SEOUL, SOUTH KOREA — North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-il turned 68 years old today in the glow of unstinting praise from his ruling inner circle – and doubts about the stability of his regime and the country’s deteriorating economy.
Mr. Kim, however, did not attend a birthday bash at which top officials from the armed forces, the Workers’ Party, and the government pledged allegiance to him. While recovering from a stroke, he appears to be focused on grooming his youngest son, Kim Jong-un, for power by taking him on visits to factories and military units.
“He has a clear objective of how to implement his strategy of survival,” says Paik Hak-soon, senior fellow at the influential Sejong Institute here. “Everything is being carried out, including the succession issue.” Despite health problems and economic setbacks, says Mr. Paik, Kim is “managing succession politics very carefully.”
As critical as the issue of Mr. Kim’s health is that of an economy severely depleted by growing shortages of food and supplies and a disastrous attempt two months ago to reform the near-worthless currency.
“We have no clear view about North Korea in the future,” says Bae Jong-yun, who teaches inter-Korean relation at Yonsei University here. “It’s militarily a strong country, but it could never be strong economically.”
Trust ‘to the end of this world’
There was no sign of doubt, however, in reports from North Korea of celebrations highlighted by films and exhibits extolling the “Dear Leader,” according to Pyongyang’s Korean Central News Agency. The party newspaper Rodong Sinmun called on citizens to “follow and trust our general to the end of this world,” while observers puzzled over how North Korea’s troubles would end.
A sign of Kim Jong-un’s growing power and influence was a report that he now controls the finances of the party – and was responsible for the ouster of top officials blamed for the failed currency reform. There have been reports of sporadic unrest since the currency was revalued by 100 to one, depleting the coffers of a small middle class.
Last year, says North Korea Open Radio, monitoring events in the North, he took charge of security agencies responsible for controlling a populace that has suffered from disease and hunger ever since a famine claimed 2 million lives in the 1990s.
The worst suffering dates from the death in July 1994 of Kim Jong-il’s father, the long-ruling Kim Il-sung. Kim Jong-il, as chairman of the National Defense Commission, had been groomed to succeed his father, memorialized as “eternal president.”
The Dear Leader is said to have been born in a cabin on the slopes of Mount Paektu, the country’s highest peak, near the Chinese border, though he was actually born near the Siberian city of Khabarovsk while his father was an officer in the Soviet Army.
The mythology, however, may be breaking down. With rice prices in flux, says a source quoted by Daily NK, which also reports on the North, “a number of people,” unable to afford rice, “are starving.”