Even before Wednesday’s noontime “special announcement” that Kim Jong Un had been named to the top military title of marshal, there were signs that the young heir of deceased dictator Kim Jong Il was shoring up his standing as ruler of the isolated state. North Korea announced on Monday that military chief Ri Yong Ho had been removed from all his party and government positions, a move that was attributed only to “his illness.” And in the months before, the country was blanketed with propaganda meant to elevate the status of the status of Kim, who after the death of his father in December was quickly elevated to the top of North Korea’s leadership.
Coupled with the removal of the 69-year-old Ri, who was ranked a vice marshal, Wednesday’s announcement is a sign that the 20-something-year-old leader wants to show he’s in command. “I think it is just to exert his authority and send a message or signal that he’s in charge,” says Daniel Pinkston, north East Asia deputy project director for the Crisis Group, an advocacy group that seeks to prevent armed conflicts. Kim’s youth — he’s generally believed to be 28 or 29 — and the suddenness of his father’s death raised questions of whether he was ready to take charge.
Recent developments have shown that the leadership transition was further along than many outsiders realized, says Pinkston. He visited the North recently for a week and was surprised at the ubiquity of the public campaign promoting Kim Jong Un. “The amount of propaganda that had gone up in billboards and signs all over the country was astonishing given the fact that people told me in April there was none,” he says. “In two months’ time, they were able to extend this large-scale propaganda message. If there was opposition or reluctance or confusion, there would be effort to curtail that.”
Instead, there appears to be an all-out effort to develop a personality cult for Kim Jong Un, just as existed around his father and, even more significantly, around his grandfather, North Korea’s founding leader Kim Il Sung. Kim Jong Un has been widely shown in North Korean media traveling around the country conducting inspections, his clothing, his haircut and even his paunch all reminiscent of his grandfather, who 18 years after his death is still considered North Korea’s “eternal President.” Pinkston says he noticed one location, an agricultural school, that was retroactively promoting a visit by Kim Jong Un in 2009, before he had been publicly acknowledged as his father’s chosen successor.
(PHOTOS: North Korea’s Heir Apparent Kim Jong Un)
For China, North Korea’s sole significant ally, the leadership succession in the North has provoked concern, particularly as China’s ruling Communist Party is undergoing its own once-in-a-decade transition of top officials. China has long said it wants to see stability on the Korean Peninsula and has resisted any efforts that might destabilize the ruling powers in Pyongyang. While China joined a U.N. Security Council presidential statement condemning North Korea’s failed missile test in April, it stopped short of taking any steps to punish its neighbor. The detention and abuse of a Chinese fishing crew by North Korea in May did trigger some online resentment in China, but the anger was far more muted than those fueled by ongoing maritime disputes with Japan, the Philippines and Vietnam. Likewise, domestic Chinese media downplayed any indications of infighting in North Korea this week. Zhang Lianghui, a Korea analyst at the Central Party School in Beijing, wrote on Tuesday that the removal of Ri was a “regular major change of personnel,” not a struggle between factions. “It is a process for Kim to consolidate power, in which his talent and qualifications to govern the country could be fully demonstrated,” Zhang said in a commentary for the Communist Party–controlled Global Times.
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