Kim Jong Un surprises with a speech but not with its message | Asia| An in-depth look at news from across the continent | DW | 16.04.2012
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Kim Jong Un surprises with a speech but not with its message

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un appears determined to stick to the same script of milking the impoverished country to build weapons, perhaps with one exception: at least he's willing to speak about his policies publicly.

North Korea's new leader Kim Jong Un appears determined to stick to the same script of milking the impoverished country to build weapons - perhaps with one exception: at least he's willing to speak about his policies publicly.

It was a day of few surprises except for one: On Sunday, Kim Jong Un gave an unexpected 20-minute speech at the forefront of celebrations marking the centenary birth of his grandfather, Kim Il Sung, the "Eternal President."

Most Koreans had never heard their late leader, Kim Jong Il, speak in public. Known to have a strong high-pitched voice, the former ruler shunned public speaking.

No plans to deviate

His son's speech and the fact that he delivered it just two days after a failed rocket launch were the extent of the surprises, however.

North Koreans carry flags and banners in Pyongyang

Tens of thousands of people gathered in Pyongyang's main square

"Kim Jong Un didn't give any indication that he plans to deviate from the course," Peter Beck from the Asia Foundation in South Korea, told DW. "He wanted to show the world he plans to carry the torch."

The torch, lit by his grandfather and inherited from his father who died in December, glows dimly in a country of 23 million people, many of whom are malnourished.

A huge chunk of its economic output, worth about US $40 billion annually, is devoured by a 1.2-million solider army and an appetite for missiles and nuclear weapons. Some experts put the price tag on the weapons program at US $3 billion over the years.

Failed rocket launch

So far, the North Korean government hasn't seen much return on that investment. On Friday, April 13, a long-range missile test ended in failure, when the rocket plunged into the Yellow Sea about one minute after lift-off.

North Korea military vehicles carrying rockets

North Korea continues to invest heavily in missiles

North Korea's tiny economy, compared to neighboring South Korea's US $1.5 trillion economy, is matched only by its lack of friends in diplomatic circles. The country's biggest - and some would argue only - friend is China, which continues to pump aid into the Communist country in return for minerals.

Observers question how long North Korea's new leader can conduct "business as usual" given the country's shrinking economy, hungry citizens craving for food and freedom, and lonely status in the world.

"Kim Jong Un faces a dilemma," said Beck. "If he follows the course inherited from his father and grandfather, he'll see the country die a slow death" and become a ward of China.

And few see signs of change.

"It seems unlikely that Kim Jong Un will abandon the 'military first' policy," Virginie Grzelczyk, a professor of International Relations at Nottingham Trent University, wrote in an e-mail to DW. "What we have seen over the past few days shows that he will continue along the same line as his father."

Indeed, in his speech delivered before tens of thousands of people gathered in Pyongyang's main square, 29-year-old Kim Jong Un sounded more than eager to sustain the "military-first" policies of his father - even if that means further isolation and economic decline, and ultimately a slow death.

Author: John Blau
Editor: Sarah Berning

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