World·CBC in North Korea

Nukes, money and power cuts: North Korea's leader woos watchers at home and abroad

Kim Jong-un's rule in North Korea has maintained many of the hallmarks of his predecessors, including his father’s persistent pursuit of nuclear weapons. But the 33-year-old is also bringing a mild, millennial update.

4 years after taking over following his father's death, Kim Jong-un outlined 5-year economic plan

North Korea's Kim Jong-un spoke for three hours Saturday at the ruling party's first congress in 36 years. His speech was printed in its entirety in the Rodong Sinmun newspaper. (Damir Sagolj/Reuters)

Kim Jong-un comes up in every interview here. Every one.

He has built a self-reliant nation, they say. He will improve living standards. With him as supreme leader, the country will be victorious.

Images of Kim show up multiple times a day on state television — holding a baby, meeting with adoring soldiers, giving instructions while deputies take notes. And he is almost always smiling widely.

It's the same in the newspapers.

Kim's rule, which began in 2011, has maintained many of the hallmarks of his predecessors, including his father's persistent pursuit of nuclear weapons. But the 33-year-old is also bringing a mild, millennial update to the old-style cult of personality belonging to bygone times.

It's the portraits of Kim's father and grandfather — displayed side by side — that take pride of place in public in the capital of Pyongyang. In factories and museums, meanwhile, they boast about the number of times the youngest Kim has visited in the flesh.

His appearances at a carefully choreographed ruling party congress this weekend also set him apart. On Saturday, Kim spoke for three hours, having convened a ruling party gathering his father had not throughout his nearly two decades of rule. His speech was printed in its entirety on 10 pages of the Rodong Sinmun newspaper.

The weekend provided other clues to consider in trying to decode the evolution of a relatively young ruler largely unknown in the West.

Kim Jong-un wore a suit, tie and horn-rimmed glasses for Saturday's address. (KCNA via Reuters)

What to make, for example, of the suit and tie he wore for both his speeches at the congress, instead of the usual Mao-like suit? And can anything really be read into his choice of horn-rimmed glasses that, as resident reporters have pointed out, bear a strong resemblance to his revered grandfather's?

Easier to track and understand is his dual messaging to watchers at home and abroad.

His relatively conciliatory tone on relations with the rest of the world, based on their acceptance of his country as a nuclear power, isn't entirely new. But using it at the historic party congress is significant.

The speech contained little of the usual anti-West rhetoric, Thomas Klassen, a York University expert on North Korea, points out.

"In the opening speech of the congress, Kim Jong-un noted 'my warm greetings to … [the] South Korean people' and spoke of the reunification of Korea," says Klassen.

A general view of the Workers' Party Congress in Pyongyang on May 7, 2016 is shown in this handout photo provided by KCNA. (KCNA via Reuters)

In that second, three-hour speech made on Saturday and aired on state television on Sunday, Kim "tried to portray North Korea as a responsible nuclear power that would use its weapons only to protect its sovereignty."

A central message for audiences at home and abroad seemed to be his attempt to make the case for improving people's lives — while still spending on nuclear weapons.

On the domestic front, the leader outlined an ill-defined but still surprising five-year plan to boost the economy. He spoke about doing something about the country's power outages, perhaps boosting it with nuclear energy.

"Like all politicians, Kim Jong-un laid out in his speech a grand vision for a more prosperous nation," says Klassen. "Now we wait to see how, when [and if] that is brought into existence."

In doing all that, Kim has now outlined an agenda to define his rule — a full four years after it suddenly began when his father died in December 2011.

"You know these things in North Korea they take time," says James Pearson, a Reuters correspondent who covers North Korea and has co-written a book entitled North Korea Confidential.

"You're not talking about four- or five-year presidencies; you're talking about a royal family kind of thing."

A man cleans a bus in Pyongyang, North Korea on May 8, 2016. (Damir Sagolj/Reuters)


Nahlah Ayed

Host of CBC Ideas

Nahlah Ayed is the host of the nightly CBC Radio program Ideas. A veteran of foreign reportage, she's spent nearly a decade covering major world events from London, and another decade covering upheaval across the Middle East. Ayed was previously a parliamentary reporter for The Canadian Press.