North Korea Leadership Watch

Research and Analysis on the DPRK Leadership

The Youthful General’s Quiet Birthday

Kim Chong-un pouring liquor at a visit to a performers' apartment complex in Pyongyang in October 2010. Chang Song-taek is seen standing behind him at the left. (Photo:KCTV/KCNA)

8 January (Saturday) was believed to be the official birthday of hereditary successor Kim Chong-un [Kim Jong Un].  Last year editorials “toast[ed] the endlessly bright future of Chosun” and workers left their offices to participate in celebrations.  This year another low-key celebration seems to have been held.  The regime aired a film underscoring hereditary succession.  Yonhap reports:

The one-hour-long film shown on Korean Central TV opens with a scene from current leader Kim Jong-il’s inauguration as supreme commander of the military 19 years ago, during which his father and North Korea’s founder, Kim Il-sung, prompts a round of applause from the audience after demanding absolute obedience to his son. The following scenes display laudatory letters and messages from former officials of the communist nation’s 1.2 million-strong military.

The documentary appears to stress the legitimacy of the ongoing father-to-son power succession across three generations by mentioning Kim Jong-il and his heir-apparent, Jong-un, side by side and in larger font than other texts. It also gives the impression that Jong-un is carrying on the tradition of revolution started by his grandfather.

South Korean officials believe Kim Jong-un celebrated his 28th or 29th birthday relatively low-key with music recitals and athletic meetings on Saturday. Open Radio for North Korea, a broadcast run by North Korean defectors for transmission into the North, cited an unnamed source as saying that the North Korean authorities had decided not to designate the birthday as a public holiday and gone into special alert for two days from Friday for fear of a public outburst of disapproval of Kim Jong-un’s succession.

Kim Chong-un’s first birthday as official successor certainly went uncelebrated on the country’s official websites and user accounts:

Put on the North’s YouTube account as early as Friday, a two-minute-long animation depicted Kim Jong-un as a ruthless killer driving a sports car and teasing his father to buy him fancy birthday gifts. On Twitter, the North’s account — which normally carried tweets praising Kim Jong-il and denouncing South Korea and the United States — sent out feeds that called on North Koreans to rise against the Kim dynasty and put an end to poverty.

“Let’s create a new world by rooting out our people’s sworn enemy Kim Jong-il and his son Kim Jong-un!” one tweet read.

Another sought to convince readers that the removal of the dynasty would lead North Koreans to live “as happily as South Koreans.”

Kim Jong-un was unveiled to the world as a four-star general and later named as a vice chairman of the Central Military Commission of the ruling Workers’ Party in September. Little remains known about the way he thinks of his country and its relationship with the outside world.

North Korea opened the Korean-language Twitter account @uriminzok in August and has since tweeted about 1,300 messages, drawing nearly 11,000 followers as of Saturday evening. North Korea also opened an account on Facebook last year, surprising outside observers, but it no longer operates.

On Saturday, Uriminzokkiri, a Web site operated by the North’s top organ handling inter-Korean exchanges, stopped operating after a large illustration appeared on its front page, showing the Kims bowing to win top benefactor China’s backing for the succession.

The site is considered the main Internet propaganda channel for North Korea and is managed by the Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of the Fatherland, which made the proposal for inter-Korean talks earlier in the day.

The apparent hacking on Saturday came after Uriminzokkiri operators were reportedly duped last month into carrying a poem on a message board that called Kim Jong-il and Kim Jong-un harsh names.

Users at the South Korean Web site, dcinside, claimed that Uriminzokkiri operators held them responsible for the tricky poem and mounted a DoS, or denial-of-service, attack on them in retaliation. That again incited them to hack the North Korean site.

The high-tech war of nerves involving South Korean hackers, if confirmed, could be a new entry to the long-running rivalry between the two countries that remain divided after the 1950-53 Korean War.


”]There were already a few dark clouds gathering around the birthday celebration.  JoongAng Ilbo noted that DPRK-published birthday calendars had not denoted 8 January as a holiday at the level of Chong-un’s father and grandfather.  Korea Times citing Open Radio for North Korea reported that an 11 December train accident may have involved various presents for the Young General to ladle out to cadres and supporters:


“The railways here are outdated. But the tracks looked so badly damaged that it appeared they had been tampered with before the train was about to pass,” the official was quoted as saying.

According to the source, eight of the train’s 40 cars derailed. They contained gifts such as watches and televisions to be given to officials on Kim’s birthday, which is believed to fall on Jan. 8.

The birthday will be Jong-un’s first since being selected as the country’s heir in September, when he was elevated to four-star general status and a high party post. Kim, thought to be no older than 28, is the youngest son of North Korean leader Kim Jong-il.

It was speculated that the gifts were intended to curry favors for the heir.

Chosun Ilbo reports on rumors of purges Chong-un may have instigated that could displace Gen. O Kuk-yol (NDC Vice Chairman and chief of the DPRK’s SOF), as well as Chang Song-taek.  With regard to Gen. O, it was interesting that someone of his stature was listed last in KCNA’s report about Kim Chong-il’s attendance of the 2011 New Year’s Concert.  O was also not reported to have attended the joint NDC-CMC banquet in late December 2010.  It is not clear if this represents concerted effort or if the various movements in Pyongyang have displaced certain (and intersecting) patronage networks.  There is also the possibility here of recycling the old Kim Yong-chu narrative.

The North Korean regime appears to be purging proteges of O Kuk-ryol, a vice chairman of the National Defense Commission who once headed the Workers Party’s Operations Department, and leader Kim Jong il’s brother-in-law Jang Song-taek, the director of the party’s Administration Department and a sort of eminence grise in the North. The two wielded near-absolute power during Kim Jong-il’s heyday but have kept at a respectful distance since Kim’s son Jong-un was established as his heir.

A high-level North Korean source said that nearly 200 senior officials were executed or detained by the State Security Department in early December last year. They include many senior officials of trading companies under the military and the party, such as the head of Sogyong Trading Corporation under the party’s Financial and Accounting Department; the head of “No. 54” Trading Company under the Ministry of People’s Armed Forces; Pak Jong-su, the chief of a military-run coal trading company; the head of the general bureau of fuel oil; and Ri Jong-ho, the head of Taehung Trading Company.

Ri Chol-su, the head of the Taehung Trading Company’s Wonsan branch and a protege of Jang’s, jumped to his death during interrogation by the State Security Department on charges of illegally amassing of wealth and espionage. The matter was about to be closed after his suicide but instead it fueled a second-round of purges, with many others arrested on the strength of statements extracted under interrogation.

The purge was conducted with zeal by the senior deputy chief of the State Security Department U Dong-chuk, who discussed details of the plan with Kim father and son.

Security officers reportedly descended on the homes of senior officials in the early morning and dug out vast stashes of dollars at many of them. Rumor has it that in one of the homes officers found US$1 million. Observers speculate the chances of survival for those arrested are slim.

Kim junior reportedly gave the order to arrest anybody at whose home more than $50,000 was found, saying, “Those who illegally amassed money at a time when the country is in difficulty are traitors.”

The fact that most of them are close aides to Jang and O has fueled speculation that Kim Jong-un is specifically targeting the two men. As the most powerful representatives of the old guard, they are considered the biggest obstacles to his assuming control.

An affiliate of 38 North