On April 15th, North Korea marked the 103rd anniversary of the birthday of the late national founder Kim Il-sung. In North Korea, this day is referred to as the “Day of the Sun.” To celebrate the nation’s biggest holiday, North Korean media released videos and pictures about the former leader, while a marathon race was held in Pyongyang. Here’s Ahn Chan-il, a North Korean defector and head of the World North Korea Research Center, to explain the commemorative mood in North Korea this year.
The current Kim Jong-un regime celebrated the Day of the Sun this year somewhat differently from the previous Kim Jong-il era, which used to focus on culture and art when holding commemorative events. In contrast, the current regime has been holding various sports events, in line with leader Kim Jong-un’s slogan of building a sports powerhouse. On April 14th, the top leader watched a soccer match with his wife Ri Sol-ju at the national sports festival, reflecting his keen interest in sports. Also, North Korea successfully hosted the largest marathon race that has ever been held in the country, with 350 foreigners participating. Unlike last year, North Korea focused on sports events to commemorate the Day of the Sun this year.
North Korea first designated the birthday of Kim Il-sung as a holiday in 1968 and elevated it to the biggest national holiday in 1974. In 1997, three years after Kim’s death, North Korea began to call the birthday the “Day of the Sun,” as the leader had often been referred to as the “sun of the nation.” Apparently, the country tried to inspire loyalty by highlighting the birthday of the dear leader in a big way. Marking the Day of the Sun this year, as in previous years, North Korea underlined loyalty to its leader Kim Jong-un.
A military event grabs our attention. All members of the military elite in North Korea swore loyalty at the Kumsusan Palace of the Sun where the bodies of former leaders, Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il, are enshrined. At midnight on April 15th, leader Kim Jong-un paid tribute at the mausoleum. At the time, he didn’t bring any civilians but was only accompanied by top military officials, including Hwang Pyong-so, director of the general political bureau of the Korean People’s Army, Ri Yong-gil, chief of the Korean People’s Army General Staff and Kim Won-hong, minister of state security. The fact that Kim was accompanied by top officials from the military and the security area shows that the leader was backed by strong support from the military. The visit is viewed as a propaganda event to demonstrate the loyal service of the military to North Korea’s leader.
Kim Jong-un has visited the Kumsusan Palace of the Sun on the Day of the Sun every year since he came to power. This year was no exception. He paid tribute there, along with high-ranking military officials, demonstrating his determination to solidify the third-generational succession of supreme power. But diplomatic experts say this year’s celebration was similar to last year’s, since there was no large-scale military parade.
North Korea typically holds grand celebrations on fifth and tenth anniversaries of important occasions such as the Day of the Sun and the founding anniversaries of the party and the regime. 2015 marked the 103rd anniversary of the birthday of Kim Il-sung. So this year, it seems North Korea refrained from holding a military parade at Kim Il-sung Square or holding a massive, nationwide festival. However, to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the founding of the Workers’ Party on October 10, North Korea has already started a rehearsal at Mirim Airfield in the suburbs of Pyongyang for the largest parade ever. For North Korea, the year 2015 is significant in terms of the 70th anniversary of the foundation of the Workers’ Party and the 70th anniversary of Korea’s liberation from Japanese colonial rule. The Day of the Sun this year, on the other hand, is not a fifth or tenth anniversary. So, it was observed at a similar level as last year, and there were no particular eye-catching events.
In celebration of the 100th anniversary of Kim Il-sung’s birthday on April 15, 2012, North Korea unveiled military weapons and equipment, including the KN-08 missile. The showcase was the largest in scale. Two days earlier, on April 13, the country fired an Unha-3 long-range rocket. This year, North Korea is planning to hold a huge event on October 10, the 70th anniversary of the founding of the Workers’ Party. North Korea is committed to holding the event successfully.
The 70th anniversary of the foundation of the Workers’ Party means that 70 years have passed since the history of North Korea began. Seven decades ago, Kim Il-sung rose to the rank of the nation’s top leader at the age of 33. Now, his grandson Kim Jong-un seeks to re-create this process. In this sense, the year 2015 is very important for North Korean authorities. Kim will visit Moscow on May 9 to meet Russian President Vladimir Putin. Just as the Kim Il-sung regime emerged 70 years ago, backed by the Soviet Union, the current Kim Jong-un regime hopes to exist for another 70 years on the back of Russia, which is now emerging as a relatively strong nation. North Korea is seeking to create its own history of a thousand or even 10-thousand years. North Korea is preparing for various events in this significant year.
