North Korea finds 'warmth' in new leader

2012-01-31 13:06
North Korean new leader Kim Jong Un greets students at Mangyongdae Revolutionary School in Pyongyang, North Korea, on the occasion of Chinese New Year. (Korean Central News Agency via Korea News Service/ AP)

North Korean new leader Kim Jong Un greets students at Mangyongdae Revolutionary School in Pyongyang, North Korea, on the occasion of Chinese New Year. (Korean Central News Agency via Korea News Service/ AP)

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Seoul - North Korea's young new leader gets rock star treatment when he visits his troops - just as his father did. But while the late Kim Jong-Il mostly stayed aloof in dark shades, his son holds hands and hugs his soldiers.

Kim Jong-Un seems to want to bond with his country's people.

The style harkens back to Kim Il-Sung, his grandfather and revered founder of the country and ruling dynasty, and may reflect an attempt to turn a corner on the periods of hardship and famine under Kim Jong-Il, analysts say.

Kim Il-Sung's image as a daring young general fighting Japanese colonial troops is powerfully engraved in the minds of North Koreans.

Cheers, applause and calls of "Hurrah!" greet Kim Jong-Un as he examines the heating systems of soldiers' quarters, the pressure of their water faucets, the books stacked in their libraries - even the taste of their food.

The North Korean state media reports and video footage of such "guidance visits" provide rare windows into the personalities of North Korea's leaders for outsiders and for the country's people alike.

Warm approach

Few North Koreans, for instance, even knew what the elder Kim's voice sounded like, analysts say, despite his ruling for 17 years until his death on December 17.

In visits made so far by Kim Jong-Un, believed to be in his late 20s, North Korea specialists have detected more warmth in his approach than the dour tours made in recent years by Kim Jong-Il.

The younger Kim may be trying to emulate Kim Il-Sung and move away from his father, who ruled during a famine in the mid- to late-1990s that killed hundreds of thousands, said Koh Yu-hwan, a North Korea professor at Seoul's Dongguk University.

North Korea also has faced international condemnation and sanctions for its pursuit of nuclear weapons.

"He'll try to look comfortable among the masses. He'll try to form an intimacy with the people, perhaps more than his father did," Koh said.

Imitating Kim Il-Sung is a "positive for Kim Jong Un, because memories of his father Kim Jong-Il aren't very good among ordinary people", Koh said. "People fondly remember the days of Kim Il-Sung."

Emphasis on military posts

Kim Il-Sung often was pictured surrounded by children, and Kim Jong-Un resurrected that image during a recent visit to the Mangyongdae Revolutionary School.

As children in military uniforms cheered and clapped, a documentary on state TV showed Kim embracing one child's face with his hands.

During lunch, Kim patted students in encouragement and watched with a grin as two women ladled out soup for students; he poured a drop of sauce on his thumb so he could taste it.

His main emphasis, however, has been on military posts - with seven such reported visits since the New Year. They seek to show citizens that their new leader is firmly in command of the country's most important institution, its 1.2 million-strong military, and that he is loved and respected by young troops and elderly generals alike.

While Kim Jong Il had two decades to prepare for leadership, Kim Jong Un was only publicly unveiled as heir in 2010, and outside observers have raised doubts about Kim Jong Un's ability to lead a country locked in a nuclear standoff with its neighbours and Washington and with a history of attacking South Korea.

Animosity is still high between the Koreas. Six decades after the Korean War, the peninsula remains in a state of war because the 1950-53 conflict ended with an armistice, not a peace treaty. About 28 500 US troops are stationed in South Korea to deter potential North Korean aggression.

Raising troops' morale

Bloodshed spiked in 2010 when a South Korean warship exploded in disputed waters, killing 46. South Korea said the North torpedoed the warship; the North denied the allegation. North Korea also attacked a front-line South Korean island, killing four.

Kim Jong-Un clearly has made attempts to appear active and engaged with his soldiers, and this "helps raise troops' morale and his profile", said Kim Yeon-su, a North Korea expert at Korea National Defence University. "North Korea is telling its people that Kim Jong-Un is capable of doing all these military activities himself."

Kim Jong-Un's first reported military visit after his father's death came on New Year's Day. He appeared at ease, laughing and clapping, pulling officers close to give them words of advice, inspecting bunks and testing water faucets.

On Tuesday, state media reported that Kim visited the family of an air force commander after inspecting his unit and apologised for showing up during meal preparations.

State television has also played a documentary on Kim Jong-Un meant to highlight his military experience, showing him in the cockpit of a tank, galloping by on horseback and poring over documents at night.

'Like a real father'

Despite his youth, Kim Jong-Un often plays the part of a solicitous father during his meticulously documented military tours.

Wearing a dark overcoat similar to one Kim Il-Sung favoured as a young man or a light-coloured parka like the one Kim Jong-Il wore, he exchanges handshakes with cheering soldiers and takes group photos, often holding hands with the officers on either side of him.

He asks about the soldiers' warmth, their eating and sleeping arrangements, listens with apparent enjoyment to their musical performances, observes their "militant spirit of training", offers guidance to officers and takes "care of the soldiers' living as their real father would do", according to state media.

He even tastes their bean paste.

Read more on:    kim jong-il  |  kim jong-un  |  north korea  |  north korea nuclear programme

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