Kim Jong Un’s speech was the culmination of two weeks of celebrations marking the centenary of the birth of his grandfather, national founder Kim Il Sung – festivities that were marred by a failed launch on Friday of a rocket.
The speech took North Koreans gathered at Kim Il Sung Square and around televisions across the country by surprise. His father, late leader Kim Jong Il, addressed the public only once in his lifetime.
Appearing calm and measured as he read the 20-minute speech, Kim Jong Un covered a range of topics from foreign policy to the economy. His speech, and a military parade that followed, capped the choreographed festivities commemorating Kim Il Sung’s birthday.
Punctuating Mr Kim’s message that the North will continue to pour funds into its military, the parade culminated with the unveiling of a long-range missile, though it is unclear how powerful or significant the addition to the North Korean arsenal is. Although the rocket launch on Friday was a huge, costly embarrassment for the leadership, Mr Kim’s address was seen by analysts as an expression of confidence and meant to show that he is firmly in control.
“Superiority in military technology is no longer monopolised by imperialists, and the era of enemies using atomic bombs to threaten and blackmail us is forever over,” Mr Kim said.
His message suggested no significant changes in policy – the “military first” strategy has long been at the centre of North Korea’s decision-making process.
But there was strong symbolism in the images of the new leader addressing the country on state TV and then watching – and often laughing and gesturing in relaxed conversation with senior officials – as the cream of his nation’s 1.2 million-strong military marched by.
The speech was a good “first impression,” said Hajime Izumi, a North Korea expert at Japan’s Shizuoka University. “He demonstrated that he can speak in public fairly well, and at this stage that in itself – more than what he actually said – is important. I think we might be seeing him speak in public more often, and show a different style than his father.”
Mr Kim said he will strengthen defences by placing the country’s “first, second and third” priorities on military might. But he said he is open to working with countries that do not have hostile policies toward his nation, and said he would strive to reunify Korea.
Cha Myong Hui, a journalist with the government-run Minju Joson newspaper, said she was struck by how much he resembles his father and grandfather.
“I can tell you every person in my country cried when they heard his voice,” she said.
Mr Kim made no direct mention of the rocket failure. However, state media made an announcement after the launch, saying that the attempt to send a satellite into space had failed. It claims past launches succeeded, which international experts deny.