North Korea’s new leader addressed his nation and the world for the first time yesterday, vowing before cheering troops and bouquet-waving citizens to place top priority on his impoverished nation’s military, which promptly unveiled a new long-range missile.
The speech was a highlight of two weeks of celebrations marking the centenary of the birth of his grandfather, North Korean founder Kim Il-sung — festivities that were marred by a failed launch on Friday of a rocket that generated international condemnation and cost North Korea a food aid-for-nuclear freeze deal with Washington.
Kim Jong-un’s speech took North Koreans gathered at Kim Il-sung Square and around TVs across the country by surprise. His father, late North Korean leader Kim Jong-il, addressed the public only once in his lifetime.
Appearing calm and measured as he read the 20-minute speech, Kim Jong-un covered a wide range of topics, from foreign policy to the economy. His speech, and a military parade that followed, capped the choreographed festivities commemorating Kim Il-sung’s birthday.
It was the best look yet the outside world has had of Kim Jong-un, who is believed to be in his late twenties.
Punctuating Kim Jong-un’s message that the North will continue to pour funds into its military, the parade culminated with the unveiling of a new long-range missile, though it was not clear how powerful or significant the addition to the North Korean arsenal is. Some analysts suggested it might have been a dummy designed to dupe outside observers.
Although the rocket launch on Friday was a huge, costly embarrassment for the new leadership, Kim Jong-un’s address was seen by analysts as an expression of confidence by the young leader and meant to show that he is firmly in control.
“Superiority in military technology is no longer monopolized by imperialists, and the era of enemies using atomic bombs to threaten and blackmail us is forever over,” Kim said.
His message suggested no significant changes in national policy — the “Military First” strategy has long been at the center of North Korea’s decision-making process.
However, there was strong symbolism in the images of the new leader addressing the country on state TV and then watching — and often laughing and gesturing in relaxed conversation with senior officials — as the cream of his nation’s 1.2 million-strong military marched by.
Outside analysts have raised worries about how Kim Jong-un, who has been seen, but not publicly heard since taking over after his father’s death in December last year, would govern a country that has a nuclear weapons program and has previously threatened Seoul and Washington with war.
The speech was a good “first impression for his people and for the world,” said Hajime Izumi, a North Korea expert at Japan’s Shizuoka University. “He demonstrated that he can speak in public fairly well, and at this stage that in itself — more than what he actually said — is important. I think we might be seeing him speak in public more often, and show a different style than his father.”