North Korea-watchers closely observe the isolated country for any clues to whether the new young leader will continue his late father’s repressive policies at home and defiance of the international community over Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons and missile programs.
The recent official announcement confirming that a woman frequently seen at Kim’s side is his wife, and the dramatic fall earlier this month of the military chief were seen by some, in South Korea especially, as signs of a possible shift.
But on Sunday, the official mouthpiece KCNA cited comments from the head of an official body known as the Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of Korea denying that any changes were underway, and accusing the reviled “puppet” government of conservative South Korean President Lee Myung-bak of ignorance and wishful thinking.
The official said the “puppet group” had “tried to give [the] impression that the present leadership of the DPRK broke with the past. This is the height of ignorance.”
DPRK stands for the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, the North’s official name.
“To expect policy change and reform and opening from the DPRK is nothing but a foolish and silly dream, just like wanting the sun to rise in the west,” the official was quoted as saying.
Kim Jong-un would continue to pursue the “military-first” policies of his father, building a “civilized and comfortable life for the people under socialism.”
Formally introduced by Kim Jong-il in 1995, the “military-first” ideology prioritizes the North Korean armed forces in resource allocation, a policy that among other things benefits the nuclear weapons program – and, experts say, has helped to impoverish the North Korean people.
The U.S.-based North Korea Freedom Coalition estimates that three million North Koreans have died as a result of abuses and policies blamed on the regime since the mid-1990s, when Kim Jong-il took the helm after the death of his father, Kim Il-sung.
KCNA reported Friday that more than thousands of people visited the “Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Memorial Tower” in the capital.
It described the tower as “a monumental edifice demonstrative of the stamina of the army and people of the DPRK who won a historic victory by smashing the U.S. imperialists, who boasted of being the ‘strongest’ in the world, under the leadership of Generalissimo Kim Il-sung, the invincible and iron-willed commander.”
Kim Jong-un had seemed to be trying to present a softer image in recent months, for example appearing at a children’s festival in Pyongyang last month. (He told the gathered children they would live in “a most powerful country where every home will be full of laughter and everybody lives in harmony.”)
Early this month he appeared at a music concert accompanied by a young woman, and KCNA confirmed last week that the woman was his wife.
By contrast, the reclusive Kim Jong-il’s marital status was never officially declared although he was believed to have had at least one wife and three mistresses, including the dancer who was the current leader’s mother.
Also fueling speculation about a change of direction was the abrupt removal of army chief Ri Yong-ho from his party and military posts after more than half a century of military service, supposedly for reasons of ill health.
It was a dramatic fall for a man often seen at Kim Jong-il’s side, and who was given prominent roles in auspicious events including the 65th anniversary of the ruling party in 2010, and the 80th anniversary of the military’s founding just three months ago.
During Kim Jong-il’s funeral last December, Ri joined Kim Jong-un in leading the somber procession, with the mourning son and the general flanking the hearse carrying the dead dictator’s coffin as it proceeded through Pyongyang.
Shortly after the announcement of Ri’s departure, North Korea on July 18 said Kim Jong-un had been awarded the title of marshal, the top rank in the country’s military. A new military chief to replace Ri was also named, with the rank of vice-marshal.
As it ratcheted up the rhetoric at the weekend, the regime repeated earlier accusations that its enemies in Seoul and Washington had sent an agent on a mission to destroy a statue of founding leader Kim Il-sung.
A man named as Jon Yong-Chol was presented at a press conference in Pyongyang on July 19, confessing to having been sent to blow up the statue.
A KCNA report Friday said the “terrorist” plot was designed to insult the dignity of the supreme leadership, and proved the U.S. was lying when it denied hostile intent towards North Korea.