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N.Korea's new leader all smiles, wearing power lightly

A smiling Kim Jong-un led celebrations of his dead father's official 70th birthday celebrations in the North Korean capital today, nearly two months after taking power, indicating a smooth transition in the one of the world's most closed states.

world Updated: Feb 16, 2012 14:54 IST

A smiling Kim Jong-un led celebrations of his dead father's official 70th birthday celebrations in the North Korean capital on Thursday, nearly two months after taking power, indicating a smooth transition in the one of the world's most closed states.

The third of his line to run the totalitarian North, the youngest Kim is believed to be in his late 20s and sports the same haircut, physique and uniform as his grandfather, Kim Il-sung, the state founder who is revered as its eternal president.

The young Kim has conducted a dozen or so "field inspections" mostly to military units since inheriting power in December and has been pictured smiling with troops in sharp contrast to his father Kim Jong-il's austere rule.

He has been seen holding hands with top brass, linking arms with women cadres and chatting to ordinary soldiers.

"He does seem to be genuinely enjoying the photo opportunities, even the physical contact with people, more than his two predecessors did, but that could just be because he's new to all this," says Brian Myers, an expert on the North's propaganda from South Korea's Dongseo University.

Kim Jong-un has moved quickly from mourning to action whereas his father Kim Jong-il disappeared from public view for 100 days following the death of Kim Il-sung 17 years ago.

Only four days after his father was laid to rest, the young Kim was shown in a photo visiting a tank division in Pyongyang in what state media hailed as his first military inspection as "supreme commander".

Since then he has visited a military site every few days, in what analysts say is a move clearly designed to project a hardline image and woo the powerful army's support.

'Great leader' look-a-like
Up until the early 1970s dynastic succession was considered heretical under North Korea's "people's democracy", and many experts had forecast the state's demise after founder Kim Il-sung's death in 1994 and transfer of power to his son.

Kim Jong-il defied the critics and ruled with an iron first for 17 years, presiding over famine, deepening economic gloom and the ascent of North Korea to the brink of nuclear weapons capacity.

Analysts say it appears the North's propaganda cadres believe the only way to ensure a continuation of Kim family rule is to build a personality cult around the young Kim in his grandfather's image.

The pair are strikingly alike, right down to their slicked-back, high-sided haircuts. The tall and hefty young Kim is from a different mould to his father, who was short and pot-bellied.

Sung-Yoon Lee of the Fletcher School for Diplomacy at Tufts University in Boston says the young Kim "invokes the avuncular image of his grandfather with an oversized smile to match his extended waistline".

"Kim III has in a short time cultivated a public image that is eerily reminiscent of Kim I -- something that Kim II, who came across as far more serious and expressionless in the traditional East Asian fashion, could not or chose not to replicate," he says.

Kim Jong-un's self-confidence and overt displays of affection have surprised the outside world used to seeing photographs of his ailing father, often wearing over-sized sunglasses, indifferently pointing at things.

At Thursday's parade, which was small by the standards of most North Korean military spectacles, he was in animated conversation with Army Chief of Staff Ri Yong-ho. His uncle Jang Song-thaek and his wife, the sister of dead leader Kim Jong-il also stood on the podium in military uniforms.

Forced Jollity?
The kind of "special warmth and kindness" seen from Kim Jong-un is so unusual that it could be seen sign of weakness and there has been speculation, so far unsubstantiated, that the youngest Kim does not rule alone and has to rely on his powerful uncle Jang, as well as the army head, Ri.

"The regime evidently considers it more important at this time to project an upbeat attitude, in order to prevent rumours of power struggles and the like," says Myers.

That said, Kim will have to make a choice, continue to sacrifice the economic well-being of North Korea's 22 million people for the military might that his father cemented, or open up to investment and China-style reforms that could threaten the very foundations of the world's only "communist monarchy".

"How can he possibly depart from the ways of his father and grandfather and embark on reform, when he is, as the North Korean state claims, their reincarnation? After all, a dictator cannot rule on personable image and nostalgia alone," said Lee of Tufts School.

First Published: Feb 16, 2012 14:47 IST