When North Korean leader Kim Jong Un unveiled a new intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) over the weekend, there was another eye-catching development alongside the usual saber-rattling: he appeared to cry.
During his speech in Pyongyang to mark the 75th anniversary of the Korea Workers’ Party on Saturday, Kim apologized for past errors and thanked the public and armed forces. He used the words “thanks” and “gratitude” more than 10 times, and his voice trembled with emotion as he removed his glasses and put them back on, holding a handkerchief in his right hand.
“I extend the highest tribute to their ardent loyalty and filial devotion to our state and people and warm thanks to all the service personnel,” Kim said at the ceremony, in which the gigantic missile was paraded for view next to thousands of maskless soldiers in a country that claims to be free of the pandemic.
“I thank them for their good health without any one of them having fallen victim to the malignant virus,” Kim added. “I am moved by this success, and as I see their healthy appearance, I can find no word other than thanks.”
But experts say the emotional moments in his speech were not simply a rare display of the vicious dictator’s soft side. Like so many things in the hermit kingdom, they were analyzed for what they can tell the world about the reclusive leader and what’s happening in the country.
“This is the difference between Kim and his father,” Koh Yu-hwan, the president of the Korea Institute for National Unification, told VICE News, referring to Kim Jong Il, who died in 2011.
“While his father rarely appeared in public and said just a few words in his speeches, Kim used emotional comments and shed tears.”
Yang Moo-jin, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies, echoed his comments and said it is part of Kim’s personal style of leadership to admit mistakes and apologize to his people in contrast with his father.
During his speech on Saturday, Kim also said that “our people have placed their trust with me as high as the sky and as deep as the sea, but I have failed to live up to it satisfactorily all the time. I am really sorry for that.”
A screen grab taken from a KCNA broadcast on Oct. 10, 2020 shows North Korean soldiers and attendees gathered listening to a speech by North Korean leader Kim Jong Un ahead of a military parade on Kim Il Sung square in Pyongyang. Photo: KCNA VIA KNS / AFP
It’s his second apology in weeks since he told South Korean counterpart President Moon Jae-in that he was “very sorry” after North Korean soldiers shot and killed a maritime official from the South at sea.
In his speech, the North Korean leader sent another message to the South. “I also send this warm wish of mine to our dear fellow countrymen…and hope that this health crisis would come to an end as early as possible and the day would come when we take each other’s hand again.”
Kim Yong-hyun, a professor of North Korean Studies at Dongguk University in Seoul, told VICE News that the more humble signals could also be an attempt to send messages of unity at a time of discontent.
“Kim appealed to people emotionally who are going through difficulties due to triple challenges such as the sanctions, the virus, and typhoon damage,” he said, referring to several typhoons that struck the peninsula in recent months and ongoing tensions with the U.S. after two failed summits with President Donald Trump. “This could help his image, that he shares joys and sorrows with people.”
“Kim is showing that he is trying to overcome the challenges in spite of the difficulties as a father of the nation,” Koh said.
But some South Korean politicians weren’t buying it and said the tears and messages were just for show. Kim Chong-in, a leader of the main conservative opposition People Power Party, condemned the North Korean leader’s speech during a meeting at the National Assembly.
“We are just astonished at these crocodile tears, talking about Koreans in the South after shooting one of us to death.”
Find Junhyup Kwon on Twitter.