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Thursday 18 September 2014

North Korea: Happy Birthday Kim jong-un?

Kim Jong-un turns 30? A portrait of the leader as a young man

Malcolm Moore in Beijing

Published 08/01/2014 | 11:53

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Dennis Rodman sings Happy Birthday to North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, seated above in the stands, before an exhibition basketball game with U.S. and North Korean players at an indoor stadium in Pyongyang, North Korea on Wednesday, Jan. 8, 2014. (AP Photo/Kim Kwang Hyon)
Dennis Rodman sings Happy Birthday to North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, seated above in the stands, before an exhibition basketball game with U.S. and North Korean players at an indoor stadium in Pyongyang
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un delivers his New Year speech
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un delivers his New Year speech
US basketballer Denis Rodman, with Today FM’s Matt Cooper in the background, at Beijing Airport en route to Pyongyang.

Being the leader of a nation like North Korea brings its own chores.

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There are the goose-stepping military parades to attend, the interminable political meetings to oversee, and the threats of nuclear  holocaust to issue against the rest of the world.

In the footage broadcast on North Korean television, the young Kim Jong-un often appears utterly bored by these official duties, and by much of the outdated Soviet-era rigmarole that still characterises North Korean politics.

At 30 - or 31, as even his age is unknown - he is unsurprisingly far more interested in ski resorts, roller coasters and pretty singers.

"I think there are some stark differences between him and his father," said John Delury, a professor at Yonsei university in Seoul. "He is certainly publicly very active, especially compared to Kim Jong-il who was very withdrawn."

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un aboard a ski lift during his inspection tour at the Masik Pass ski resort, near Wonsan (EPA)

Kim Jong-il, who in his later years often hid himself behind enormous sunglasses, was clearly uncomfortable in the limelight. Many North Koreans had never even heard his voice.

But his son, keen to boost the family franchise, immediately modelled himself on his charismatic grandfather, Kim Il-sung, the founding father of North Korea, cutting his hair in a similar style and adopting the practice of a New Year greeting, broadcast on television.

Until he was 20 years old, no one was even aware of the existence of Kim Jong-un, his father's third and favourite son. The first mention of him came in a book by Kenji Fujimoto, a Japanese chef who claimed to have been taken into the family's confidence.

Mr Fujimoto also told NK News that Kim Jong-un was born on January 8, 1983, making him the youngest head of state in the world.

Ahead of his elevation to the throne, following his father's death in December 2011, it was unclear what kind of leader he would make. Reports in South Korea described him as "determined" and fiercely competitive.

There were hopes he would bring more openness to the Hermit Kingdom, having studied at International School of Berne in Guemligen, Switzerland, under a pseudonym.

He has proven eager to embrace modernity.

North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un and former NBA star Dennis Rodman at a basketball game in Pyongyang in March 2013 (AP)

"Kim Jong-un is adapting to the 21st century," said Prof Delury. "Look at how his wife often accompanies him, as a First Lady figure. It may seem funny, his focus on ski resorts and dolphinariums, but there is a big push towards the consumer class in Pyongyang, to give that group stuff to consume." This class, Prof Delury said, is now the young Kim's biggest constituency.

Outside of Pyongyang, where millions of North Koreans struggle to eke out an existence, Kim Jong-un has focused on improving the agricultural system and harvests have been reasonable, lately.

In his new year's address, Kim prioritised agriculture over science and technology, perhaps because 2014 marks the 50th anniversary of Kim Il-sung's "Rural Theses on the Solution to the Rural Question". While the population is better fed, however, they have also been drafted into his grand construction projects.

North Korea has also moved to decentralise its industry and embrace the Chinese idea of "special economic zones", open to trade and foreign investment with the outside world, although international sanctions have dimmed their prospects for now.

Some things, however, have not changed.

North Korea remains committed to its nuclear programme, which it sees as its only lever of power against its powerful neighbours and its enemies. And political intrigue at court continues, especially with the purging and execution of Jang Song-thaek, Kim's uncle and supposed number two.

In the past two years, many of the figures that were loyal to his father have been replaced, especially in the army, where around half of the core military officials have been reshuffled. All four generals who walked on the left flank of Kim Jong-il's hearse have gone. And the Armed Forces minister has changed four times.

Some have speculated that the younger Kim is not, in fact, the de facto leader, but has become simply a figurehead.

Instead, it may be Choe Ryong Hae, who now seems perpetually at Kim's side, who is in control. In recent days, photographs published by the official Rodong Sinmun newspaper caused a flurry.

In a series of site inspections by Kim Jong-un, Choe was photographed not looking at his leader, as protocol demands, but into the camera. Daily NK, a news and analysis website, said the images could have been a mistake, or were "deliberately released to emphasise the role of Choe and the military that he represents".

Telegraph.co.uk

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