North Korean crowds greet father and son Kims with a roar of enthusiasm

The older man appeared frail and seemed to have difficulty walking. His young companion, a portly man with close-cropped hair, cut a sharp, youthful contrast.

With brass horns sounding and a ferocious roar from tens of thousands of spectators, North Korean leader Kim Jong Il emerged alongside his youngest son and eventual successor Sunday in a massive coming out party for the newly anointed young heir.

Kim Jong Eun, who is believed to be 27, stood near his ailing father on a long rostrum overlooking a lavish military parade replete with swarms of civilian performers, goose-stepping troops and convoys of army vehicles mounted with missiles.


“It is the first time I’ve seen them together,” said Park Song Nam, 50, a performer wearing a suit and tie who waved synthetic flowers for more than an hour. “I cried the whole time.… I didn’t feel tired because I saw the father and son together.”

Father and son stood separated by a uniformed general, occasionally saluting passing military units with bystanders on the platform.

In a climactic finish to the ceremony, Kim Jong Il paced along the edge of the rostrum to wave at adoring spectators, who clapped and chanted his name. The 68-year-old leader had to hold on to the platform’s railing.

The spectacle marking the 65th anniversary of the founding of the ruling Workers’ Party was held in Kim Il Sung Square, named after Kim Jong Il’s father and founder of the nation. The location and trappings emphasized North Korea’s intention to perpetuate the dynasty that has ruled the northern half of the peninsula since the end of World War II.

Kim Jong Eun had for months been rumored to be the favorite to succeed his father. But until two weeks ago when he was promoted to top positions at an extraordinary meeting of the Workers’ Party, his name had never even appeared in the North Korean media.

His exact age and even the correct spelling of his name are in question. He looks to be older than his 20s, and is heavier than his father; a double chin was evident, as well as a belly bulging under his black military jacket. The young man is believed to have attended school in Bern, Switzerland, posing as the son of a North Korean diplomat. Classmates have described him as an avid basketball player and a good student who spoke English and passable German.

South Korean analysts say Kim Jong Eun left Switzerland in 2000 to study in North Korea. He received a degree in physics at Kim Il Sung University, and another at the Kim Il Sung Military Academy. He is thought to have spent three years in the military, which promoted him last month to the rank of four-star general.

“He’s the one, exactly the same as Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il,” gushed Kim Soh Ye, a young woman in a bright yellow Korean gown who was escorting foreign journalists for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

A large contingent of foreign journalists was invited to Pyongyang, permitted to walk around free of official guides and to film and broadcast from a press room with unrestricted Internet access. It was the first time that the foreign journalists had been permitted to enter the normally secretive capital since the New York Philharmonic performed here in 2008.

The show was clearly choreographed to demonstrate that the nation is united behind Kim Jong Il’s choice of successor and that, despite its economic woes, is not on the verge of collapse.

“Kim Jong Il needed to show that the succession is going well, that there is unity of purpose between the party and the military,” said Moon Chung-in, a political science professor at Seoul-based Yonsei University. “If there was internal turmoil, he could not come up with this kind of show.”

The capital, with its drab apartment blocks and austere department stores, was positively festive. Pyongyang is by far the most affluent city in otherwise bleak country whose economy hangs by a thread.

Couples strolled together enjoying popsicles; children shot at tin pigeons at a gaming stall. Shop windows in the neighborhood toured by the foreign journalists displayed modern desktop computers and washing machines. The drone of marching bands and anxious crowds gave the area around the square the atmosphere of a college football game.

With the imposing monument known as the Juche Tower in the distance, streams of men in dark suits and women wearing effervescent folk costumes filled the edges of the square waving pink and red flowers fashioned into pompoms.

The center was then filled with passing formations of male and female soldiers toting assault rifles and grenade launchers. Some were overcome with tears as they turned to face the leadership on the rostrum.

The troops were followed by tanks and vehicles carrying progressively bigger rockets and missiles, the last of which were a series of trucks ferrying unidentified silver tubes.

“No one knows what they are,” said Kim Soh Ye, the woman from the Foreign Affairs Ministry. “It’s the first time we’ve seen them too.”

Park, the 50-year-old performer at the parade, said his fellow participants were all party members and spent a week practicing. When the ceremony ended, he sat on a curb and wiped his brow with a plaid handkerchief.

“It was so moving,” he said.

Despite teary-eyed enthusiasm, Kim Jong Eun faces considerable challenges to establish himself in power.

The living standards of North Koreans are among the lowest in the world, with much of the population on the edge of starvation. A disastrous revaluation of the currency late last year nearly pushed the economy to collapse.

The continuing stalemate over the nation’s nuclear program has left it with few friends in the world, with China the most notable exception. A member of China’s Politburo, Zhou Yongkang, had a front-row seat at the festivities in Pyongyang.

“Even in a totalitarian society, without some kind of achievement, it will be very difficult to establish his legitimacy,” said Moon, the Yonsei professor. “Everything is well-orchestrated for the time being, but this is only the beginning of the succession process.”

Kim Jong Il was designated his father’s successor nearly two decades before he took power in 1994. Families in the North Korean military were told that Kim Jong Eun had spent years living under cover with North Korean soldiers, seeing the system from the inside.

That knowledge will help him fix North Korea, said a 28-year-old woman from the outskirts of Pyongyang, who was interviewed in March in China. Others interviewed there were skeptical.

“If his father is doing such a bad job, what can we expect of his son?” said a woman in her 50s from Musan, North Korea, who gave her name as Li Mi Hee.

Times staff writer Barbara Demick in Beijing contributed to this report.