despite his four-star general rank and the high-level party titles he received two weeks ago. They believe he's unlikely to change North Korean policies, despite food shortages and an economy dependent on Chinese aid.

Sunday's parade, according to experts, reveals Kim Jong Il's strategy for legitimizing his heir among the 1.2 million-member military. State television carried the parade live, beaming it across the country. According to the Daily NK, a Seoul-based publication that specializes in North Korea, the Workers' Party also plans to give people rare celebratory food rations, including cooking oil and liquor.

Pyongyang's tightly choreographed celebration began Friday with a fireworks display in the capital. On Saturday, Kim Jong Il and Kim Jong Eun appeared together at May Day Stadium, where an estimated 100,000 performers - singing, dancing, twirling through the air - joined for a humans-as-mass-art spectacle. When a spotlight shined on the Kims, the stadium roared.

North Korea provided the first strong signal of an impending father-to-son power transfer at its Sept. 28 political conference, and evidence since then has only grown. On Friday, one high-level North Korean party official indicated the formality of Kim Jong Eun's rise.

"Our people are honored to serve the great president Kim Il Sung and the great leader Kim Jong Il," Yang Hyong Sop said in an interview with the AP. "Now we have the honor of serving young general Kim Jong Un." Yang added that his country is "blessed with great leaders from generation to generation."

Leaders in Washington and Seoul are watching Pyongyang's succession process with increased interest after a report from the Institute for Science and International Security indicated that nuclear-armed North Korea is relaunching its uranium enrichment program. One South Korean official said last week that North Korea's nuclear program is at an "alarming" level. The developments contradict North Korea's message in recent weeks, when it indicated a willingness to return to six-party talks, the diplomatic process designed to encourage denuclearization.

U.S. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates met Friday with his South Korean counterpart, Kim Tae Young, to discuss defense strategies against any possible North Korean aggression. After the Security Consultative Meeting, Kim described a possibility for "instability" in North Korea if Kim Jong Il's health deteriorates or public opposition toward the younger Kim emerges.

"I believe it is the responsibility of both the ROK [South Korea] and U.S. government to prepare for such possibilities," Kim told reporters according to a transcript from the Defense Department. "The ROK and U.S. will prepare against all possible contingencies in North Korea."

© 2010 The Washington Post Company