The grand occasion, under clear skies in cool spring weather, was intended to solidify the authority of the new leader, believed to be 29 years old, as much as to honor his grandfather, who ruled for nearly half a century before dying in 1994. Kim Jong-un now has “all the formal levers of power,” says Lee Jong-min, dean of the graduate school of international studies at Yonsei University, “and this is the world’s most militarized state.”
Mr. Lee believes Kim Jong-un, like his father Kim Jong-il, who died in December, feels a special need to demonstrate his military strength since he has no real military experience beyond the few years that North Korean propaganda claims he spent at the country’s military academy. “This young chap has to burnish his military credentials,” says Lee, though “I don’t think anyone in North Korea is going to tell him to his face” that he has little or no military experience.
In contrast, says Lee, Kim Il-sung, after years as a revolutionary fighter in Manchuria and then service as an officer in the Soviet army in World War II, “had the charisma of direct military experience” and could make the Workers' Party the center of power. Like Kim Jong-un, Kim Jong-il had little if any military experience. Partly for that reason, well before his father's death, Kim Jong-il sensed the need to establish himself as leader of the national defense commission as it gained ascendancy over the party. Kim Jong-un, in visits to military bases as well as his remarks today, leaves no doubt he intends to carry on where his father left off.
“The party is not supposed to control the military as in the Kim Il-sung era,” says Choi Jin-wook, senior fellow at the Korea Institute for National Unification. “After Kim Il-sung died, Kim Jong-il bypassed the party to control the military.”
Kim Jong-un’s confidence, in colorful recognition of his primacy over the generals and relatives who are believed to be orchestrating his rule, was clearly bolstered by the acquisition of formal titles. He has surrounded himself with newly promoted senior officers as he protects his own position behind an appearance of growing military strength. At the core of his top advisers is his uncle-in-law, Jang Song-thaek, married to Kim Jong-il's younger sister. Kim Jong-il named Jang a general as well as vice chairman of the national defense commission long before he died.