…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 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)