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Kim Jong Un tribute absence sparks speculation

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s conspicuous absence from commemorations for his grandfather Kim Il Sung’s birth anniversary this week suggests he could be looking to emphasise his own authority over his family’s legacy, analysts said.

The April 15 birthday of the North’s founder is the most important celebration of the nuclear-armed country’s annual political calendar, known as the Day of the Sun.

North Koreans are taught from birth to revere Kim Il Sung and his son and successor Kim Jong Il, father of the current leader, and all adults wear badges depicting one or both men.

But Kim’s absence from any official reports on this year’s commemorations led analysts to speculate he wants to distance himself from the “cult of personality” surrounding the country’s ruling dynasty.

The state KCNA news agency did not mention him in a Thursday report on senior officials visiting the Kumsusan Palace to pay the “highest tribute” to the two late leaders.

Since inheriting power in 2011, Kim has always gone to the sprawling mausoleum on the outskirts of the capital on their birth anniversaries.

Pictures Thursday in the Rodong Sinmun newspaper, the official mouthpiece of the ruling party, did not show him attending, although a floral basket was draped with a banner bearing his name.

“Kim Jong Un wants to break away from the past, as well as the North’s traditional cult of personality,” said Ahn Chan-il, a North Korean defector and researcher in Seoul.

“His message is that Kim Jong Il and Kim Il Sung’s times are now over,” he told AFP.

“He wants to come across and brand himself as a leader who is modern and competent, rather than a descendant of his predecessors.

“And he wants to gradually tone down the idolisation of the two late leaders as it goes against his agenda to brand the North as a ‘normal state’.”

‘Propaganda effort’

The ruling party’s claim to legitimacy has its roots in Kim Il Sung’s fight against Korea’s Japanese colonisers and for years the North’s official propaganda has promoted Kim Jong Un’s resemblance to his grandfather, in appearance, manner, and even handwriting.

But in another departure from normal practice, there appeared to be no outsize basket from Kim before the two men’s giant statues in Pyongyang on Wednesday, when citizens attended to bow before them.

“This could be part of North Korea’s propaganda effort to distance Kim Jong Un from his grandfather’s and his father’s legacy and highlight his achievements, for what they are,” said Rachel Lee, a former North Korea analyst in the US government.

Kim has presided over four of the North’s six nuclear tests and overseen a rapid advance in its weapons technology, developing missiles capable of reaching the entire US mainland.

That has seen his country subjected to multiple UN Security Council sanctions as a result.

Since 2018, he has taken part in a series of summits with US President Donald Trump and the South’s leader Moon Jae-in, although talks with Washington are currently deadlocked.

Kim last appeared in state media at the weekend, when he presided over a meeting of the Workers’ Party political bureau on Saturday.

Lee played down the possibility of his absence being related to coronavirus concerns, saying he had been “quite active in recent weeks”.

Pyongyang has imposed strict restrictions to try to avoid the disease that emerged in neighbouring China and has since swept the world, at times quarantining thousands of citizens and hundreds of foreigners.

It insists it has not had a single case, although observers have expressed scepticism.

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