Kim’s last panorama“10 AM at Galma Peninsula, Wonsan.” It is unprecedented that North Korea disclosed where its leader was an at what time. But that’s what the Rodong Sinmun did, reporting that Kim Jong-un attended an exercise celebrating the 85th anniversary of the founding of the North Korean military on April 25. Even as a so-called decapitation operation is discussed — in other words, taking Kim out — he is sending a message that he is not frightened and unfazed. Propaganda organs in Pyongyang started to omit dates from reports on Kim Jong-il’s movements after the Saddam Hussein regime in Iraq was ousted in May 2003. But Kim Jong-un is saying he’s less of a scaredy-pants than his father.
He also distinguished himself by not wearing a Kim Il Sung badge as he watched 300 long-range artillery guns and masses of troops. He is refusing to rely on the aura of his grandfather, the founder of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.
He is also mocking the United States and the international community. He rode around in the latest model of a Mercedes-Benz, signaling that sanctions on the North are probably best known for loopholes you can drive a luxury car through.
But Kim Jong-un sounds complicated too. As he watched the drill, he reportedly said, “They mercilessly strike the targets. I feel relieved!” The 33-year-old leader must be stressed. Reporting on the artillery drill, Joseon Central Television host Lee Chun Hee made the extraordinary claim, “We will sink the American aircraft carrier.” The tone of her voice reflected an anxiety in the North Korean elite about its unpredictable future.
Kim Jong-un is experiencing his greatest-ever crisis. U.S. President Donald Trump has been pressuring North Korea, calling it “a big problem of the world.” The U.S. Secretary of State, Secretary of Defense and Director of National Intelligence issued a joint statement promising “maximum pressure and engagement.” Having been lulled by the “strategic patience” of the Obama administration for eight years, Pyongyang is troubled by the sudden attention of Washington. It is at a loss since Pyongyang used government organs during the U.S. presidential campaign to praise Trump as a “wise politician and candidate with a vision, not a foul-mouthed, eccentric one.” That was a bad move, but Pyongyang thought Hillary Clinton of the Democratic Party would be worse.
What’s more serious is China’s view. The U.S.-China summit in Florida earlier this month was the turning point. As the United States offered economic carrots, such as making the currency manipulator charge go away, Beijing began to speak up on North Korean issues.
It is shocking to Pyongyang that Chin’s official media suggested that Beijing would not militarily intervene if America strikes North Korean nuclear facilities. It is unprecedented to see long lines at gas stations in Pyongyang as China threatens to close off the valve on the oil pipes to the North. This is a Trump tactic, a businessman’s gambit. Pyongyang feels betrayed. It criticized China for “being swayed and dancing to the sanctions of the enemy state.”
Kim Jong-un is catching his breath now, but no exit is in sight. At this rate, he may give in to pressure from the U.S. and China. The military parade on Kim Il Sung Square on April 15 seems to be a compromise he has presented after long contemplation. It was an event to save face as he could not dare to make an additional nuclear or missile provocation.
However splendid the parade, those weapons do not guarantee survival of the system. On October 7, 1989, a military parade was held on the Alexanderplatz in East Berlin to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the founding of East Germany. As a series of missiles appeared, General Secretary Erich Honecker stood proud.
But standing next to him was Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, who believed in reform and opening up to the world. He sent him a cold glance. Erich Honecker was oblivious. Only a month later — on November 9 — the Berlin Wall fell, and the people and the military turned their backs on Honecker.
North Korean propaganda organs insist that Kim Il Sung’s socialism will last forever. But Kim Jong-un, who studied in the West and uses the internet, should know better. He needs to turn his Apple computer on and view the footage from 28 years ago in Berlin on YouTube. Hopefully, the parades in Pyongyang and Wonsan in April will be the last panorama for Kim Jong-un.
JoonAng Ilbo, April 28, Page 36
*The author is the head of the Unification Research Institute at the JoongAng Ilbo and a unification specialist for the paper.