North Korea greets its next leader

October 10, 2010

Louisa Lim

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North Korea introduced its heir apparent, Kim Jong Un, to its people in a massive military parade Sunday. The reclusive country marked the 65th anniversary of the ruling Workers' Party with a celebration that was televised live -- for the first time ever -- underlining the importance of the coming-out party.

The day was all about North Korea putting on a show for the world. The world's press had been invited along to see the goose-stepping soldiers cradling their rifles, the military bands, the tanks and missiles trundling past. Most of all, everyone was waiting to see the debut on the world stage of the man known as the "Young General," Kim Jong Il's third son, Kim Jong Un.

Thousands upon thousands of people took part in the parade through Pyongyang's main square.  Until two weeks ago, they had no idea what Kim Jong Un even looked like.  But now, the 20-something has become a four-star general -- and has been installed as official successor. A guide for the foreign journalists, Kim Chong Gil, described how North Koreans think of the man who will be their next leader.

"He is very young," he says. "Wise leadership, and he loves the people and all our country. We, all Koreans, like him."

After a long wait at Kim Il Sung Plaza, parade spectators suddenly stood and faced the rostrum in hopes of seeing Kim Jong Il. The big question was whether his son and heir would appear with him -- and whether he might say his first words in public.

Kim Jong Un did indeed appear, surrounded by military, wearing a black suit and clapping his hands. The crowd roared, clapped and cheered. Kim Jong Il, too, appeared at his son's side.

The father and son stood a short distance apart; Kim Jong Il looked frail, and after an hour and a half had to hold onto the railings for support.  The 68-year-old is believed to have suffered a stroke two years ago.

The moment of pure political theater was highly symbolic. James Miles, of The Economist, first visited Pyongyang 14 years ago; he says Kim Jong Un's first public appearance was designed for domestic consumption.

"The choreography of this clearly suggested this was all about presenting him to the public," Miles says. "Having him stand next to his father, right over the portrait of the great founder of North Korea, president Kim Il Sung -- the father of Kim Jong Il, the grandfather of Kim Jong Un. This was all about showing the family to the people of North Korea."

Interestingly, a senior Chinese official, Zhou Yongkang, sat next to Kim Jong Il for the entire ceremony, signaling Beijing's continuing support for its traditional ally. On this occasion, neither of the Kims spoke in public. But this is only the start of the succession process.

Very little is known about Kim Jong Un, who studied at a Swiss boarding school.  But as the state propaganda machine gears up, the younger Kim will have to work to build up his legitimacy.

"Kim Jong Il has gone out with his son to inspect new housing in Pyongyang. That's the only thing we've seen of him taking part in something that looks like a leadership role," Miles says. "Even though he's No. 2 in military hierarchy, all that he's done in a military sense is stand up there on the podium and look at tanks and missiles rumble past."

As the enormous rally drew to an end, thousands of civilians waving red and pink flowers lined up in Kim Il Sung Plaza, singing a patriotic song.  Some of the men wept openly as they stared at their leaders. For them, this was a political show -- a test of their loyalty to the regime. And for North Korea, it's a display of internal strength and unity, of the people rallying behind their leaders, present and future. Copyright 2010 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/. Copyright 2010 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.