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North’s morning parade and Kim are ‘no-shows’

Evening event held but without military display  PLAY AUDIO

Sept 10,2008
No. 2 leader and nominal head of state Kim Yong Nam, second from right at bottom, is seen on the eve of North Korea’s 60th anniversary at a stadium in Pyongyang, North Korea, Monday. [AP]
Yesterday marked the 60th anniversary of the foundation of the North Korean state, but conspicuously missing were thousands of goose-stepping troops and missile launchers parading through downtown Pyongyang in the morning. Also missing was Kim Jong-il.

South Korean government sources said yesterday that the North made a rare choice of skipping outdoor celebration activities in the morning. Another source said a parade began around 6 p.m., but the participants were mainly civilians and paramilitary organizations, not the North’s standing armed forces.

Japan’s Kyodo News also reported from Pyongyang that the parade to mark the communist regime’s 60th birthday began in the evening, but “Dear Leader” Kim was a no-show. It was unclear if any senior officials attended the ceremony, the report said.

Another Seoul government source also pointed out the strange silence of the communist country, noting that “no reports were aired by the North’s media as of 5 p.m. about the events. We are trying to find out what happened.”

Kim Jong-nam, Kim Jong-chul
It is extremely rare for Pyongyang to skip the commemoration event in the morning. In previous years, the North has staged military parades in the morning and dance festivals and other performances in the evening. In April last year, the North celebrated the 75th anniversary of the foundation of its military and had a parade in the morning. The events were quickly aired by the North’s state media around noon.

The South Korean intelligence community recently began looking into the health condition of North Korean leader Kim. Since a North Korean media report about his inspection of troops on July 14, no reports about the “Dear Leader” have come out over the past three weeks.

But it was unclear yesterday if the canceled event had anything to do with Kim’s health.

Speculation has been circulating that Kim, the 66-year-old leader of North Korea and the son of the country’s founding father, Kim Il Sung, is ill and may soon face the daunting task of selecting a successor. Such a decision, long pondered by political observers here and abroad, will be a big milestone that will affect regional security in Northeast Asia, experts said. News media here and abroad have reported Kim had collapsed on Aug. 22 and that several foreign doctors were recently dispatched to the North to treat him.

The annual celebration in September has long been a “litmus test” to check the health of reclusive Kim, Jang Sung-min, a former Democratic Party legislator and the head of World and the Northeast Asia Peace Forum, said in an interview with PBC radio station yesterday.

The communist country mobilized 20,000 soldiers for the regime’s 50th anniversary in 1998 and some 10,000 for its 55th anniversary in 2003. Kim made an appearance each time. In total, he has attended 10 military inspections and parades since he assumed the post of the North’s military commander-in-chief in 1991.

And yesterday, Pyongyang apparently made a rare choice of skipping the expected massive military parade.

Many former North Korean senior officials who defected to the South said that the discussion over Kim’s possible successor halted there in 2005 after Kim ordered it to stop.

But they pointed to the year 2012 as a milestone. Not only will Kim turn 70 that year, but it’s also the year that the North said it will become a “strong, prosperous country.”

“The issue of power transfer is bound to erupt when the North enters that era,” said Lee Ki-dong, an inter-Korean research fellow at the Institute for National Security Strategy.

Given the deeply rooted patriarchal tradition in North Korean society, the most likely candidate to succeed Kim in theory should be his 37-year-old first son, Jong-nam. But he has a significant flaw in his background - Song Hye-rim, a top North Korean actress and Kim’s longtime concubine, was a married woman when she met Kim. Such a background could easily tarnish Jong-nam’s political platform as a legitimate heir in the deeply feudal society of North Korea, which still emphasizes “pure blood,” said Cheong Seong-chang, Inter-Korean Relations Studies Director at the Sejong Institute. Also, Song spent most of her life overseas until she died in 2002, meaning she laid little groundwork for her son within Pyongyang’s political circle.

Jong-nam, long reported to have fallen out of Kim’s grace, also made international headlines in 2001 when he was caught trying to enter Japan with a fake passport. Back then, he said the purpose of the visit was “visiting Tokyo Disneyland,” drawing jeers from Japan and South Korea.

Perhaps the strongest candidate at this point is Kim Jong-chul, Kim’s 27-year-old second son, who went back to North Korea after a stint at the international school in Bern, Switzerland. Jong-chul’s mother, Koh Young-hee, was a former state dance troupe member before she met Kim, and she played the de facto first lady role for decades before she died in 2004. Unlike Song, who stayed away from Pyongyang for most of her life, Koh actively took part in the North’s political scene and tried hard to cement a political platform for her two sons by Kim, including the younger Jong-woon.

According to Cheong, the North Korean military since 2002 has idolized Koh as a “venerable mother,” signaling the strong support for Koh and her sons within the armed forces. Other supporters of Jong-chul include Lee Je-kang and Lee Yong-chul, the No. 1 directors of the North’s Workers’ Party.

“Jong-chul used to wear Chicago Bulls jerseys when he was studying in Bern and even showed up at an Eric Clapton concert in Germany in 2006,” said Cheong. “He obviously had a lot more exposure to Western culture, meaning he may be more forthcoming to relations with the United States.”

But some pointed out that Jong-nam, though he may not be Kim’s favorite son, still has a chance to grab the much sought-after throne. Kim’s younger sister, 62-year-old Kyung-hee, and Jang Sung-taek, Kyung-hee’s husband and also a senior member of the Workers’ Party, are rumored to be connected to Jong-nam.

“We see more reports that Jong-nam, who lives around China, is closely keeping in touch with his aunt in Pyongyang [Kyung-hee],” said Baek Seung-joo, a North Korea expert at the Korea Institute of Defense Analyses. “Koh died in 2004 but Kyung-hee still remains at the top crust of North Korea’s political hierarchy, meaning she has the leverage to support Jong-nam,” he said.

Lee Kyo-duk, research fellow at the Korea Institute for National Unification, also said it is “premature” to conclude Jong-nam is completely out of the race.



By Chae Byung-geon JoongAng Ilbo/ Ser Myo-ja Staff Reporter [myoja@joongang.co.kr]



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