Kim Makes Surprise Visits

The North Korean leader, sources say, displays concern for the people’s welfare in impromptu departures from his planned itineraries.
2012-06-11
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North Korean leader Kim Jong Un (C) at a Korean Children's Union celebration in Pyongyang, June 6, 2012.
AFP Photo/KCNA via KNS

In a departure from his father’s leadership style, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has made surprise visits to military barracks and a family home in a bid to learn firsthand about citizens’ welfare, drawing positive reactions from the public, according to a source.

Some North Koreans are hoping that Kim’s diversion from tightly scripted inspection tours are a sign the young “Supreme Leader,” who took over the helm after his father Kim Jong Il’s death in December, will pay more attention to the people’s needs than his predecessor did, sources say.

In one incident, Kim Jong Un stumbled across a group of underfed soldiers while inspecting a military base in the Hwanghae region, a source from South Hamgyong province surnamed Kwak told RFA.

“Kim Jong Un refused to follow the base commander’s lead and entered a barracks that was not prepared to be shown,” said Kwak, who wished only to be identified by his surname.

“The barracks happened to be a facility for weak and malnourished patients,” he said.

Furious about their condition, Kim reportedly punished the base commander and had the soldiers sent to a hospital in the capital Pyongyang, Kwak said.

On another tour, while en route from Pyongyang to inspect the city of Hamheung in the central part of the country, Kim stopped the car in order to make a surprise visit to a family’s residence, Kwak said.

At their home, he saw that the family’s dinner consisted of only porridge of dried greens with a few kernels of corn, Kwak said.

Kim’s interest in the welfare of everyday people’s lives is beginning to change some people’s perception about him, Kwak suggested.

They initially thought the junior Kim could not understand the people’s concerns because of his affluent upbringing abroad, he said.

Some also believe Kim, who is in his late 20’s and studied in Switzerland, could bring a fresh perspective to ruling the country, said another source, a Korean-Chinese businessman identified as Park.

He said that during his recent two-week visit to Pyongyang, officials talked about their hopes for more open policies from the new leader.

“Every North Korean official I met said the openness policy will begin soon,” he said, adding that even mention of the word “openness” had previously been forbidden under Kim Jong Il’s regime.

Public appearances

The young leader’s interactions with officials on the tours have appeared in state media, in an apparent bid to bolster support.

In May, on a visit in to a park in a suburb of the capital, he “scolded” officials for neglecting their care of the facility, Korean Central News Agency reported.

Korean Central Television, the state news broadcaster, ramped up its coverage of the leader’s inspection tours in recent weeks, airing a documentary on his visits to an amusement park, an ice rink, and a street in Pyongyang.

The station also broadcast same-day coverage of the leader’s visit to a Pyongyang zoo—unlike its coverage of his father’s tours, which was often broadcast weeks after they happened.

Such divergences from the planned itinerary are markedly different from his father, who only visited sites that had been precisely prepared in advance.

The elder Kim made only a single speech for public broadcast in his 17 years, and the only time the public heard his voice on a broadcast was when he stepped up to a microphone at a military parade in 1992 to shout a single sentence, "Glory to the heroic soldiers of the Korean People's Army!”

But since taking over in December, Kim Jong Un has already made his second speech, addressing an audience of 20,000 children last week for an occasion celebrating the 66th anniversary of the Korean Children’s Union.

The first speech came in April, during celebrations for the 100th anniversary of the birth of his grandfather, Kim Il Sung, the first in the Kim dynasty that has ruled the North Korean regime since its inception in 1948.

Reported by Kim Jun Ho for RFA’s Korean service. Written in English by Rachel Vandenbrink.