News / Asia

North Korea Hails Kim Jong Un as 'Supreme Leader'

Photo released by the Korean Central News Agency and distributed in Tokyo by the Korea News Service, thousands take part in a national memorial service for late North Korean leader Kim Jong Il in Pyongyang, December 29, 2011.
Photo released by the Korean Central News Agency and distributed in Tokyo by the Korea News Service, thousands take part in a national memorial service for late North Korean leader Kim Jong Il in Pyongyang, December 29, 2011.

With a distant siren the only sound, an ocean of people bowed silently Thursday before North Korea's Kim Jong Un.

From a balcony, he looked out over hundreds of thousands gathered for a silent memorial to his father - and a pledge of unwavering loyalty to him.

The North’s new leader is not yet 30-years-old, but is already referred to in state media as "Supreme Commander" and "Great Successor."

As the military fired weapons in salute, senior leaders flanking the younger Kim sought to leave no doubt about a smooth power transition from father to son.

Kim Yong Nam is North Korean Supreme People's Assembly President.  He says our great comrade Kim Jong Il has solved the leadership succession matter perfectly, which is the most precious accomplishment for our country's destiny and endless prosperity of our descendants.

Korean Workers' Party Secretary Kim Ki Nam says by following our party and people's supreme leader Kim Jong Un's leadership, we are going to transform today's sorrow into a thousand times more strength and courage.

Estimates of how many North Koreans died of starvation and malnutrition under Kim Jong Il's rule range from several hundred thousand to more than a million.

In neighboring South Korea, experts say Kim Jong Un's very survival depends on his ability to improve the economy.

"Even a strong state, shall we say, like North Korea, armed to the teeth, can only last if its economy can continue to feed its soldiers, never mind its people," said Lho Kyungsoo, a Seoul National University professor and chairman of the Asia Society Korea Center. "But in order to earn the loyalty that his father and grandfather had the young Kim Jong Un is going to have to find the means to feed his people. And in order to do that he is going to have to change the makeup of the system to a certain degree and cooperate peacefully with its neighbors - especially South Korea."

In order to win the kind of aid and investment it needs to prevent its economy from imploding, researchers say even its ally, China, is likely to insist North Korea make concessions toward giving up its nuclear weapons.

Some argue that it is time for Seoul and its ally the United States to be less stringent in their demands on the North, to give Kim Jong Un space to open up the country.

"Deng Xiaoping decided to pursue opening reform when the United States normalized diplomatic ties with China," said Moon Chung-in, a political science professor at Yonsei University. "Vietnam decided to pursue “doi moi” opening and reform policy, when its relationship with China was improving and realized the United States was willing to recognize Vietnam. We should create a very similar environment for North Korea, so that the North Korean military cannot justify its hardline position anymore. So that Kim Jong Un can take a new policy on opening and reform in a bold manner."

Many agree the Kim family name alone will not be enough to sustain North Korea's new leader and the coming months are likely to be a crucial test.

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