North Korea’s new leader has delivered his first major public speech on the occasion of the centenary of its founder’s birth, calling for a push to “final victory” at a mass military parade in the country’s capital.
Kim Jong-un, the third Kim to rule North Korea, read monotonously from a script in Pyongyang’s central square on Sunday after marching soldiers and sailors demonstrated the North’s military power.
In a move that indicated Kim would stick to the “military-first” policies that have put North Korea on the verge of nuclear weapons capacity, he lauded his grandfather, Kim Il-sung, and his father, Kim Jong-il, as the “founder and the builder of our revolutionary armed forces”.
“Let us move forward to final victory,” Kim Jong-un urged tens of thousands of military and civilians as they applauded throughout his more than 20-minute speech.
While its contents were uncontroversial, the speech itself was a big surprise after many years of silence from Kim’s father when he presided over similar events.
Commenting on Kim Jong-un’s speech, Choi Jong-kun, a professor at Yonsei University in the South Korean capital, Seoul, said it was aimed at assering his leadership.
“He is trying to emphasise his legitimacy as a leader, and demonstrate where his power base is,” he told Al Jazeera.
Failed rocket launch
Sunday’s celebration followed North Korea’s attempt to launch a long-range rocket, which ended in embarrassing failure on Friday.
The state that Kim inherited in December after the death of his father Kim Jong-il boasts a 1.2 million-strong military, wants to possess a nuclear weapon and to develop the ability to hit the US with it, the aim, critics say, of the failed rocket launch.
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Behind those ambitions are 23 million people, many malnourished, in an economy whose output is worth just $40bn annually in purchasing power parity terms, according to the US Central Intelligence Agency, compared with South Korea’s $1.5tn economy.
The tiny size of the economy means development is not the answer, tying Kim into the policies of his late father who oversaw the development of the state’s nuclear and missile ambitions.
North Korea did depart from its previous practice when it publicly admitted on state television that the Unha-3 rocket had failed to deliver its weather satellite into orbit in time for Kim Il-sung’s birthday.
Referring to Friday’s setback, Choi of Yonsei University said the North Korean state had “engaged in a great media campaign”, which was consistent with its claim that the rocket launch was peaceful.
“This was the very first time they used the word failure,” he said.
A 2009 launch that the international community said had failed was hailed as a success by North Korea, where the only news available to its people is from the state.
Reams of propaganda
Despite the rocket failure, North Korea continues to churn out reams of propaganda aimed at bolstering the legitimacy of Kim Jong-un and his claim to power based on his bloodline.
“The idea and feats Kim Il-sung performed in the 20th century have been fully carried forward and his glorious history continues uninterruptedly along with prospering Songun [military-first] Korea,” state news agency KCNA reported on Friday.
The anniversary of Kim Il-sung’s birth was supposed to usher in a “strong and prosperous” nation.
North Korea claimed that industrial output grew two per cent last year, but according to UN data, its economy is in fact the same size as it was 20 years ago after being devastated by a famine in the 1990s.
It appears to fund itself through exports of its mineral wealth to China, sales of weapons technology to states such as Syria and Iran, as well as a variety of criminal enterprises such as narcotics and faking $100 bills.
Whatever the state of the economy, missile and nuclear weapons development will take priority for North Korea, experts say.
Figures published in South Korean media suggest that $3bn has been spent on the nuclear and missile programme over the years.