By Barbra Kim
North Korea’s recently deceased ruler, Kim Jong-il, received a 70th birthday celebration that will go down in the history books…literally. The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) officially renamed February 16, “Day of the Shining Star,” following a tradition Kim set for his father and predecessor. The founder and “Eternal President” of North Korea, Kim Il-sung, has his birthday named “Day of the Sun.” – currently North Korea’s two biggest holidays.
The week-long birthday celebration –replete with the unveiling of bronze statues of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il riding on horses, the 16th annual Kimjongilia festival (a display of 30,000 potted Kimjongilia flowers), the standard military shows of soldiers marching in goose step, and an ice sculpture festival –can be seen to serve a double function.
First, these public events immortalize Kim Jong-il as they did his father. Second, they cement the legitimacy of the ruling Kim family, and consequently, the legitimization of Kim Jong-un’s succession.
Moreover, the overall tone of this week contrasts starkly with the breast-heaving, hair-renting, sobbing view of inconsolable North Koreans during their memorial service for Kim Jong-il last December. The pre-planned, flashy, celebrations can easily be interpreted as a politicized move by the regime to show the masses that there is a brighter future ahead. But the question that may have gone unnoticed is: who really runs these celebrations?
When Kim Il-sung passed, Kim Jong-il was clearly in charge of putting together an elaborate funeral and all future celebrations. In fact, while Kim Jong-il was being groomed for succession, he helped create the personality cult of Kim Il-sung. Historians have credited Kim Jong-il with the creation of the Kimilsungia flower and virtually hundreds of propaganda films immortalizing Kim Il-sung.
Simply put, Kim Jong-un has not contributed significantly –if at all –to paving his own rise to power. Most of the birthday celebrations had already been pre-planned, leaving no real innovation required of the Great Successor and thus, depriving him of the leadership role that Kim Jong-il once played. Even the bronze statues that have been heralded as the first statue of Kim Jong-il had already been discussed by Kim with party officials pre-death.
Another glaring example of leadership ambiguity is his conspicuous absence during what media reports was a secret meeting that occurred at the “secret” camp located on the sacred Mt. Paektu last weekend, in which three of the most powerful elites (Ri Yong Ho, Kim Ki Nam, and Choe Thae Bok) met with other senior members of the North Korean military and political party to “vow loyalty” to Kim Jong-il.
On the one hand, Kim Jong-un could simply be acting as a figurehead. The real reins of power may be held by the North Korean troika, Ri Yong Ho (the vice marshal of the Korean People’s Army with operational control of the military), Jang Seong-Taek (Kim Jong-il’s brother-in-law), and Kim Kyeong-hui (Kim Jong-il’s sister). On the other hand, these examples could be indicators of Kim Jong-un being unfit, unprepared, and largely seen as illegitimate for the succession. In reality, it is probably some combination of the two.
How long can this uncertainty surrounding Kim Jong-un last? U.S. officials will meet with DPRK officials next week in Beijing to discuss the nuclear disarmament and food aid deal for the first time since Kim Jong-il’s death. With the strange, shifting dynamics of power in Pyongyang and the Great Successor’s notable absences at key events, the prospects for progress seem dim, and the potential for instability increasingly apparent.
Barbra Kim is a research intern with the CSIS Office of the Korea Chair.