Skip to main content

North Korea's young leader breaks the mold

By Stan Grant, CNN
April 16, 2012 -- Updated 0715 GMT (1515 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Kim Jong Un spoke during a celebration in Pyongyang marking Kim Il Sung's birth 100 years earlier
  • The third generation of the Kim dynasty pledges to build on his family's legacy
  • Kim also acknowledged the suffering of many N. Koreans, vowed never to let them starve again
  • But he also carried a warning that North Korea remains able to defend itself

Pyongyang, North Korea (CNN) -- For just a moment we can hardly believe what is happening.

The boyish leader takes a step towards the microphone, the massed ranks of the huge army he commands poised before him. And then he speaks.

The adoring crowd who have been chanting his name falls silent.

Kim Jong Un, not yet 30 years old, appears slightly nervous. His voice doesn't waver but his body moves back and forth restlessly and his eyes dart around. If his nerves betray him slightly, his words stay strong.

He stands atop the shoulders of the men who have gone before him, his grandfather and father. Directly below him hang the huge portraits of the man North Koreans call the Great Leader, Kim il Sung, and his son the so-called Dear Leader, Kim Jong Il.

North Korea marks founder's 100th birthday

The third generation of the Kim dynasty pledges to build on his family's legacy. But already, just with this speech, he is veering from their path. It is something his father never did. North Koreans I speak to say they can't recall ever hearing his voice.

North Korea hears from Kim Jong Un
North Korean parade shows off missile

To be here now is "the greatest gift I have received in my life," one man says.

Kim Jong Un is speaking to two audiences: his people and the outside world he stands apart from. The newly-crowned Supreme Leader has a vowed to try to unite the fractured Korean nation, still separated after more than half a century.

"We have suffered the pain of separation for nearly 70 years," he declares. "We have lived as one people on the same land for thousands of years to suffer like this is heartbreaking.

"Our party and our government will work with anyone who truly wants reunification."

But this is not a day for talk of peace. This is a military parade with all the menace this isolated nation can muster. To North Koreans this says they can defend themselves.

To their enemies, especially the United States, there is a deadly message.

"Our military has become a powerful military able to handle any kind of modern warfare, with complete offensive and defensive capabilities," Kim says.

The foreign powers are not the only ones with monopoly on military supremacy, and the days of their threatening and lying to us with atomic weapons is forever gone.
Kim Jong Un

"The foreign powers are not the only ones with monopoly on military supremacy, and the days of their threatening and lying to us with atomic weapons is forever gone."

It is 100 years since the birth of the founding father of the nation, Kim il Sung. Installed as leader by Russia in 1945 after the liberation and the separation of North and South Korea, he is still revered as a freedom fighter and hero.

To honor his birthday, the military, one of the largest on earth, shows off its arsenal. Soldiers -- men and women -- goose step with precision, while columns of tanks bearing the message "we will smash the United States imperialists" roll across the great parade square.

The latest hi-tech weapons then follow, including drones and missiles that could potentially strike targets thousands of miles away.

This is an army battle ready, a country still technically at war and soldiers determined to follow any order.

"With the strategy of the Great Leader Kim Il Sung, the dear Kim Jong il and Kim Jong Un, and with our bombs and weapons, we will destroy them," a group of soldiers tells me.

In North Korea the army comes first, no expense spared. While it shows off its guns to the world, many people go hungry. The military is well fed, but aid agencies say the country's rural population suffers from chronic malnutrition and stunted growth as they scrounge for food.

In a rare concession, Kim says this regime will not allow people to suffer any more -- as close as he could get to admitting the government had failed the people in the past.

"Our fellow citizens, who are the best citizens in the world, who have overcome countless struggles and hardships, it is our party's firmest resolve not to let our citizens go hungry again," he says.

Across the capital, people watching on are alive to this moment. When I approach one group and merely mention the name Kim Jong Un they explode into chants and loud clapping.

One man beaming at our camera says, "we want to tell the world how proud we are to have such a man to lead us."

Kim has inherited the power, adulation and responsibility few people could possibly be prepared for.

The world is watching and wondering if he will be different from his forefathers and whether he will even survive.

When the parade passes, Kim will face the reality of ruling this poverty-stricken, pariah state.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
September 2, 2014 -- Updated 0135 GMT (0935 HKT)
Three Americans detained in North Korea spoke out about their conditions Monday in an exclusive interview with CNN.
September 1, 2014 -- Updated 0852 GMT (1652 HKT)
The crowd cheers as the stars make their way to the ring for first pro-wrestling bout North Korea has seen in almost 20 years.
August 31, 2014 -- Updated 0137 GMT (0937 HKT)
CNN's Will Ripley makes a rare live report from reclusive North Korea.
September 2, 2014 -- Updated 1445 GMT (2245 HKT)
CNN's Will Ripley is given a rare look inside North Korea and tours Kim Jong Un's pet project, a waterpark.
August 18, 2014 -- Updated 1918 GMT (0318 HKT)
Several South Korean "comfort woman" attended a Papal mass, but hope the Pope will do more. Erin McLaughlin reports.
August 15, 2014 -- Updated 0228 GMT (1028 HKT)
Pope Francis arrived in Seoul Thursday, marking the first papal visit to the country in 25 years.
August 18, 2014 -- Updated 1221 GMT (2021 HKT)
North Korea rejected an invitation to the Pope's Mass in Seoul. CNN's Paula Hancocks reports.
July 2, 2014 -- Updated 2225 GMT (0625 HKT)
As diplomats discuss a string of unsolved kidnappings of Japanese citizens by North Korea, the families of those abducted anxiously wait.
July 3, 2014 -- Updated 2357 GMT (0757 HKT)
When President Xi Jinping arrives in Seoul this week, the Chinese leader will have passed over North Korea in favor of its arch rival.
July 1, 2014 -- Updated 0313 GMT (1113 HKT)
North Korea says it plans to prosecute two American tourists that it detained earlier this year, accusing them of "perpetrating hostile acts."
June 30, 2014 -- Updated 2338 GMT (0738 HKT)
North Korea proposed that "all hostile military activities" with South Korea be halted, but it attached conditions that Seoul is likely to reject.
June 27, 2014 -- Updated 0023 GMT (0823 HKT)
North Korean state news is reporting the country test-launched "cutting-edge ultra precision tactical guided missiles."
June 25, 2014 -- Updated 1145 GMT (1945 HKT)
James Franco won't be following Dennis Rodman into North Korea anytime soon.
June 13, 2014 -- Updated 1104 GMT (1904 HKT)
Don't you hate it when the weatherman gets it wrong? Apparently, so does Kim Jong Un.
June 5, 2014 -- Updated 2344 GMT (0744 HKT)
New signs show Russia and North Korea are developing a closer relationship.
May 22, 2014 -- Updated 0012 GMT (0812 HKT)
Photographer Eric Lafforgue visited North Korea and shares his inside look at the most isolated country in the world.
May 13, 2014 -- Updated 0125 GMT (0925 HKT)
Many North Koreans listen to illegal broadcasts on homemade radios, some are convinced to defect.
May 8, 2014 -- Updated 1926 GMT (0326 HKT)
Jang Jin-Sung, a North Korean defector and former regime insider, speaks with CNN's Christiane Amanpour.
ADVERTISEMENT