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Failed Rocket Looms Over N. Korean Anniversary


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin. North Korea's new young leader, Kim Jong Un, stood before cheering troops and citizens today to make his first public speech. The address rounded off two weeks of celebrations to mark 100 years since the birth of the nation's late founder and comes in the wake of Friday's failed missile launch. NPR's Louisa Lim reports on a new approach to leadership in the world's most isolated nation.


LOUISA LIM, BYLINE: On show today, North Korea's million-man military, goose-stepping through the capital. It was intended as a show of force, and of devotion to the man they see as God, late founder, Kim Il Sung, who was born a hundred years ago today. The big surprise was that North Korea's new young leader, Kim Jong Un, spoke in public for the first time ever. He extolled the military. And he made a new promise to the people.

KIM JONG UN: (Through Translator) You will never tighten your belt again. Our party's firm goal is that you might live in Socialism's prosperity.


LIM: Those words are an unusual admission of failure - his father's failure to feed his people. It's the second time the regime has admitted failure in recent days, after it came clean about the failed rocket launch on Friday. Kim Jong Un's speech clearly marks the beginning of a new era.

JOHN DELURY: He's a very different kind of leader than his father.

LIM: John Delury from Yonsei University in Seoul says his father, Kim Jong Il, only spoke once in public. So Kim Jong Un is setting a new tone for the leadership.

DELURY: The very fact that he gets up there and gives this speech, and doesn't have a "King's Speech" moment, as his father presumably feared; Kim Jong Il was obviously not comfortable speaking in public or his way of projecting power was to withdraw himself. Kim Jong Un, first day basically on the job - this is his big moment - gets out there and speaks to the people.


LIM: On the podium, Kim laughed and joked with those around him, a marked contrast to his father's reclusiveness. Trundling past was what looked like a new long-range missile, though analysts warned it could be a mock-up. Kim's message underlined security. But its emphasis on improving the standard of living was also visible in his first symbolic public act four months ago. Here's Rudiger Frank, a North Korea expert at the University of Vienna.

RUDIGER FRANK: What I think is highly symbolic were those first moves he made in public - this provision of fresh fish to the citizens of Pyongyang, the very day when it was announced that he's going to be successor and Kim Jong Il died. So, he obviously tried to make the impression that he cares for the everyday worries of his people and that's the message that he's sending.


LIM: However, amid the adulation for dead dictators, one salutary tale: to mark the celebration, the party ordered that all North Korean people be given gifts - a windfall of 15 products including pork, fish and rice.

SHIN JU HYUN, DAILY NK: (Foreign language spoken)

LIM: But it gave out no money to pay for this largesse, according to Shin Ju Hyun, from the Daily NK website. So, in an Orwellian touch, the already-struggling people were forced to fund their own gifts. Looking forward, few expect major economic reforms, which could lead to a loss of political control. So, can this regime survive?

ANDREI LANKOV: Actually, the North Korean government is in a very bad situation. Now, what they are trying to do is to win some time, to postpone the collapse.

LIM: Andrei Lankov from Kookmin University believes collapse is inevitable at some point.

LANKOV: There is a booming black market economy; information about the outside world, including stories about prosperity of South Korea, are widely circulated. Ideology is dead - nobody believes this official rubbish. So, all things considered, they are gradually losing their power base.

UN: (Foreign language spoken)


LIM: As tens of thousands of soldiers roared their loyalty, any loss of power base seemed hard to believe. But this country spent enough on its failed rocket launch to feed its population for an entire year. Now, its young leader has tied his legitimacy to improving life for his people. If they take him at his word, he'll be under pressure to provide results. Louisa Lim, NPR News, Beijing. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Beijing Correspondent Louisa Lim is currently attending the University of Michigan as a Knight-Wallace Fellow. She will return to her regular role in 2014.