PYONGYANG (Reuters) - North Korea’s new leader delivered his first major public speech on Sunday as the impoverished state celebrated the centenary of its founder’s birth, calling for a push to “final victory” despite a failed rocket launch two days earlier.
A jowly Kim Jong-un, clad in black and the third of his line to rule North Korea, read monotonously from a script in Pyongyang’s central square after goose-stepping soldiers and sailors showcased the North’s military power in a parade in spring sunshine.
Smiling and joking with generals on a podium after the speech, Kim watched as the country’s missiles paraded past, a reminder that despite Friday’s embarrassing failure to successfully launch a rocket, North Korea packs a punch.
In a move that indicated Kim would stick to the “military-first” policies that have put North Korea on the verge of nuclear-weapons capacity, he lauded respectively his grandfather, Kim Il-sung, and his father, Kim Jong-il, as the “founder and the builder of our revolutionary armed forces”.
North Korea is believed to be readying a third nuclear test, based on intelligence satellite images and a past pattern of rocket launches followed by tests.
“Let us move forward to final victory,” the 20-something leader urged tens of thousands of military and civilians as they applauded his more than 20-minute speech, the first time a North Korean leader has delivered a major public set-piece address.
Thousands of goose-stepping soldiers held up colored cards to spell out Kim Jong-un’s name and the words “strong and prosperous”.
The crowd waved artificial pink flowers, celebrating the two dead Kims who ruled the nation in an event that was hosted by one of the country’s top generals, Ri Yong-ho.
South Korea’s Yonhap news agency and YTN TV later cited military sources and analysts as saying the North unveiled at the parade a new long-range missile, presumed to be a ballistic missile with a range of to 6,000 km (3,700 miles).
The missile appeared to be longer and with a bigger diameter compared with others the North has revealed.
“In order to enhance the dignity of Songun (military-first) Chosun (Korea) and to accomplish the task of building a strong and prosperous socialist country, we have to make every effort to reinforce the people’s armed forces,” Kim said.
Given Kim Jong-il’s years of silence, North Korea specialists said the speech was likely another attempt to remind people of happier days under Kim Il-sung, a revered and avuncular figure the new ruler closely resembles.
“It shows a new governing style for the Kim Jong-un era,” said Koh Yu-hwan, a professor at Dongguk University’s department of North Korea studies.
North Korea departed from its usual practice of not telling its population about embarrassing failures when state television on Friday broadcast news that a rocket had failed to put a satellite into orbit.
Critics say that the long-range rocket launch was part of a bid to develop a ballistic missile capable of delivering a nuclear warhead to hit the United States.
The state that Kim inherited in December after the death of his father boasts a 1.2 million-strong military but its population of 23 million, many malnourished, supports a puny economy worth just $40 billion annually in purchasing power parity terms, according to the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency.
Analysts say the wretched economy means Kim is tied to the policies of his late father who oversaw the development of the state’s nuclear and missile ambitions.
The United States has vowed to prevent North Korea fulfilling those ambitions, although in reality there is little that can be done to one of the most sanctioned nations on earth that is backed diplomatically by China.
“We will continue to keep the pressure on them and they’ll continue to isolate themselves until they take a different path,” President Barack Obama said in an interview with Telemundo, a U.S. television network.
The small economy is matched by North Korea’s limited diplomatic influence. It has few friends other than China, whose strategic interest is in keeping a buffer between it and South Korea which has U.S. military bases.
But even China sounded increasingly exasperated in the run-up to Friday’s rocket launch as North Korea ignored its pleas for restraint, despite aid pumped in by Beijing, and its diplomatic protection at bodies like the United Nations.
Without real weight in the international arena, North Korea is forced to rely on bluster reinforced by periodic rocket launches, nuclear tests and attacks on South Korea, such as one in 2010 when it shelled an island, to get the world to pay attention, analysts say.
That is likely to mean it will stick to the same script. In 2009, North Korea followed a failed attempt to put a satellite into orbit with a nuclear test.
Intelligence satellite images showing a tunnel being dug at the site of two previous tests implying that North Korea either wants to remind the world of the possibility, to prompt a return to aid for disarmament talks, or is preparing a test.
“Internationally, now they have to do a nuclear test, preferably using uranium, just in order to show that they should be taken seriously,” said Andre Lankov, a North Korea expert at South Korea’s Kookmin University.
While North Korea confessed on Friday that its rocket had failed to deliver a satellite into orbit, it also continued to churn out reams of propaganda aimed at bolstering the legitimacy of Kim Jong-un and his claim to power based on his bloodline.
“Kim Jong-un is unlikely to be losing power over the launch, as the elite and the military need his legitimizing and mythical presence in order to pacify the North Korean population,” said Virginie Grzelczyk, a North Korea expert at Nottingham Trent University in Britain.
Additional reporting by Ju-min Park, Jeremy Laurence and Sung-won Shim; Writing by David Chance; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan and Robeert Birsel