To cheers of “long life!” North Korean ruler Kim Jong Un received the new title of chairman of the Workers’ Party of Korea on Monday, formally bolstering his status 4½ years after he came to power following the death of his father, Kim Jong Il.
Kim Jong Un previously held several top titles, including general in the Korean People’s Army, member of the Party Central Committee and vice chairman of the Party Central Military Commission. His new rank was bestowed on the fourth day of the Workers’ Party Congress, a top-level political gathering in the authoritarian nation that is the first of its kind since 1980.
More than 100 foreign journalists were invited to Pyongyang, the capital, last week for the congress, but when the proceedings began Friday, reporters were kept away from the April 25 House of Culture where thousands of delegates and Kim were convening. Instead, guides have bused journalists to a silk factory, a wire factory and the birthplace of Kim Il Sung, North Korea’s founding father and Kim Jong Un’s grandfather.
On Monday, about 30 reporters were allowed to enter the April 25 House of Culture, but were allowed to stay for only about 10 minutes. Reporters from Reuters, the Financial Times, CBS, the Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times were among those excluded.
Government guides -- who almost always accompany foreign journalists when they leave their designated hotel -- told this Los Angeles Times correspondent that she was not invited to the venue because her reports from recent days “were not beautiful.” Pressed for specifics, one guide said: “Ask yourself.”
Tension between foreign reporters and government authorities in Pyongyang has been running high in recent days. A correspondent from the BBC, Rupert Wingfield-Hayes, was detained at the Pyongyang airport on Friday as he was about to leave the country with two colleagues at the end of a weeklong reporting trip following several Nobel laureates on a visit to the country.
BBC colleagues said Wingfield-Hayes was separated from his colleagues, taken to a hotel and questioned for eight hours. He was then made to sign some sort of confession. On Monday, he left North Korea along with his colleagues and flew to Beijing.
O Ryong Il, secretary-general of the North's National Peace Committee, said Wingfield-Hayes’ coverage had distorted facts and denigrated the leadership of the country. He said Wingfield-Hayes would never be admitted into the country again.
Among the reports that apparently irritated the North Koreans were one about a visit to a hospital in which Wingfield-Hayes said the facility looked staged, and another on Kim Jong Un that said: “What exactly he’s done to deserve the title marshal is hard to say. On state TV the young ruler seems to spend a lot of time sitting in a large chair watching artillery firing at mountainsides.”
The April 25 House of Culture has been decked out in red banners with a yellow logo of a hammer, sickle and writing brush. Inside, the stage was draped in a heavy red curtain with portraits of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il hung at the center.
Kim Jong Un delivered opening remarks Friday at the congress, as well as a three-hour speech Saturday emphasizing the need to reinvigorate the moribund state-run economy, though offering few specifics on how to do so. He reiterated his commitment to developing nuclear weapons, saying that the nation would not use them first -- unless its “sovereignty is threatened.”
Michael Madden, editor of the website North Korea Leadership Watch and a visiting scholar at the U.S.-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins University, said Kim Jong Un’s sartorial choices at the congress – black pinstripe suits, a gray tie, and horn-rimmed glasses – are part of the young leader’s attempts to associate himself with his grandfather’s legacy.
“Based on his wearing of a suit, his eyeglasses, use of older political appellations and a lot of the rhetoric he's used during the last five years, in our American context we would call Jong Un a hipster,” said Madden.
“On one hand, there is a matter of paying homage to his grandfather as a calculated political decision … to remind DPRK citizens of a different and happier time. But on the other hand, the suits and glasses and hairstyle are something he sincerely likes. The suit is not only a callback to his grandfather, it also places him as something of an equal with other senior party cadres who wear Western suits from time to time.” North Korea’s formal name is the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, or DPRK.
Rather than Western suits, Kim’s father, Kim Jong Il, favored a customized silk-wool Zhongshan suit, commonly called a Mao suit, as supreme leader. A serious movie buff who produced films himself, he patterned his style after that of Elvis Presley and legendary producer and Paramount Pictures executive Robert Evans, said Madden, citing sources close to the Kim family.
Kim apparently did not use a teleprompter during Saturday’s three-hour marathon, instead reading from a sheaf of notes that he frequently consulted.
Madden called Kim Jong Un’s oratorical stamina “fairly impressive.”
While he could have delegated reading some portions of the Central Committee Work Report to other cadres, for example, Kim did the whole thing himself.
“He is taking public ownership of party affairs while at the same time conveying his dominant position in the North's political culture by sheer monopolization of time at the Congress,” Madden said.
“We have a lot of evidence suggesting that Jong Un edits and amends his speeches, makes last-minute changes to them before he delivers them,” he added. “That clues us in about his personality — it might be [that] he’s neurotic about whether he will be understood or about how clearly he communicates; it could also be a sign of perfectionism.”
In naming Kim “chairman,” the Worker’s Party has revised its charter and changed the title of its top leader. “Chairman” was the title Kim Il Sung held from 1946-66, but that was later changed to “General Secretary.” Kim Jong Il held the title of general secretary, and after his death he was declared general secretary in perpetuity.
Kim was present but did not speak Monday during the brief time foreign journalists were present in the April 25 House of Culture.
The congress was officially declared over on Monday night. Government guides have indicated it will be followed by a large public parade or rally and perhaps a candlelight march on Tuesday or Wednesday. Thousands of Pyongyang residents have been seen in recent days on the streets of the capital, rehearsing for some kind of large celebration.