Coronavirus puts damper on Kim Jong Un's celebrations of late father

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un visiting the Kumsusan Palace of the Sun on the Day of the Shining Star, the birth anniversary of his father Kim Jong Il, in Pyongyang on Feb 16. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

SEOUL (BLOOMBERG) - Fear of the coronavirus outbreak spreading into North Korea may be accelerating leader Kim Jong Un's efforts to play down the legacy of his father and strengthen his own cult of personality.

Festivities to mark the anniversary of Kim Jong Il's birth on Sunday (Feb 16) - the Day of the Shining Star - were noticeably more subdued than past years, with thinner crowds and fewer visiting dignitaries.

While much of that presumably stems from strict outbreak control measures, the toned-down affair was consistent with the younger Mr Kim's push to move out from under his predecessor's shadow and secure greater international legitimacy for the family dynasty.

"Kim Jong Un has put his own flair on policies," said Mr Duyeon Kim, a senior adviser for North-east Asia and nuclear policy at the International Crisis Group. "That's not necessarily a contradiction or affront to his father's legacy, especially when the regime has core national policies that are unchangeable."

Since rising to power after his father's death in 2011, Mr Kim - then not yet 30 years old - has sought to carve a different path from the reclusive "Dear Leader".

He has purged top advisers and revamped the regime's "military-first" strategy with development plans that place increasing emphasis on the economy.

He has also launched an unprecedented campaign of diplomatic outreach, capped by trips to Singapore and Vietnam to meet United States President Donald Trump.

More recently, he has criticised as "very wrong" one of his father's signature project to partner with South Korea to develop the Mount Kumgang resort.

Through it all, Mr Kim has appeared to model himself more after his revered grandfather Kim Il Sung, donning horn-rimmed glasses and business suits and riding a white horse across the mountainous landscape where the nation's founder once had a guerrilla base in the campaign he led against the occupying Japanese.

Diplomatically, Mr Kim has so far proven less eager than his father to sign international agreements limiting North Korea's nuclear deterrent in exchange for aid, rejecting as insufficient Mr Trump's offer of sanctions relief last year in Hanoi.

He has re-emphasised his grandfather's founding principle of self-reliance and played relationships between Beijing, Moscow, Seoul and Washington against each other.

Mr Kim Jong Il almost never spoke in public, made few trips abroad and was behind bizarre actions such as kidnapping a South Korean movie director and his actress wife to bolster North Korea's film industry. He was know for his flamboyant sunglasses and taupe zip-up jackets.

His son by contrast, speaks frankly and frequently, and is seen as trying to make North Korea a more normal country.

On Sunday, Mr Kim Jong Un made his first appearance in state media in about three weeks to pay respects at the mausoleum palace where his two predecessors lie in state.

"All the people across the country celebrated the birth anniversary of Chairman Kim Jong Il (the Day of the Shining Star) with splendour," state media proclaimed. The older Kim remains the "eternal general secretary" of the ruling Workers' Party and "eternal chairman" the national defence commission.

However, the younger Mr Kim led a smaller delegation than in previous years. And there was no sign of the street dancing, synchronised swimming shows and international figure skating competitions that marked past holidays.

"Celebratory events were noticeably low key, held mostly at local levels or at individual units," said Ms Rachel Minyoung Lee, a Seoul-based analyst at NK Pro who focuses on North Korean propaganda. "This stands in major contrast to previous years, when North Korea held multiple national and international cultural events in the lead-up to and on the day of the anniversary."

To be sure, the new coronavirus that has already infected more than 70,000 and killed almost 1,800 in neighbouring China was probably the most immediate reason for the quieter celebration.

North Korea has closed off its borders - depriving its sanctions-constrained economy of a vital source of foreign cash - to prevent any outbreaks from overwhelming its impoverished and antiquated public health system.

More than two months after the new strain was first detected in the central Chinese city of Wuhan, the secretive North Korea hasn't disclosed any confirmed case of the virus.

The top ruling party newspaper described the fight against the virus last month as "an important political issue related to the national survival", and Premier Kim Jae Ryong was featured in state media last week wearing a mask while visiting a quarantine facility.

Such precautions may have only added to Mr Kim's reasons to give his father a quieter celebration this year. Still, in a country which holds that its late leaders to be infallible demigods, Mr Kim can only go so far to move out from under either of his predecessors' shadows.

"Every time things looks different in North Korea, they often can be the same," said Mr Duyeon Kim, of Crisis Group. "What Kim Jong Un is doing is drawing from the core policies and his father and grandfather, but putting his own stamp on them to build his own legacy."

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