Kim Jong-un has already notified Russia of his intention to attend a ceremony in Moscow marking the 70th anniversary of the Soviet victory in World War II on May 9. Relations between North Korea and Russia have become closer as of late. The two sides held a ceremony to commemorate the year of bilateral friendship in Moscow on April 14 and signed agreements on cooperation between central banks and cultural and academic exchanges as well. It is speculated that the North Korean delegation visiting Moscow will coordinate agendas for a summit between Kim and Putin. If the North Korea-Russia summit takes place, the North Korean leader will be able to make a successful debut on the international stage, restarting his diplomatic clock that has stopped for three years since he took power. If that happens, will North Korea refrain from its armed provocations?
Pyongyang set a no-sail and no-fly zone in the East Sea on April 1. It didn’t launch any missiles on the Day of the Sun. But North Korea is expected to fire one or two Rodong missiles around April 25, on the founding anniversary of the North Korean army, although it may not go as far as to fire an intercontinental ballistic missile. That is because the South Korea-U.S. combined military drills will end within this week on April 18. This is the last chance for North Korea to resort to a show of force in the first half of this year. Of course, North Korea will show a soft attitude before its leader Kim Jong-un visits Moscow in a move to approach the international community. But at the same time, Pyongyang may also want to demonstrate its presence and draw international attention through missile launches. So, there is a possibility that North Korea may launch missiles or make some other military provocation on the occasion of the army anniversary on April 25.
After the Day of the Sun, the diplomatic situation on the Korean Peninsula may change at any time. North Korea will mark its army anniversary on April 25 and the South Korea-U.S. military drills will end soon. Seoul and Pyongyang are at odds over labor regulations governing their joint industrial complex in Gaeseong, including wages for North Korean workers there. And North Korean leader Kim Jong-un will soon visit Russia for his summit diplomacy. With various issues at hand, Seoul needs to carefully watch North Korea, which uses conciliatory gestures and provocations alternately, whenever necessary.
[Interview]Defector Dreams of Becoming Expert in International Diplomacy
I’m going to study International Relations and Politics at the Graduate School of the University of Sheffield in England. I’ve already received the letter of offer. I think I can go to England in September this year if I prepare well. The university is renowned for international relations and politics, and it has a number of famous professors in this area. This is a very good opportunity to learn a lot about this particular subject.
You just heard from Kim Seong-ryeol, who received his admission letter from the Graduate School of the University of Sheffield in England last month. He is quite excited at the thought of studying at the school, where there are many experts in international relations and politics. As a matter of fact, Kim is a defector from North Korea.
I escaped from North Korea in 1997. During the so-called “Arduous March” period at the time, lots of people in North Korea starved to death. I received no food rations and there was nothing to eat at home. I would wander around the black market to eat something peopled dropped or steal food. I was a kkotjebi, which refers to homeless North Korean children in search of food and shelter. I survived on little food, barely having one meal a day. I remember I just lay down on the bed at home and thought that I would rather try and escape than die like that. Either way, life would be difficult. So, I decided to escape.
In March 1997, Kim fled from North Korea by crossing the Tumen River with his mother and older sister. But after three years of wandering in Yenbien and Hebei Province in China, he was caught by Chinese police and was forcibly sent back to North Korea. After that, he made two more attempts to escape before successfully settling in China in 2001.
I worked at a noodle factory in the Chinese city of Tianjin. I was in charge of managing the factory, and I was also doing my own business. My life became stable, at least financially. But I had been out of school for a long time, and I always felt a void in my heart. I had a strong desire to fill the void by learning something. I was constantly looking for ways to satisfy my desire. One day, while listening to a radio program, I heard that the South Korean government accepted North Korean defectors and provided free education to young defectors. I thought I found the answer. I decided to go there.
In September 2004, Kim set foot on South Korean soil. He was 19 years old. He was able to pass all the qualification exams for elementary school, middle and high school in just 15 months. But he was faced with an unexpected obstacle that was difficult to overcome.
I thought I would have no difficulty studying at university since I had passed the qualification exams. One day, I attended an English class at the university. The professor, who was a native speaker of English, asked me a question, “What kind of music do you like?” With many students looking at me, I was at a loss for words, just sitting there, not knowing what to do. I was shocked. I thought I could not survive in this society if I failed to speak English. I was deeply frustrated.
Kim entered Handong Global University in 2007. But a year later, he chose to take temporary leave from the school due to heavy stress from English studies. But Kim never gave up. He concentrated on English studies and went to the U.S. to take part in an English language program for North Korean students. Also, he won a scholarship offered by the U.S. State Department and studied in the U.S. for six months as an exchange student. While experiencing the world, Kim came to cherish a dream.
I have a dream to become an expert in international diplomacy. While experiencing the U.S. and meeting with smart people with diverse backgrounds, I wished that the people would include North Koreans as well. In fact, there are many talented people who are also good at math in North Korea. I envision a day when those intelligent people can showcase their abilities in the international community. When Korea is unified and people are allowed to travel to North Korea freely, I hope to contribute to nurturing young North Korean people as global talents. That’s my dream.