Saturday, November 20, 2010
North Korea's succession
When North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong Il, and his son and newly anointed heir, Kim Jong Un, stepped onto a balcony to watch a display of dancing and fireworks on October 10th, the audience in the square below applauded politely. But as loudspeakers blared recorded cries of “long life, long life”, many did not join in. The Kim dynasty has fixed its succession but its propaganda grip is weakening.
The authorities, normally reluctant to let foreign journalists explore the grimness of what they call “beautiful and modern” Pyongyang, were so excited by Kim Jong Un’s coming out as leader-in-waiting that they let down their guard. More than 70 journalists were suddenly given visas to attend a series of events on October 9th and 10th that afforded the outside world a first glimpse of the man now to be known as the “young general”. They also had rare access to an austere city many of whose citizens suffered hunger earlier this year after a shock currency revaluation in November. The leadership’s attempts to convince them that theirs is a “people’s paradise” are likely to fall on many deaf ears.
Kim Jong Un’s appearances, after more than a year of speculation abroad about his being groomed to take over from his ailing father, were choreographed for maximum political effect. North Koreans saw his face for the first time in a photograph published by the state media on September 30th. This followed his elevation earlier in the week to the rank of general and vice-chairman of the ruling party’s military commission (though not yet to the National Defence Commission, which wields supreme power). Mr Kim, who is in his late 20s, has little, if any, military experience.
A few outings in early October with his father—to an artillery drill, a concert and on an inspection tour of a theatre—were enough to prepare Mr Kim for much bigger audiences and for the world’s media. Foreign journalists saw him for the first time on October 9th at a mass gymnastic performance in a Pyongyang stadium. The next day, he and his father took centre stage at a huge military parade through the city that was broadcast live to the nation. The symbolism was striking: father standing next to son, separated by a couple of paces, on a balcony. Below them a huge gold-framed portrait of a grinning Kim Il Sung, Kim Jong Il’s late father and founder of the dynasty, completed the trinity. The portly, podgy-faced Kim Jong Un, wearing a dark Mao suit, looked the spitting image of his grandfather at a similar age.
After the troops, tanks and missiles had thundered past, the audience waved and cheered with seeming enthusiasm when Kim Jong Il waved at them from the balcony. But at the fireworks and dancing display that evening at the same venue—Kim Il Sung Square—the response was less rousing. A few of the thousands of performers wept (as had a couple of female paratroopers as they passed the balcony during the earlier parade). But little fervour was otherwise in evidence.
The grooming of Kim the younger is only just beginning. His voice has yet to be heard in public (Kim Jong Il’s only got an airing 12 years after he emerged as his father’s successor). But he is likely to get an accelerated initiation. The appearances in Pyongyang seemed partly designed to show that Kim Jong Il, who is 69, remains very much in charge. But the North Korean media did not show what Western hacks clearly saw: the leader holding onto the balcony for support as he walked, left leg clearly limping. After a stroke in 2008, he is believed not to be well.
Another message the authorities apparently hoped to send was that Kim Jong Un will have others to guide him. Military expertise will be provided by Ri Yong Ho, North Korea’s chief of staff, who for much of the parade stood between the two Kims. Kim Jong Il’s brother-in-law, Chang Sung Taek, and sister Kim Kyong Hui will also be crucial figures. The state media said they had joined Kim Jong Un on his recent excursions. The conspicuous presence of a senior member of China’s ruling Politburo, Zhou Yongkang, at the October 10th events was designed to show Chinese support for these arrangements. Kim Jong Il encouraged him to wave from the balcony.
The public will be harder to convince. The parade and dancing were extravagances (staged to coincide with the ruling Korean Workers’ Party’s 65th birthday) that contrasted sharply with daily life in the city. There are a few more cars on the streets these days, many of them Chinese-made. But these are for the elite (perhaps as gifts bestowed by influence-seeking Chinese). There are also a few bicycles (for men only: Kim Jong Il apparently disapproves of women on bikes). But most take rickety public transport or walk.
There is no sign of the “radical improvement” in North Korean living standards that officials once talked of achieving this year. Neon lights blazed in a few places during the journalists’ visit, but foreign residents say that the city is normally dark at night. Power is so intermittent that policewomen (invariably young and pretty) still direct traffic at intersections with traffic lights, which are a very recent innovation in Pyongyang.
An unsupervised visit to a department store (a rare treat for normally chaperoned foreign journalists) revealed Pyongyang’s dearth of consumer culture. In half an hour, your correspondent saw only a trickle of customers and just four items being sold: a pencil, a wind-up plastic frog, a quilt and a golden statuette of a soldier. On the fourth floor a member of staff adjusted a red curtain at a marble shrine to Kim Il Sung. Others watched television, amid swathes of unused floor space.
At a nearby shop, several people milled around a counter selling DVDs—a hint that DVD players are becoming household items. Foreign residents say DVDs from South Korea are helping to spread knowledge of the South’s far greater affluence. Several people also sported mobile telephones. Pyongyang is said to have gained some 200,000 subscribers since the mobile service was introduced a couple of years ago. Most are permitted only to call other North Koreans, not people abroad or even foreign residents.
The city seems to have largely recovered from last November’s revaluation of the won, which permitted only limited amounts of old bills to be exchanged for new ones. From January until mid-February, when the authorities relented and re-allowed transactions in hard currency, commerce almost ground to a halt. It became nearly impossible to buy food except at great expense on the black market. Inflation soared. “When in Rome, do as the Romanians do,” one official assigned to mind foreign journalists kept telling them, oddly. The Kims, mindful of the grisly end of Romania’s Nicolae Ceausescu in 1989, will try to ensure that disgruntled North Koreans do no such thing. ◦