The leadership of North Korea moved swiftly on Wednesday to portray Kim Jong-un, thrust into the international spotlight after the death of his father, as the country’s unchallenged ruler.
With the military’s allegiance a central question to the new leader’s success in consolidating power, North Korean television showed senior military leaders saluting the young Mr. Kim on Wednesday as he received mourners at the Kumsusan mausoleum, where his father, Kim Jong-il, lay in state inside a glass case for public viewing. State television repeatedly broadcast images of senior military leaders pledging their fealty to the son.
In South Korea, the National Intelligence Service reported to the National Assembly that shortly after Mr. Kim’s death was announced on Monday, North Korean troops canceled their field training and returned to their barracks on high alert, according to lawmakers who attended the agency’s closed-door briefing.
The order to return to the barracks was given under the name of Kim Jong-un and was issued before his father’s death was announced, an indication that he was in control of the North’s 1.2 million-strong military, the South’s national news agency, Yonhap, reported Wednesday, quoting an anonymous government source.
The spy agency also told the National Assembly’s intelligence committee that security had been tightened in major cities across the country. But it also predicted that the Central Military Commission of the Workers’ Party, to which Kim Jong-un was appointed as vice chairman last year, will serve as “an interim ruling agency” until he consolidates his power (his father was chairman of the commission). He has yet to assume the two top jobs his father held: general secretary of the party and chairman of the National Defense Commission.
Analysts said the rush to establish the young Mr. Kim’s leadership, while the nation was grieving over his father’s death, was a signal of his vulnerability. When Kim Il-sung, who was North Korea’s founder and Kim Jong-il’s father, died, “talking about Kim Jong-il’s succession while the country was gripped in mourning was considered sacrilegious,” said Choi Jin-wook, an analyst at the Korea Institute for National Unification in Seoul.
The first thing Kim Jong-il did when he unveiled his youngest son as heir last year was to give him two powerful military titles: four-star general and vice chairman of the Central Military Commission. But his control over the hard-line People’s Army, whose influence has grown under his father’s songun, or “military first” policy, remains untested, and some fear he might use tensions to establish his leadership credentials. The military was considered the most resistant to the idea of giving away the North’s nuclear weapons in return for outside aid.
If Kim Jong-un, believed to be in his 20s, is not able to consolidate power, he may become the figurehead of a collective leadership in which the military and an uncle, Jang Song-taek, 65, would emerge as power brokers. Mr. Jang, the brother-in-law of Kim Jong-il, grew influential under Mr. Kim’s rule and was often cited as a possible regent for Kim Jong-un.
On Wednesday, the United States and South Korea made cautious overtures to the North. Despite longstanding frustrations over the North’s aggressions and its nuclear weapons program, both countries appeared focused on avoiding provocations during a delicate transition of power, signaling their readiness to engage with the emerging leadership when it was ready. Still, their expressions of sympathy have been directed to the North Korean people, not to the government.