North Korea’s Kim Jong Il Reasserts Control

8 10 2009

Pyongyang Arirangby Louisa Lim, NPR, 8 October 2009

…Among the elite, the rumors swirl about another display of loyalty: a spectacular fireworks extravaganza held in April that is said to have been orchestrated by Kim Jong Il’s favored successor, his youngest son, 26-year-old Kim Jong Un.

His name is now widely known in North Korea compared with a year ago, but it’s not mentioned in public. During our five days in the country, only one person directly answered a question about the man known as the “Young General.” That was Kim Sun Hee, a state-sponsored artist who has spent six months painstakingly capturing the fireworks display on canvas.

“If the ‘Young General’ Kim Jong Un organized these fireworks, it [captured] all the minds of all the people,” she said, echoing an idea much repeated here — of “single-hearted unity,” melding the minds of the leader, the party and the masses.

These days, his father, Kim Jong Il, is firmly back in control, apparently recovered, though sleeker after his illness. Five days ago, he was seen bear-hugging Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao at a lavish welcoming ceremony at the airport. Some observers, such as Leonid Petrov, a North Korea expert at the University of Sydney, now believe his succession has been put on hold.

“Kim Jong Un has in the past months got great popularity among the younger representatives within the army, within the party, as opposed to the old guard,” says Petrov. “Here, we can see a sort of brewing conflict, which at the moment is not visible, but within the elite they probably detected some signs of interest in reform, change, experimentation. And I think Kim Jong Il decided simply to put it on hold. The family is not interested in any change.”

Moves toward economic liberalization, too, are being rolled back. This spring, North Korea aired its first television commercial ever, for Taedonggang beer. That ad was shown for a few weeks, but it is no longer running.

The authorities also have tightened controls on local markets. Their opening hours have been cut, and efforts are reportedly being made to restrict market trading to older women only, thereby forcing men and younger women to return to state-run work units instead of engaging in market activities.

Petrov says the regime is clamping down on private enterprise, driving it underground. “Back in 2003, Pyongyang looked like one big market. Now, we can see there’s no trade on the streets. Trade and market and commercial activity is deemed to be something ideologically contaminating, something alien to the very nature of socialist society,” he says…

Read the full text of this article and listen to the audio file here…

Read and listen to more stories by Louisa Lim about her recent trip to North Korea:

U.S. Is Main Foe In North Korea’s ‘History’ Lessons (NPR, 16 October 2009)

Facade Of Perfection Slips Occasionally In N. Korea (NPR, 12 October 2009)

Extravagant monuments cannot hide the grim reality of North Korea

8 10 2009

Yanggakdo bridge_2009.10by Richard Lloyd Parry (The Times, 06 October 2009)

As the last fortress of 20th-century totalitarianism, Pyongyang has seen many extravagant firework displays, but nothing as spectacular as the one that illuminated the heavens this spring.

“It was the most beautiful thing I have seen,” said Kim Sun Hee, an artist who has spent the past few months attempting to capture the moment. “The colours were wonderful — the fireworks on the bridge looked like waterfalls of fire.”

But nothing in the display was more remarkable than the identity of the man responsible — the youngest son of the “Dear Leader”. There was no formal announcement but among the Pyongyang elite word has spread that the display was the work of one referred whisperingly to as the “Young General”.

A year ago only a handful of North Koreans had heard of him; now his name is common knowledge: Kim Jong Un, 26, is apparently being groomed to succeed Kim Jong Il in the only hereditary communist dictatorship in history.

North Korea likes to present itself as an unchanging place, a socialist workers’ paradise where the conundrums of good governance have been solved by the supernatural brilliance of Mr Kim and his late father and founder of the country, the “Great Leader”, Kim Il Sung.

However, it is a place of tension and anticipation. Fed on propaganda and lies, North Koreans are usually the last to learn what is happening behind the scenes in their country — but these days, in Pyongyang at least, even they can sense that change is in the air.

Since the fireworks in April the debut of the young Mr Kim appears to have been put on hold after his father’s recovery from a suspected stroke last year.

Even if its leader has won a temporary reprieve, North Korea remains what it has been for 15 years — an anachronism, bankrupt economically, politically and intellectually that, according to conventional theories, should have collapsed years ago under the weight of its own contradictions…

See the full text of the article here…

See more photos by Paul Rogers here…