North Korea's new leader, Kim Jong Un, presided over a massive military parade in honor of the centennial of the birth of his grandfather, country founder Kim Il Sung — something that leaders of the isolated country have been known to do. But then Kim did something completely unexpected: He spoke. His televised 20-minute address was the first his country, and the world, had heard from the young leader, and it suggested to outside observers that Kim is charting a different course than his late father, Kim Jong Il, and will easily survive the humiliating failure of a satellite rocket launch Friday. Here, six big takeaways from Kim Jong Un's big public unveiling:
1. The speech marked a huge break from Kim Jong Il
Kim's relatively lengthy speech wasn't just a surprise because he hadn't spoken publicly before, but also because his father was known to have addressed his people just once, in 1992 — shouting just one sentence, "Glory to the heroic soldiers of the People's Army." Also in contrast to his reclusive father, young Kim smiled and joked with generals on the balcony where they stood. "Kim Jong Un is going be more open and public than his father was," ABC News' Bob Woodruff told Euronews.
2. But Kim Jong Un's priorities keep with tradition
The speech itself might have been a shock, but the content wasn't: Kim Jong Un celebrated his father and grandfather, praised their "military first" policy, and said his "first, second, and third" priorities would be strengthening the army. Kim also pledged, "The days are gone forever when our enemies could blackmail us with nuclear bombs." As if to drive home that point, the parade included a 92-foot-long missile, the largest ever seen from North Korea. Analysts were divided over whether it was an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), a mid-range missile, or just a mock-up. Kim also promised that his impoverished people "will never have to tighten their belt again," although he didn't explain how.
3. Kim wants to use his lineage to his advantage
"Not only has the young Kim inherited his still-revered grandfather's throne," says Jack Kim at Reuters, he also "has his looks and, it seems, his voice." The "portly and jowly young Kim" styled his hair like Kim Il Sung, had his generals wear 1950s-era uniforms, and, according to Bae Myung Jin at South Korea's Soongsil University, has very obviously "trained hard to sound like his grandfather and looked comfortable doing so," speaking in a calm, measured, husky tone. Kim Jong Il had what one defector calls "a shrieky and sharp, high-pitched voice." The point of this nostalgia trip, says Reuters' Jack Kim, is "establishing the young Kim's legitimacy through his bloodline and reminding people of happier times in North Korea, which was richer than the South for some of Kim Il Sung's rule."
4. Another surprise: The North acknowledging failure
In another sign that things have changed in the new order, North Korea's state-run media publicly acknowledged Friday's failure of the three-stage Unha-3 rocket, which disintegrated after about 90 seconds. That admission is unprecedented, North Korea expert Brian Myers tells Reuters, but don't think the Hermit Kingdom is opening up. The North likely fessed up to the failed launch because if it hadn't, some other agency would've: There are now foreign journalists running around Pyongyang, a million cellphones in the country, and "for all its habitual lying, the propaganda apparatus shies away from lies it can too easily be caught out on."
5. But the truth didn't seem to hurt Kim much
After the costly flub with the satellite rocket, the U.S. and its allies were concerned that Kim could face public unrest or even a coup. After the brief mentions of the failed rocket launch, though, "North Korea got on with the usual agenda of extolling its leadership," says Chico Harlan in The Washington Post. Analysts expecting Kim to lose face saw Sunday's festivities as a signal that he survived mostly unscathed, although many fear he will still conduct a third nuclear weapons test to shore up his support in the military.
6. Even though it failed, the launch is still concerning
It doesn't matter that the rocket launch was a "spectacular failure," says Sung Yoon Lee in the Deccan Chronicle. North Korea is clearly testing U.S.-reaching ICBM technology, and the U.S. and its allies need to play hardball: Punishing the Kim regime with new sanctions and sticking to the U.S. decision to cancel food aid. "There never have been easy answers on North Korea," says The New York Times in an editorial. Existing sanctions should be enforced, and China needs to step up to stop Pyongyang's provocations, but food shouldn't be used as a weapon. Feeding the starving population isn't a "reward," just "recognition that the alternative — a military confrontation — would be disastrous."
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