January 8th; A Key Date for the Diary?

As the January 8th birthday of the sitting Vice-Chairman of the Central Military Commission of the Chosun Workers’ Party and purported successor to Kim Jong Il approaches, interest is naturally gathering around the possible scale and style the event might take, with some analysts anticipating a key moment in the succession process, and others, including an inside North Korean source spoken to by The Daily NK, expecting the day to pass off more quietly.

Last year, the authorities issued a decree to Party provincial organs demanding the meaningful celebration of the birthday in the name of Secretariat of the Party on January 4th.

Simultaneously, the National Defense Commission issued the same decree to military units. While neither these facts nor what came of them was ever officially reported, it is known that a commemorative convention of the Party and key military leaders was held on January 7th.

For its part, the North Korean propagandist media pointed indirectly to the young man’s birthday on the day in an editorial entitled, “For the guidance of the Party,” stating, “Let us toast the eternally prosperous future of Chosun, which will be as brilliant as the great sun and the supreme man of Baekdu.” At the same time, “Youths’ Advance Guard”, the publication of the Kim Il Sung Socialist Youth League, issued a special article stating, “The coming days of Juche Chosun, firmly continuing the Mankyungdae and Baekdu bloodlines, are endlessly bright and promising.”

So, there was no overt celebration of Kim Jong Eun at that time. However, now that the successor’s position has been made rather more formal thanks to the Chosun Workers’ Party Delegates’ Conference last September, there is some speculation about a public commemorative event being held this time around.

It is certainly also a possibility that North Korea might attempt to highlight Kim Jong Eun’s presence by showering him with gifts and propaganda acclaim to try and move forward with the urgent problem of bedding in the third generation hereditary succession.

Indeed, according to a Daily NK source, officials have been competing to prepare “loyalty gifts” for the successor since October of last year. The source said in late October, “In order to guarantee the success of the Youth Captain’s birthday, each unit started preparing a ‘gift of loyalty’ last week. Each department of the Central Committee and Provincial Committees of the Party, the Ministry of the People’s Armed Forces, National Security Agency and People’s Safety Ministry are mobilizing foreign currency earning units to prepare.”

He went on, “In the case of the military, Army Chief of Staff Lee Young Ho directly handed down a special instruction saying, ‘Fully prepare a gift to offer on the Youth Captain’s birthday’,” and added, “Accordingly, a separate ‘gift preparation unit’ has been formed in the People’s Fine Arts Company under the General Political Department of the Ministry of the People’s Armed Forces. They are planning the nature of the gift, its preparation and cost.”

More recently, Open Radio for North Korea, citing its own inside source, said that that a train supposedly carrying birthday gifts for Kim Jong Eun had been derailed between Yeomju station and Donglim station in North Pyongan Province on December 11th.

Expert opinion on the issue is split. Cheong Seong Chang, a senior researcher with the Sejong Institute, is one of those expecting big things this January 8th. Cheong told The Daily NK he believes “Kim Jong Eun’s birthday will be a turning point for the cult of personality,” and that he anticipates a commemorative meeting, special distribution of foods in the same way as is done for the birthdays of the older Kims, and official reporting by the media.

“With the birthday as a starting point,” Cheong claimed, “they will go as far as putting a portrait of Kim Jong Eun in each public office and household, they will also reveal details of Kim Jong Eun’s activities, from being appointed the successor in 2008 until the date of his debut as the official successor in 2010 at the Chosun Workers’ Party Delegates’ Conference. This will be to exaggerate his leadership.”

However, those experts who anticipate that North Korea may choose not to make a fuss of the January 8th event say that hosting a big event like that so close to Kim Jong Il’s birthday on February 16th could influence the authority of the current leader, while some note that the difficult economic situation has most people in no mood for excess.

Particularly given that Kim Jong Eun’s list of achievements is murky at best, one North Korean source anticipates that a big event is unlikely. The source commented, “In the past, when Kim Jong Il seized the core of power at the 6th Chosun Workers’ Party Congress in 1980, he was finally being introduced as a ‘brilliant leader’. Before officially debuting as the successor, the ‘formalization of Kim Il Sung ideology and theory’ was propagandized as having been done by him.”

In contrast, the source added, Kim Jong Eun has little more than ‘CNC (Computer Numerical Control)’ and a fireworks display for his grandfather’s birthday to his name. He holds positions in the party (Vice-Chairman of the Central Military Commission of the Chosun Workers’ Party, most notably) but does not have a title which represents the scale of his authority or much to back the titles up.

The source pointed out that the possibility of a backlash against extravagance would therefore be rather high, saying, “If a big birthday event were to be held, there would be a high possibility that the public reaction would be, ‘His name has not been around long, but he is already taking care of his birthday’.”

The source also said he considered the possibility of special distribution on Kim Jong Eun’s birthday to be low, and moved to dismiss some of the more excitable speculation over the derailed train story. “It is quite likely that the ‘train loaded with birthday presents for Kim Jong Eun’ which overturned in mid December or the request for rice instead of corn from China was for presents for officials of the Party and other organs on January 1st,” he explained.

Although Kenji Fujimoto, Kim Jong Il’s former chef, claims that Kim Jong Eun was born in 1983, North Korea apparently states his year of birth as 1982, a year which carries the same last digit as Kim Il Sung (born 1912) and Kim Jong Il (born 1942). Thus he is, officially at least, about to turn 29.